***Update: I reached out to Alex for his thoughts, and he sent them along. Those are included below.***
My interest was piqued last week when a new Facebook page popped up advertising the “Camden Social Club,” drawing attention both from Camden activists and young professionals (something that isn’t easy to do). So I attended. As it turns out the Camden Social Club is a campaign organization for Alex Law, who is running for Congress against Don Norcross. The event highlighted one of my concerns with the Law campaign: my suspicion that one-off campaigns that promise to break the control of the South Jersey Democratic Party actually make it harder to build a sustainable movement in the region. Too often, the primary beneficiaries of such campaigns (despite their best intentions) are the candidates themselves, who can build their reputation by playing the role of champion for the opposition, while leaders who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to building community in the region are asked to put aside their work to help with the campaign.
Now, many of my good friends disagree with me here. A collegue of mine has hosted a fundraiser for Law. The (gracious) host of the Camden Social Club is very excited about Law’s candidacy. And I, too, think there is space for a Progressive candidate to push and challenge the South Jersey Democratic Party. By most accounts, Law has run an excellent campaign thus far, and he’s made a real case Progressives and those frustrated with current leadership for votes. But I have serious concerns that in choosing to pitch a long-shot congressional race as the key to substantial change in the region, he is perpetuating a long-standing problem in Camden County.
Law argues, as he did repeatedly on Saturday (here’s one such clip) and as he has throughout his campaign, that the reason he is running for Congress is that the SJ Democratic Party has such tight control in local elections that a single victory wouldn’t be enough to change anything. His theory of change is that change happens only if that change is at the top. A Camden activist characterized it as “cutting the head off the snake.”
I certainly disagree with the Theory of Change. I doubt that changing the balance of power in South Jersey can be accomplished in a single election, and imagine it would require a sustained effort built over time and stretching multiple elections (and likely multiple issues) to build such a coalition. But more than a disagreement, I worry that such a focus is ultimately counterproductive. Repeatedly during the Camden Social Club, Law focused on “simplifying the message,” saying that there were too many struggles in Camden, and its activists would see better results if they simplified to focus on one issue. That issue, of course, was getting voters out for the election of Alex Law.
Now, as anyone in Camden can attest, there are too few people spread over too many issues here. And maybe unifying the many activists and residents working on a diverse set of issues could benefit the city (and the wider region — Law’s congressional district is a lot wider than Camden). But there is something frustrating about asking activists to drop local battles and unify as a get-out-the-vote group.
It plays into a common script. A key member of the SJ Democratic Party once told me that the “machine narrative” actually helps the party. It sets up a dynamic where activists can build a limited following by raging against the machine while reinforcing the idea that the party has all the power. Those desperate for options outside the Democratic Party rally to their cause and accept their cry that their election is the issue. This isn’t some new dynamic to this Congressional district — Republican Gary Cobb did something similar last cycle.
Now, Alex Law is in many ways a better candidate than Cobb. His Progressive message is more coherent, he’s run a better campaign, and as a Democrat he appeals to a wider swathe of South Jersey. But they share one thing in common; they have the opportunity (some might say privilege) to conduct a race against difficult odds. For Cobb, his name recognition gave him an opportunity. For Law, the financial ability to take a year off of work to build the campaign, as well as his connections to fundraising and consulting firms helped him to produce a credible campaign. On the surface, this is good. But it feels familiar. Someone with the name recognition, resources, or opportunity to run a campaign does so. Local activists rally to the cause. The campaign puts in a valiant effort but (likely) falls short. Little is built towards the future. Rinse. Repeat.
As I watch this cycle perpetuate itself here, I’m less and less interested in candidates that use their resources/name recognition/privilege in ways that (perhaps unintentionally) bolster their own political reputations but do little to support the good work already happening in the region and, at their worst, actually distract from it. I’m more interested in those who use those same resources to find and support communities members already embedded in important work in South Jersey. These are folks that we wish would run for office because of their great work in communities, but often lack the resources and connections to do so. Given two options, I would rather those with resources and social capital champion leaders already embedded in their community to run for office rather than making a case that community leaders should drop what they’re doing to support the candidacy of the latest person to carry the “anti-machine” banner.
And this is what strikes me as so off-putting about Alex Law’s Camden Social Club. There have been people in this fight for years. People who could use the support and connections that Law brings to the table. And Camden Social Club could have been that. It could have been about building young leadership in the city. About sharing organizing principles with activists. It could have been about supporting the work already happening here. Instead, it was about getting out the vote for Alex Law. And that’s a shame.
***Update: Response from Alex Law***
As always, I found your post insightful and important. I consider you a friend and one of the most honest people commenting on politics in the entire region, so I respect your posts whether they are praising my campaign or questioning pieces of it. In response to your critique of the Camden Social Club concept:
I think the thing that it is missing from your analysis is that I didn’t come up with the concept. Moneke, Gary, and Vida came to me to discuss their frustrations with a general lack of success over the past decade in Camden. They were unable to point to a major victory and wanted to discuss how we create general change. I told them I’d help them learn the skills our campaign has been applying across the district and try to show people how to do effective GOTV (something insurgents in Camden have struggled with). Before they came to me, the Campaign’s strategy in Camden was very different.
I’m of the opinion that the single greatest strength of the Norcross group isn’t their money: it’s the sense people have that they are invincible. By winning an election against someone with that last name isn’t about the single election, it’s about changing that impression. I think also it should be mentioned that we made it clear at the meeting that we were hoping to set up a political outreach arm for Camden residents that yes, we would use in this election, but would be built and ready to go in the mayoral election for who ever runs in that. To be total candid, I think it is very likely that the Camden Social Club will take more than the two-three months we have to develop it for it to be helpful in a significant way in my election. My election will be a testing ground, because this is the election happening now, and then it will hopefully be fleshed out for Camden-centric elections moving forward.
The last thing I will say is that I don’t think people should stop working on what they are doing on the various issues across the city. That would be foolish and shortsighted. What I do think is critical though is unifying politically so that various groups with shared interests can speak together politically. When they are all facing a similar opponent, whether we want to describe them as the Norcross Machine or City Hall or some other name, the reality is that the opponent speaks together with shared resources and the various organizers in the City do not. The concept of the Camden Social Club is to change that.