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Allegations of Blackmail, Racism, and Cognitive Impairment in 1st District

In four-way race, former NFL player fights questions about his mental competency while challenger feeds and battles perceptions that he’s a racist

Gary Cobb
Republican Garry Cobb is fighting Donald Norcross to fill the congressional seat vacated in February by long-time Democratic congressman Rob Andrews.

In the lead-up to the Republican primary for the 1st Congressional District, candidate Garry Cobb has name recognition, support from his party, an NFL resume, and according to one of his opponents, serious problems with cognitive function, finances, false accusations, and truth-telling. But then, that may not sound so incendiary when compared to the troubles of a third candidate, who battles a reputation as a racist, economic elitist, and party-baiter.

In a race between four candidates, so far only Winslow Township real estate professional Gerald McManus remains above the bruising fray of politics. Cobb is taking to Twitter to lash out and defend himself against attacks by Collingswood business owner and former school board member Claire Gustafson for supposedly changing his story on whether he suffers from memory loss as a result of his time as a professional football player, while at the same time accusing Gustafson’s campaign manager of blackmailing him.

The manager, Steve Kush, not only vociferously denies the charge but says it may cause him to sue Cobb “into a second bankruptcy.” Kush maintains Cobb has a history of bankruptcy, foreclosure, tax liens and legal judgments against him -- charges that Cobb’s campaign retorts are not only long behind him but related to a failed startup rather than personal issues.

Meanwhile, in Gibbstown, food-equipment repairman Lee Lucas is running despite being previously repudiated by party leadership for allegedly using the “n-word” against a neighbor in an argument in which police were called. Since the 2006 incident, he’s been quoted defending use of the epithet, making disparaging statements against the poor -- that he says were taken out of context -- and bragging that he enjoyed provoking the state’s Republican brass.

It’s a din that’s growing louder than talk about the issues in a South Jersey district that after 13 terms of representation by Democrat Rob Andrews, who abruptly resigned in February, is not even viewed as in play for the Republicans.

The District

When Andrews resigned under the cloud of a House ethics investigation, which he says did not influence his decision to accept a private-sector job, he left his seat open to a field of seven candidates -- four Republicans and three Democrats, including front runner state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden). But in the district that includes parts of the suburban Philly counties of Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester, registered Republicans count as only 14 percent of the electorate, and Andrews usually won his seat by a margin of 60 percent or greater.

New Jersey’s 2011 redistricting sliced liberal Cherry Hill off from the moderate 3rd district and added it to the 1st, whose white-collar high-tech employees and blue-collar union workers already voted to the left. The district, full of middle-to-upper-middle-class bedroom communities and small working-class river towns, is 98 percent urban and suburban. Its urban anchors are Camden and downtrodden Gloucester City.

The Candidates

Cobb, 57, grew up poor in North Carolina and Connecticut before attending the University of Southern California on a full scholarship, winning several Rose Bowls as a defensive player, and earning an award from Los Angeles’ then-mayor for his volunteer work with impoverished youth. For the next 11 years, he played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys and served as team captain for the Detroit Lions while continuing his volunteer work with underprivileged young people in Detroit and elsewhere. He retired to Cherry Hill with his wife and children in the early 1990s and launched a second career as a popular Philadelphia radio and TV sports broadcaster and blogger.

Today, Cobb maintains his dedication to helping disadvantaged youth and received a commendation from President Bush in 2002 for his volunteer work as an assistant chaplain in a youth detention center. He has also sat on numerous local charity boards on both sides of the Delaware River and has extended his influence by writing a book for teens about goal setting and personal responsibility and by mentoring current and former NFL players to transition into fulfilling careers outside the league.

Cobb says his bankruptcy has actually made him a more sensitive and informed mentor and will make him a more compassionate representative.

"Losing my business almost 20 years ago taught me humility. I was a world-class athlete who thought himself invincible and then I learned that I wasn't,” he emailed. “I have lived the uncertainty of financial hard times and felt the pain of it and the fear that things won't get better. I'm seeking to represent a district where the uncertainty and fear -- the pain I spoke of -- is a daily battle for thousands and thousands of families. I hope to help them stand up to it, to get them what they need to overcome it, and -- working together -- to build a better future for all our families."

Several years ago, Cobb joined a lawsuit against the NFL filed by players who claim or worry about mental impairment developed through concussions sustained while playing professional football. In a 2012 filing, he stated that he suffers from “various neurological conditions and symptoms,” including minor memory loss, but was quoted in a newspaper after he declared his candidacy saying that he doesn’t experience any loss of memory. Campaign manager Dave Needler says Cobb’s doctor changed his diagnosis.

But because of these perceived inconsistencies and others, Gustafson has questioned Cobb’s integrity and ability to govern, and campaign manager Kush calls him a “washed-up former linebacker” who is a “wreck of a candidate” who “can’t stand on the issues” and will “cause embarrassment to the Republican party if he wins.”

In return, Needler says Kush “lacks self-control” and notes that the 20-year political operative was removed from a job in New Mexico for calling a 19-year-old activist a “radical bitch” on social media.

claire gustafson
Claire Gustafson

In ever-more-personal attacks, Gustafson frequently refers to Cobb as a former Dallas Cowboy, associating him not with South Jersey’s beloved Eagles but with their hated division rivals. Gustafson, who touts her own credentials as a former athlete, little league coach, and season ticketholder for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Camden Riversharks independent baseball team, mocks Cobb in two TV spots. One has her catching a football and telling the camera, “There are some who think being a former Dallas Cowboy qualifies them for Congress. Not me, I only cheer for the Eagles.”

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