Democrats’ moderate and liberal wings at odds in primary for 7th District House seat

By: - February 2, 2024 7:01 am

Democrats Sue Altman and Jason Blazakis are seeking their party’s nomination to challenge Republican Rep. Tom Kean Jr. in November in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District. (Photos courtesy of the Democrats’ campaigns)

The race for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District has narrowed to a classic fight between the moderate and liberal wings of the party.

With another Democrat deciding last week to bow out of the fight, the primary in the 7th gives the party a choice between activist Sue Altman and counterterrorism professor Jason Blazakis. The two hope to be the one chosen to take on Republic Rep. Tom Kean Jr. in November and flip this seat back to the Democratic column.

It’s one of only a handful of primaries that will be closely watched by political observers this campaign season, and Dan Cassino, who teaches political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said it “could get real ugly.”

“We’re going to see that divide between progressives and the establishment really come out,” Cassino said.

Kean won the district in 2022, defeating Democrat Tom Malinowski after the district’s boundaries were redrawn and it became more GOP-friendly. The son of former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., Kean did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats targeted the district almost the moment Kean won it and have spent the last two years noting every time he votes in a way they think will drive Democrats to the polls to defeat him after one term.

For now, the two candidates are working to get support from the district’s Democratic Party chairs in hopes of securing their support and, along with it, preferential ballot treatment. Securing what’s known as the county line could pose a problem for Altman, who in her days as a progressive activist was not shy about attacking Democratic Party bosses and the county line, Cassino said.

Altman argued that her past won’t prevent party officials from supporting her.

“People disagree on one issue all the time and still find space to join forces towards a common cause. That’s politics,” Altman said in an interview.

Sue Altman is former state director for the Working Families Party. (Courtesy of Altman campaign)

A Clinton native who announced her candidacy in May, Altman has been a longtime fixture in Trenton, where she tussled with politicians on both sides of the aisle as state director of the Working Families Party. She was at the center of a very public fight in 2019 when state troopers dragged her out of a Statehouse hearing on tax breaks after a lawmaker leading the hearing said some audience members were being too rowdy. And in 2021, when the New Jersey Working Families Party joined a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the county line, she called the practice an “antiquated practice” and “truly indefensible.”

Altman said despite her left-leaning reputation, her views fall “squarely” within the Biden agenda. She said voters she speaks to are focused on issues like protecting reproductive freedom and access to abortion, doing more to combat climate change, and increasing gun safety so parents don’t fear dropping their kids off at school. These are her values, she said.

“I’ve raised money in places that are sort of moderate leaning, and those people who meet me, who sit with me, who talk about the issues — they’re supporting me in droves. So I don’t see an issue moving forward,” she added.

She’s already received key endorsements from unions the Communication Workers of America and 32BJ SEIU, and thousands of dollars from national groups like the gun rights group Brady PAC and Emily’s List, a national organization supporting pro-choice women running for office.

At the end of 2023, she won the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, while Blazakis secured the backing of the New Democrat Action Fund, a group of center-left Democrats.

Jason Blazakis was once director of counterterrorism finance at the U.S. State Department. (Courtesy of Blazakis campaign)

Blazakis said the district needs someone with his experience, particularly in national security and fighting authoritarianism. For 10 years, he was director of counterterrorism finance at the U.S. State Department and previously worked on nonpartisan congressional research. Now, he’s a professor and director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

As someone who has testified against drug cartels in Mexico and been sanctioned by Russia for criticizing Vladimir Putin, he said, he’s the only candidate who can speak “authentically about tackling extremism.”

“That is our more pernicious threat to democracy, so it’s about delivering that message to people at the county level and the city level,” he said. “That has been very well received.”

Blazakis, a Warren County native, said his core issues include reinstating the state and local tax deduction, fighting climate change, protecting women’s rights, and — at the top of the list — protecting democracy. He took a shot at Kean for posting hotline phone numbers on social media when reports came out of Americans being taken hostage amid the war in Gaza. Blazakis suggested a sitting congressman should have done more than posting online.

“I know who to call if a New Jerseyan needs help. That is something New Jerseyans can count on me to do, in ways that, I think, really separate myself from everybody else in the field,” he said. “Relevant experience, in two words.”

Altman is the frontrunner in the race when it comes to fundraising. In newly released campaign finance documents, Altman reported raising $779,307 for the race and was sitting on a $531,726 war chest at the end of 2023. Blazakis said he raised $360,227 and had $228,197 on hand. Both Democrats’ cash hauls were dwarfed by Kean, who reported raising $2.7 million and had $2.1 million in reserves.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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