When U.S. House Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) of my southern New Jersey congressional district switched to the Republican Party in December, he surprised many—but not local progressives like myself who already saw him as a Democrat in name only.
Van Drew pledged his “undying support” to President Donald Trump on December 19 in an announcement at the White House, despite the fact that, according to FiveThirtyEight, he had voted with the president just 10.3 percent of the time.
Van Drew established himself as a highly conservative Democrat by voting against the House impeachment inquiry into Trump and being one of two Democrats to vote against impeachment. As a state senator, Van Drew accepted a $1,000 donation from the National Rifle Association in 2008 (and received a 100 percent rating from the organization), the Intercept reported. Van Drew sponsored a state senate bill that would require parental notification for abortion for those under 18 (though he later withdrew his name).
Vote Smart quotes Van Drew’s 2018 campaign website as declaring himself “strongly and unequivocally pro-choice” and supporting Roe v. Wade, a statement that no longer appears on his site. Van Drew received a zero percent rating from National Right to Life and a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2019, as well as a 100 percent rating in 2016-2017 from Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.
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Since Van Drew’s party switch, he’s seemingly turned course on reproductive rights, supporting a discharge petition to force a vote on the so-called Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, one of a wave of deeply problematic bills based on the lie that abortions regularly occur just before or after birth. Van Drew will appear alongside Trump at a rally January 28 in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Candidates on both sides of the aisle have made this 2020 primary what NJ.com calls “America’s hottest congressional race.” On the Democratic side, seven candidates are reportedly running in the primary to replace Van Drew, including Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett.
Bennett, 34, a psychiatric emergency screener, made national headlines and the cover of Time magazine in 2017 after defeating the Republican Atlantic County Freeholder incumbent, John Carman, who had “joked” earlier that year about whether women would make it back from the Women’s March in time to cook dinner. Fittingly, Bennett spoke at the 2018 New York City Women’s March and organized last year’s Atlantic City Women’s March honoring civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer as well as this year’s upcoming march.
After announcing her candidacy the day after Van Drew’s White House announcement, Bennett sat down with me to discuss what inspired her to run for Congress, her views on reproductive rights and access to health care, and what sets her apart from the many Democrats running to replace Van Drew. Bennett said she’d considered declaring her candidacy before Van Drew’s party defection, but began researching her campaign strategy in earnest after his vote against the impeachment inquiry. Bennett is from Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, where I serve as treasurer of the local Democratic club.
Van Drew’s vote against the impeachment inquiry was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bennett said.
“I haven’t been on the sidelines. I’ve been in the trenches and understand what it’s like to win a campaign and what it’s like to transition to serving in office and the demand of that,” she told me. “I understand what it’s like to serve in a partisan environment where you have to determine whether this vote is the best vote for your constituents even if it may be an uphill battle with the opposition”
When asked about her position on reproductive rights and abortion, Bennett responded quickly. “I’m pro-choice, and I’m pro-access to any type of services that women need,” she said. “I believe that women have a right to their own bodies. I think that as far as education about bodies, public health-wise, absolutely women should be educated and informed, and they should have access to resources.”
She’s planning to meet with Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters, and women’s groups and domestic violence shelters in the district to learn about “what we can be doing more of in terms of advocating for reproductive rights and for women in general.”
As for whether she believes there should be limits placed on that choice, Bennett elaborated: “Pro-choice means for me that every woman has to make that decision for herself. Every case is different, and that’s between her and her doctor. I don’t have a parameter as to what would be a limit to that because I don’t know everybody’s individual story or case.”
Bennett is against laws that require parental notification before a minor seeks abortion care.
“I think a physician and counselor should sit down with a minor to discuss not just their options as it relates to a decision regarding abortion services, but also helping them [with] identifying a support system while going through this process and determining what the minor’s home life may be like,” Bennett said. “We as the public cannot assume that every minor’s home environment is safe and supportive and nurturing. Having a physician and counselor speak with a minor is of vital importance to identify if a home environment is dangerous, what their safety net really looks like and supporting them in having autonomy over their own bodies. In the best case scenario, I think that when health-care providers can support a minor in their decision to tell their parental figure, those instances can be the most impactful for both the minor and their parent.”
Bennett opposes the “born-alive” legislation, calling it redundant in light of 2002’s Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which was also based on anti-choice myths. Bennett said the current bill “hinders the physician-patient relationship and puts medical decisions in the hands of politicians rather than doctors, and that is dangerous. The language is inflammatory towards those who provide those services.”
Bennett is concerned that bills like this one could take us “backward to a time where women were getting abortions by untrained professionals in unsanitary conditions and dying as a result of health complications.”
Closer to home, Bennett cited the disparity of maternal health care for Black mothers in Atlantic City, where Black babies are dying at a rate five times higher than the state average, as an issue she would like to tackle. Nationally, according to the NAACP, Black mothers “are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy and birth-related complications than their white counterparts.”
Bennett is in favor of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which withdrew from the Title X family planning program after the Trump administration enacted anti-choice restrictions.
“I believe that they do more than just provide abortion services; they provide health-care services for women who are in need of them in communities that don’t necessarily have access to doctors or other services. They provide those resources. That’s important; it helps to create the social safety net of community.”
She praised New Jersey’s recent move to provide $9.5 million in family-planning clinic funding to counteract the Trump administration’s 2019 Title X “gag rule” that blocks federal funding for health-care providers who perform abortions or give referrals for abortion services. Planned Parenthood, which pulled out of Title X funding in August 2019 rather than comply with the restrictions, noted that the “majority of patients in the Title X program identify as people of color, Hispanic, or Latino.”
Bennett emphasized the importance of bodily autonomy. “Having access to prenatal health care and services in regards to reproduction, and having the right to your own body, goes hand in hand with justice.”
As for the attempts to roll back the protections of Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court and state levels, Bennett said that concerns her because “it’s a slippery slope backwards for women and for the advancements that women have made. It’s sad to see but I think that if we can get the right people elected we can turn the tide on that.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel serves as treasurer of the Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey Democratic Club, which issued a statement against Van Drew’s impeachment inquiry vote.