New Jersey’s Activist-In-Chief Wants To Flip A Swing Seat

FLEMINGTON, N.J. — Sue Altman first made national headlines when she was expelled from a New Jersey state Senate hearing by state troopers in November 2019.

The moment was captured in a photo of Altman, then the state director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance ― a state branch of the progressive Working Families Party ― being physically dragged out of the room with her head held high in defiance.

At the time, Altman was the leading critic of a state tax incentive program that handsomely benefited George Norcross III, the well-connected insurance executive regarded, for decades, as the most powerful figure in South Jersey politics. The troopers had been tasked with ejecting jeering demonstrators, but Altman was quiet at the time of her removal, fueling speculation she had been singled out for her role as a ringleader.

The moment captured Altman’s essence as an irritatingly effective thorn in the side of the Garden State’s famously clubby Democratic establishment. Earlier in 2019, she had led a demonstration outside of Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign fundraiser with Norcross and other New Jersey bosses. And in 2021, Altman picketed outside of Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s district office over his effort to delay a vote on President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate and social policy bill.

That kind of stint as a rabble-rouser is not exactly the textbook prelude to a congressional run in a Republican-held seat, but Altman is not one to follow conventions. Trading in her black-and-orange Working Families Party T-shirt for business attire, she is now the presumptive Democratic nominee in New Jersey’s purple 7th Congressional District, where ousting first-term Rep. Tom Kean Jr. is part of Democrats’ strategy for retaking the House.

At stake in her race is not only a key seat in the razor-thin battle for control of the House, but also a chance to prove that a candidate with roots in progressive politics can win a GOP-held swing seat. Poll watchers are likely to interpret the results through the lens of progressives’ electability, even if other factors — like, say, Kean being the son of a popular former governor — take precedence.

“If she is successful, progressives can say to mainstream Democrats, ‘See, this is not the liability that you thought it was.’”

– Micah Rasmussen, Rider University

“If she is successful, progressives can say to mainstream Democrats, ‘See, this is not the liability that you thought it was,’” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Conversely, if she does not prevail, then you will see the mainstream of the party thinking twice before they put up another progressive.”

Speaking to HuffPost ahead of the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee’s convention in late February, Altman sounded every bit the mainstream Democrat fuming about the GOP’s threat to our dearest values.

“Democracy is at stake at a national level,” she said.

The question was not whether she was too ideological, according to Altman — but whether Kean was too beholden to figures like House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who had held a fundraiser for him a few days earlier.

Kean “is the representative of the national Republican Party, more so than the representative of this district,” Altman said.

Altman even thinks that her work taking on New Jersey’s more conservative Democratic Party machine can work to her advantage with swing voters.

At the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, she said, “I had fought against corruption in both parties — Republican and Democrat.”

Sue Altman, in her megaphone days, leads a protest outside Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s district office in August 2021. Republicans have dubbed her “A-O-Sue.”

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

Shifting To The Center

With the energy of someone perpetually in a rush and the height of a former college basketball player, Altman has a kind of natural, effervescent charisma.

By the time of the sunny weekend afternoon in late February when Altman was due to address the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee’s convention, she was already the presumptive Democratic nominee. The rural county party’s endorsement was a mere formality.

But she nonetheless used the time as an opportunity to win over any Democrats in the audience who might still be skeptical of her bid. Altman, who taught history before becoming an organizer, coyly asked the assembled crowd of about 200 Democratic convention delegates to “indulge” a tale about Hunterdon County’s role in the Revolutionary War. While George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River — at a site just South of the district’s boundaries — is a famous turning point in that war, the feisty Hunterdon County militia gets credit for wearing down British troops enough to enable that crossing, she recalled.

“To me, it represents the longer-term commitment of the people of Hunterdon County to the cause of democracy. And that’s what we have here today,” she said, eliciting whoops and thunderous applause.

A black-and-white fight between committed small “d” democrats on the one hand, and MAGA Republicans in the authoritarian mold of former President Donald Trump on the other, is the terrain on which Altman wants the race to be fought.

“I actually don’t think this moment is really about progressive versus moderate or this faction versus that faction of the Democratic Party,” she told HuffPost. “I actually see this moment as being about public service, about restoring democracy, fighting corruption.”

With a Trump-Biden rematch at the top of the ballot in November, and abortion rights under GOP threat in red states (albeit not in New Jersey), Altman may get her wish.

What she does not mention when brushing aside ideological debates is that she has taken pains to distance herself from the activist left’s more controversial positions.

Unlike many progressive lawmakers, Altman does not support imposing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, even as she criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and spoke with urgency about the need to end Israel’s occupation of lands conquered in 1967.

“I actually don’t think this moment is really about progressive versus moderate or this faction versus that faction of the Democratic Party.”

– Sue Altman, presumptive Democratic nominee, New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District

“For the most part, I think Biden and [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken have done a very good job, sort of pressuring and coaxing the Israeli government to act better,” she said.

Altman expressed support for the enforcement-heavy bipartisan border bill that Biden negotiated with Senate Republicans, before Trump’s disapproval killed it. And she has disavowed the national Working Families Party’s past support for the polarizing slogan, “defund the police” — insisting she wants funding for non-police alternatives to mental health crises and crime prevention to supplement, rather than replace, traditional law enforcement.

The former progressive leader has even tempered her support for Medicare for All, expressing concern that sharp swings in control of the federal government could result in the program being defunded by Republican leaders.

“I’d like to see a stronger public option. I’d like to see a stronger kind of government intervention and government support of families who are struggling with health care bills,” she said. “But at this point, I’m not all in on Medicare for All in an immediate way. I see that as a long-term goal.”

Some of Altman’s earlier left-wing views — and associations — are going to make it more difficult for her to shake Republican attacks, however.

She was the state director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance at a time, in 2020, when the group’s national parent, the Working Families Party, had embraced the “defund the police” movement. She also lobbied for state pandemic relief aid for undocumented immigrants. And in 2021, she applauded a populous New Jersey county ending its contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to house detained undocumented immigrants in its jail.

“Sue Altman is a megaphone-brandishing radical activist running in a district that looks for pragmatic, results-oriented leaders like Tom Kean, Jr.,” Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “New Jersey will reject A-O-Sue’s agenda of defunding the police, sanctuary state policies, and handing away taxpayer benefits to illegals.”

Rep. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-N.J.), the son of a popular former governor, had $2.4 million in cash on hand as of the end of March.
Rep. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-N.J.), the son of a popular former governor, had $2.4 million in cash on hand as of the end of March.

Vitalii Nosach/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

A Redder Shade Of Purple

New Jersey’s 7th has the approximate shape of a jagged-edged elephant’s ear, encompassing a vast chunk of the state’s north central and northwestern regions. It starts off in a narrow sliver of heavily Democratic and urban industrial communities across from Staten Island, picks up affluent suburban towns like Summit as it shifts west, and then — as the proverbial elephant’s ear takes its final, wide crest — swallows the sparsely populated rural communities up and down the Delaware River border with Pennsylvania.

Democrat Tom Malinowski, a former Obama administration State Department official, flipped the seat in 2018.

But Malinowski would end up drawing the short straw in the state’s redistricting process. The district went from a seat Biden won by 10 percentage points to a seat he won by just under four points.

Republicans painted Malinowski as corrupt for trading medical and tech stocks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kean, a state senator for two decades, would defeat Malinowski by a hair under three percentage points.

Malinowski’s departure — and decision not to run again — prompted a scramble among up-and-coming Democrats to succeed him as the party’s nominee this year.

Altman, who grew up in Clinton and in 2021, moved to Lambertville — both towns in the district’s rural western region — and Jason Blazakis, a former State Department counterterrorism official and current expert on the topic at Middlebury College in Vermont, were the two most serious contenders. Summit town council member Greg Vartan and Roselle Park Mayor Joe Signorello III were also in the running.

Last July, national Democratic decision-makers were reportedly already concerned about a potential Altman win. Whatever behind-the-scenes work these insiders did to stop Altman was apparently unsuccessful though. Signorello dropped out in October and Vartan followed suit in January.

“There was someone with a more moderate, i.e., male, profile. He didn’t catch on.”

– Former U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.)

To defeat Blazakis, Altman’s fundraising edge proved crucial. As of the end of 2023, Altman had more than twice as much money on hand as Blazakis, who had lent himself more than $70,000. Apparently convinced there was no path forward, Blazakis dropped out of the race in early February, effectively yielding the primary to Altman.

“There was someone with a more moderate, i.e., male, profile,” Malinowski told HuffPost at the Hunterdon County convention in February. “He didn’t catch on.”

He suggested Altman’s success with rank-and-file Democrats in the district was its own testament to her electability.

“These people are very pragmatic. They’re not uber-progressive,” he said. “They have one interest in a congressional race, which is winning.”

Of course, Kean would be a formidable opponent for any Democrat to dislodge. He is a reliable party vote in the House GOP Conference and backed the short-lived speakership bid of MAGA Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) last October. But he has tried to maintain a veneer of moderation through membership in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

And Altman’s fundraising prowess can only take her so far against a swing-seat incumbent capable of paying New York City area advertising rates. She had just over $900,000 on hand at the end of March, compared with Kean’s $2.4 million.

But the race for progressive support in New Jersey’s 2025 gubernatorial race is already benefiting Altman. A deep-pocketed super PAC associated with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a candidate for governor courting progressives, plans to spend a portion of its $8.5 million war chest on Altman’s behalf.

The successful effort by Rep. Andy Kim, a Democratic Senate candidate, to end the state's "county line" system built on Altman's work and signaled a decline in establishment power.
The successful effort by Rep. Andy Kim, a Democratic Senate candidate, to end the state’s “county line” system built on Altman’s work and signaled a decline in establishment power.

Winning Over Skeptics

When Democrats talk about what draws them to Altman, they often describe her as someone “smart,” who simply puts in the work to win their votes.

“When I went to hear her speak, I was thinking, ‘We’re not going to win this one with a Working Families person,’” said Sharon Glover, a homemaker from Tewksbury, who attended the county convention as a delegate. “But once I heard her speak, I’m like, she’s really smart. She really understands our community. She wants to listen and we don’t always get that.”

That appeal extends to moderate voters like Jordan Glatt, a university administrator who previously ran a successful consumer goods manufacturer and served as mayor of Summit. Glatt told HuffPost that he identifies as a “conservative Democrat,” because of his fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. He was supporting New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, the establishment choice in the U.S. Senate primary, before she dropped out in March.

He gravitated to Altman because “she went and took on the political bosses. She wasn’t partisan about who she spoke out against,” he said. “When she saw a wrong in South Jersey, she spoke up.”

Glatt, now a Springfield resident, was initially concerned that Altman was too left-wing, but was impressed with her after they spoke.

Altman also reached out to Lisa Grattan, a retired attorney from Summit and self-described moderate who has “an aversion to staunch ideology and reflexiveness.” Like Glatt, Grattan saw Altman’s clashes with the New Jersey machine as a testament to her principles. She did not receive personal outreach from any other candidates, and appreciated learning from Altman that she had gone to high school with one of Altman’s aunts.

“She is just more than anyone I’ve seen in my lifetime, running for office as a reflection of her integrity, her authenticity, her honesty, and the degree to which she genuinely cares.”

– Lisa Grattan, retired attorney

“She is just more than anyone I’ve seen in my lifetime, running for office as a reflection of her integrity, her authenticity, her honesty, and the degree to which she genuinely cares,” she said.

As it turned out, the Hunterdon County convention where I spoke to Altman, Malinowski, and Glover was one of the last gasps of a New Jersey machine that Altman had been fighting for years. While Altman was already the presumptive Democratic nominee in late February, Murphy and Rep. Andy Kim were still competing fiercely in the Senate primary for every last county party endorsement. At the time, New Jersey still had the “county line” system that empowered county parties to give candidates they endorse favorable placement on the primary ballot.

Anticipating Kim would win his third county endorsement in a row, Murphy’s allies in the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee sought a last-minute rule change to enable Murphy to share top ballot placement. The rule failed and Kim got the endorsement, but not before local Democrats cried foul about dirty tricks that appeared to confirm their worst fears about the New Jersey Democratic establishment’s corruption.

As head of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Altman had spearheaded the group’s participation in, and funding of, a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the “county line.”

But that day in Flemington — a 20-minute drive from Altman’s home — Altman, now on the inside, declined to directly condemn the actions of Hunterdon County Democratic Committee’s leaders. She did suggest that the day’s events — a Hail Mary play by a county party wary of Kim’s opposition to the “line,” and its subsequent defeat by angry Democratic activists — were the marks of a system in its death throes.

“It’s an antiquated system that will rot on the vine if it doesn’t die on its own,” she predicted. “It’s the end of the line for the line.”

Altman’s words proved correct. The following day, Kim joined the federal lawsuit against “the line,” asking for an emergency injunction to strike down the line in time for New Jersey’s Democratic primaries on June 4. And in late March, a federal judge ruled in his favor, transforming New Jersey politics for the foreseeable future.

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