Two Dems fighting for chance to unseat MacArthur

JCONG30
Frederick J. LaVergne (left) and Jim Keady.

A traditionally competitive South Jersey congressional seat has a wrinkle this year: a rare Democratic primary contest between two dogged candidates who each received an endorsement from a local party organization.

Jim Keady, a tavern operator who won the support of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Ocean County Democratic Committee, will compete against Frederick J. LaVergne, a loan officer who has the backing of the Burlington County Democratic Committee. They are vying for a seat in the Third District, which spans both counties and stretches from the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore.

The district is represented by freshman Republican Tom MacArthur, a former insurance CEO from Toms River and former mayor of Randolph. He is unopposed in his party's primary.

Except for one term in 2009, Republicans have represented the district for decades, but President Obama carried the district in the last two election cycles, leading the DCCC to believe Democrats may have an opportunity to take the seat, according to spokesman Bryan Lesswing.

The DCCC is providing guidance to Keady's campaign, Lesswing said, and believes Keady is the best candidate. But it has not designated this race as a national top-tier target, as in the past.

Independent analysts do not see the Third District race as competitive in the fall.

In recent weeks, the race between Keady and LaVergne has become rancorous, especially after LaVergne was named as an interested party in a federal lawsuit that sought to knock Keady off the ballot and to delay the June 7 primary. LaVergne has complained that the Ocean County committee unfairly decided to endorse Keady over him.

A district judge last week rejected the suit, saying it was not warranted, according to lawyers in the case.

While Keady has national and local backing and has gathered endorsements from a few prominent Democrats in Burlington, including an assemblyman, a former freeholder, and a longtime Willingboro mayor, the race is still tight. LaVergne has a favorable ballot position in Burlington, where there are 109,000 registered Democrats, more than twice as many as in Ocean.

But unaffiliated voters may play a role because they are the overwhelming majority in both counties and may declare a party preference and vote on the day of the primary.

Keady, 44, of Spring Lake, Monmouth County, says he is known as the "sit down and shut up guy" whom Gov. Christie lashed out against during a Hurricane Sandy anniversary event in 2014. Keady was protesting Christie's handling of the housing recovery effort and said the governor was spending too much time traveling out of state and campaigning. The video of their encounter went viral. Keady said it made him even more determined to "never sit down and shut up when it comes to helping those families get back into their homes."

LaVergne, 53, of Delanco, Burlington County, ran for Congress in 2012 and 2014 as a Democratic Republican, the country's first political opposition party, which favors a strict interpretation of the Constitution and state's rights. He declined several requests for an interview.

On his website, he said he is an anticorruption candidate who will "break the status quo, and take back our counties." He said he favors "national health care for all," which he says would go beyond the Affordable Care Act, and supports funding for building roads and infrastructure.

In May he filed for bankruptcy, and his house is listed for sheriff's sale in August. In response to a Facebook message asking for comment, he wrote: "I filed the Chapter 13 because a Christie-appointed judge who formerly served on the NY Port Authority chose to deny me my right to mediation. This has been a political smear from day one." He also said the bankruptcy is a personal matter.

LaVergne's creditor was listed as Countrywide Home Loans, which is owed $250,000 dating to 2008. In 2009, a federal lien was placed on his house by the IRS for a $10,700 debt. He said on his website that he previously owned a small commercial lending brokerage in Moorestown but closed it in 2008 and then became a loan officer.

Keady, a former Asbury Park councilman, issued this statement about his opponent's bankruptcy: "I feel for Fred, his personal financial disarray is unfortunate. However, his bankruptcy has been going on since 2008. I do not feel like this is the appropriate time for him to be running for Congress. He needs to get his own house in order. If he can't manage his own finances, why should he be entrusted with tax payer dollars?"

In an interview, Keady said he had been running his family's bar, the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown, Ocean County, for three years and plans to move into the district soon. (A congressional candidate has to live in the state, but does not have to live in the district.) At the historic tavern he has "increased profits, created jobs, and increased our employees' wages," he said. There, he also listens to "fishermen, union workers, teachers, and others who feel they don't have a voice in Washington . . . and who say it's time someone from the middle class is standing up and advocating for them."

Keady, who ran for state Assembly last year, said that his goal is to rebuild the middle class and said he supports creating jobs to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. An activist who launched opposition to Nike sweatshops overseas, Keady said he also favored workers' rights, protecting the environment, and taking steps to stop the heroin addiction epidemic in the country.

The lawsuit that lists LaVergne as an interested party contended that the Ocean County Democratic Committee broke several rules when it endorsed Keady and that Keady failed to get valid signatures to be placed on the ballot. An administrative law judge dismissed the complaint about the signatures, saying it had no merit, and a federal judge invited the Ocean committee's lawyers to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the committee is free to choose the candidates it wants to endorse.

Keady called the litigation against him "sour grapes." He said LaVergne "wastes people's time and taxpayer money by tying up the courts with frivolous legal actions."

LaVergne did not respond to a request for comment. jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.philly.com/burlcobuzz