Statewide progressives can be forgiven for not having followed the Cherry Hill Fire Commissioner election last week. It was a tiny race, non-partisan, off-cycle, and limited to one community. It was also the latest effort by the South Jersey and Camden County Progressive Democrats to break into office. Susan Druckenbrod who ran as a progressive candidate, lost by 131 votes in a turnout that was higher than previous years and dominated by vote-by-mail ballots (results below are before the counting of the remaining provisional ballots). The race, while small, shows the important of some of the structural challenges that progressives in Camden County will have to overcome to win elections. I asked candidate Susan Druckenbrod about the race. She described it as “a smart, fast campaign. Kept it positive. Did not FB argue with fire supporters. And we had 10 people helping. Making contacts through social circles, email, calls, flyers, church friends, neighborhood friends, progressive friends.”
She spoke of a familiar cocktail: a dedicated volunteer base, a sophisticated online push, and grassroots efforts through progressive circles. That cocktail is similar to the 2017 primary in which Camden County Progressives (including Druckenbrod) ran a slate for county committee. The results were similar too; in that race, progressives received 37% of the vote; in this race, Druckenbrod received 39% of the vote.
These results point to several take-aways and challenges for South Jersey progressives in upcoming elections:
- We talk a lot about “the line” here at Blue Jersey. It’s a major issue in South Jersey as well, as progressives have focused on ensuring good ballot placement and tried to avoid being in “ballot Siberia”. But this race was nonpartisan. Interestingly, this race provides evidence that “the line” is important not just for giving voters clear signals to vote for party-approved candidates, but that part of its value is in consolidating the vote. In this race, 39% was close to winning. In the 2017 primary, 37% was not.
- Vote-by-Mail is going to continue to play a key organizing role in future low-turnout elections. Here it was a shockingly high percentage of the vote (82%). Local organizers were frustrated at the clerk’s slow response to requests for vote-by-mail information, and the refusal to post that information online despite assurances to the contrary. Keeping that information from the public makes it much harder for progressive groups to target likely voters in low-turnout elections. There are a host of small ways (beyond the structure of the ballot) that grassroots campaigns face similar uphill climbs, and these types of advantages for incumbents add up over the course of a campaign.
- The similarity in the final percentages of the fire commissioner race (39%), the county committee race (37%) and even Alex Law’s race for Congress in NJ1 (35%) is starting to support a thorny hypothesis. It may be the case that there is a cap on grassroots campaigns run without professional infrastructure or serious fundraising. There’s been a serious local debate about how to widen that coalition, and whether the best strategy is to attempt to pick up independents or even Republicans unhappy with current Democrats, or whether to embrace some more visible version of progressivism that attempts to tap into national progressive energy (and resources) and professionalize. These strategies may not be mutually exclusive, but my instinct is that they imply quite different directions for local campaigns.