Today is a milestone for Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard – her 40th birthday. So how is she celebrating? The way she always does – working hard for causes that she believes in. Today, she’s drumming up support for her congressional run. But on any other day, she might be advocating for cancer research as a volunteer leader in the American Cancer Society or working for clean water here in Burlington County in her job as Freeholder.
The first time I met Belgard was on election night 2010. It was a sad night for the people of New Jersey’s Third Congressional District as our freshman Congressman John Adler, a fiercely smart and compassionate fixture in South Jersey politics, lost to Michigan native and former NFL football player Jon Runyan in what amounted to a popularity contest rather than an election of the most qualified person to fill the seat.
The next year, Belgard, an Edgewater Park Council member, took on a difficult challenge. She decided to run for the county freeholder board – a body that has been dominated by Republicans for decades. Election night that year was bittersweet. Although we re-elected Herb Conaway and gave Troy Singleton his first elective victory for the General Assembly, and although Aimee made the freeholder race the closest one in recent memory for a Democrat, she came up short.
But Belgard’s a fighter. Whether it’s for the environment, LGBT rights, or her own passion for service, she didn’t give up. She re-entered the fray in the 2012 election for another freeholder race. This time, she had an even bigger hurdle to surmount. Chris Christie’s future idol, Sheldon Adelson, made huge financial contributions to Belgard’s opponent who was already the beneficiary of local GOP largesse. How could Belgard and her running mate Joanne Schwartz overcome a 9 to 1 money disadvantage? They did it the way Belgard always operates – by hard work and relentless pursuit of a goal. Knocking on doors. Working the phones. Attending community events.
Shortly before Election Day last year, Belgard confided with a few friends that she was planning to run for Congress, primarily to challenge Jon Runyan on his abysmal record on health care. And like everything else she does, she jumped in with both feet. Realizing that a congressional run is a full-time job, she quit her job as a trial attorney and tapped her savings accounts to help with family expenses.
Once the word got out that Belgard was running, Runyan made the best decision of his brief congressional career – he announced that he was retiring. So now Belgard is running for an open seat.
From a personal perspective, I made a critical decision. There were two things – related – that I felt strongly about. I wanted to have a Democrat as my representative in Congress, and I wanted the Democrats to regain control of the House. I decided to do my part by putting on hold some things that I enjoyed immensely like blogging here at Blue Jersey and doing volunteer work for visually impaired students. Instead, I became a full-time volunteer on the Belgard for Congress campaign.
Having worked on the campaign since November, and having observed Belgard’s actions on the Freeholder Board, I can attest to the fact that she is not a typical politician. While she holds strong views on important issues like health care, the environment, and the economy, she’s not dogmatic. She gets things done by relentlessly trying to find common ground without giving up fundamental principles. And while she and I agree on most things, we have had productive discussions on the few areas where we disagree. Isn’t that what we want in an elected representative?
Belgard starts this campaign with a disadvantage over her GOP opponent. Whether carpetbagger Tom MacArthur or carpetbagger Steve Lonegan wins the GOP nomination, the Republican candidate will be well funded. Lonegan by the Koch Brothers or MacArthur by his own personal fortune. By contrast, Belgard relies heavily on a large number of small donors (in the first quarter, she received 1,500 donations under $100). But to reach her financial goals in this media market that requires both New York and Philadelphia exposure, Belgard spends a lot of time fundraising while Lonegan and MacArthur have the luxury of spending their time pressing the flesh. It’s an obstacle Belgard has overcome before, but any and all help from Blue Jersey readers is appreciated.
So as Belgard turns 40 today, I wish her a happy birthday as she continues to work for the people of Burlington County (and Ocean County, too, after the election.) Today I say “Happy Birthday, Aimee.” Next year, I’ll say “Happy Birthday, Congresswoman