Altman's momentum

Progressive leader takes early lead in pivotal N.J. congressional primary

Sue Altman has raised $200,000 in her first month in the race, but her record contains red flags for party leaders looking to win the swing seat

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network

Sue Altman, executive director at New Jersey Working Families Alliance speaks to the rally outside Rep. Josh Gottheimer's office on September 20, 2021 in Glen Rock City.

Democrats view Rep. Tom Kean Jr. (R-NJ) as one of their top political targets in their bid to win back control of the House. President Joe Biden carried the suburban northern New Jersey district, and Kean only won election by three points — a narrower margin than expected — in 2022.

But the Democratic primary in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District is shaping up as a potential primary headache, with a leader on the activist left facing the likelihood of a challenge from the party’s pragmatic wing. 

Sue Altman, the leader of the progressive Working Families Party in New Jersey, announced her candidacy at the end of May, while former State Department official Jason Blazakis, Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello and former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak are considering joining the field.

Altman is showing some momentum as the first entrant into the field, and reportedly raised over $200,000 in her first month in the race. 

Her candidacy could be cause for alarm for pro-Israel advocates in a state and district with a significant Jewish voting bloc, given the Working Families Party’s strident criticism of Israel; WFP supports conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel. The party also joined the 2020 campaign to pressure Democratic presidential candidates not to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. 

Locally, in 2021, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) — a pro-Israel stalwart from a neighboring district — accused members of the WFP of screaming “Jew” at him during a protest at an event he attended. That account was backed up by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was also in attendance. 

Altman said that a WFP investigation showed no one in the protest had used the word “Jew” and told Jewish Insider that “spurious and false allegations of antisemitism are extremely dangerous; they cheapen real ones.” Another individual, unaffiliated with WFP, subsequently came forward as having shouted, “Josh, as a Jew, it’s a shanda that you’re blocking Build Back Better.”

Dan Cassino, a political scientist at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, said that Altman’s momentum has surprised many in the state given her positioning as an outspoken progressive and an outsider from the Democratic Party — which has raised concerns among local Democratic officials.

“Democrats are looking to put a moderate in that seat and Sue Altman does not read to anyone like a moderate,” Cassino said. “That said, she’s had enormous success fundraising and that, in New Jersey politics, matters for a lot.”

That early fundraising lead could make it difficult for subsequent entrants into the race to topple Altman as the front-runner, Cassino said.

However, he added that Altman would likely struggle in a general election, but predicted that she’ll argue that she’ll be able to turn out younger and minority voters who have not voted in the past. Cassino said Altman is also seen as a leader among suburban Democratic women who have shifted toward the Democratic Party since 2016.

“The question is, can she get enough Republicans? I don’t know,” he continued. “And can she bring out enough latent Democrats in order to offset the Republicans she’s not going to win?”

Cassino described Altman’s candidacy as emblematic of trends in New Jersey politics, as well as Democratic politics nationally — ”the fight between the activist left, the progressive left, with people like Sue Altman, and the establishment.”

Blazakis was the director of counterterrorism finance at the U.S. Department of State for a decade, and previously worked on the Hill for Rep. Jim Saxton (R-NJ) and for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. He’s currently a Middlebury College professor, geopolitical consultant and security adviser. 

Blazakis wrote a co-bylined op-ed in May 2022 in favor of reentering the Iran nuclear deal. The piece dismissed the Trump administration’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization as “a stupendously unserious move… a sanction that brought no discernible pressure on the group or Iran more broadly.” He said the Biden administration should be open to removing the designation as part of nuclear talks. 

That op-ed also lambasted the Trump administration’s foreign policy more broadly, including cutting off aid to the Palestinians, as a “series of amateurish efforts to punish a hated opponent.”

Blazakis has been vocal about the threat of far-right domestic terrorism, calling for new domestic terrorism legislation and other new policies, as well as improved security for nonprofits. He has also written about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including endorsing a push to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Cassino noted that Blazakis’ profile is very similar to that of former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) — a former State Department official ousted by Kean in 2022 — and said this “national security Democrat” profile might be a safer bet than Altman’s to win over Republican votes. But Blazakis’ fundraising abilities are questionable, given his low profile and minimal connections in New Jersey.

“He does have connections in Washington, which does help you. That said, I’m not sure he has the connections in New Jersey that you might need in order to really win over party lines and get the counties on your side,” Cassino explained.

Lesniak has been active in statewide politics since 1978, serving as a state representative from 1978 to 1983, and a state senator until 2018. He received the Man of the Year Award from the Jewish National Fund in 1991, and his first legislation in the state legislature condemned the Soviet Union for prohibiting Jewish citizens from freely practicing their religion. He also sponsored anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions legislation. In 2021, he hailed the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s term in office as a new opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Cassino said that Lesniak would benefit from his deep in-state connections, his experience as a campaigner and his ability to win over moderates. But, he noted, Lesniak is 77, a potential liability that could also slow him down on the campaign trail.

Signorello initially announced a challenge to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) in response to the corruption allegations that have dogged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, but reportedly intends to switch to the House race. He raised $42,700 in the first quarter of 2023 for his Senate campaign. In that campaign, Signorello has emphasized progressive priorities including reforming the financial system, universal healthcare, green energy and universal prekindergarten.

Cassino said that, while Signorello is fairly progressive, he is also well-connected in state politics.

“So he has some of those advantages Lesniak has, where he is known and has connections with local party officials,” Cassino said. 

Looking ahead to the general election, Democrats plan to link Kean — and the other 17 House Republicans representing districts Biden carried — with former President Trump. Cassino noted that Kean, both on the campaign trail and in office, has not engaged with some local media and hosted few public events, a potential weakness for him next year.

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