‘Vote messenger’ may have given Van Drew the edge in the 2nd District

Jeff Pillets | November 9, 2020 | NJ Decides 2020
Craig Callaway’s controversial role in high-profile congressional race comes as questions about ballot security are being raised by President Trump
Credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File; Insider NJ)
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, left, and Craig Callaway

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. It is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Hundreds of Republicans squeezed into the Oar House Pub in Sea Isle City Tuesday night to watch Jeff Van Drew claim victory in the congressional race followed by political junkies across New Jersey and the nation.

The overwhelmingly white crowd cheered and clapped as Van Drew talked about protecting Americans from socialism and preserving that “shining city on a hill.” Van Drew waded through his mostly unmasked fans, stopping to greet many with warm words and “thank yous.”

But Van Drew saved a big embrace for a liberal Democrat, a Black man who wore a wraparound scarf over his face: Craig Callaway, a 61-year-old political operative from Atlantic City who once spent 42 months in prison following a federal bribery conviction that ended his career as city council president.

With the 2nd Congressional District called for Van Drew by The Associated Press on Friday, some political veterans in South Jersey say the deeply controversial Callaway gave Van Drew the edge in his bitter battle with Amy Kennedy, a Democrat making her first bid for elected office.

Callaway’s role in this high-profile congressional race comes as questions about ballot security are being raised by President Trump and his supporters and amplified by social media. Trump and his Republican surrogates on television and social media, as well as his supporters, many now protesting in the streets, challenge the integrity of the system and allege without evidence that fraud is rampant.

Callaway has long political history

Democrats defending the election system are pointing out that fraud is almost nonexistent. Yet, in New Jersey, they have the unenviable task of explaining their long history with a figure like Callaway.

They acknowledge that Callaway’s street operation in Atlantic City, fueled by $110,000 from Van Drew, probably netted thousands of votes for Van Drew from Blacks and other racial minorities who usually vote Democratic.

Early reports on Election Day showed Kennedy won Atlantic County by about 4,000 votes, much less than she needed to offset Van Drew’s big advantage in more conservative locales across Ocean and Cape May counties. Van Drew’s lead soon climbed north of 14,000 in that county, leaving Democrats to deal with the reality that an avowed Trumper had beaten a potential rising star from the fabled Kennedy clan.

“I think we have to confront the fact that Craig Callaway made a significant difference in this race,” said Michael Suleiman, chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic party. “How much of a difference, I don’t know. But there’s no doubt Van Drew performed better than expected because Callaway was with him.”

Only last spring, Callaway and his organization were on the Kennedy team, helping her smash a field of strong primary opponents. After the winning campaign, Kennedy parted ways with Callaway after apparently clashing over money and his future role.

“She stiffed me,” Callaway said in a recent interview. “I don’t do this for free.”

The Kennedy campaign declined a request from NJ Spotlight News for comment and said Friday it was still focused on the race and some 60,000 to 80,000 ballots still not counted. Kennedy conceded later that night, issuing a statement in which she said she had congratulated Van Drew. Several leading Democrats close to the campaign said Kennedy had grown uncomfortable with Callaway’s methods and questioned his effectiveness.

Widespread criticism

Other Democrats pointed out, however, that Kennedy and other Democrats scrambled to sign up Callaway this year. Democrats in South Jersey were well aware of widespread criticism of Callaway and his operation, which some have said includes hiring the homeless, prostitutes and the mentally ill, to serve as ballot mules in exchange for $30 or a hot meal.

Paul Weborg, who managed the campaign of Democrat Brigid Callahan Harrison in the primary, said Callaway has been widely sought-after for years by candidates from both parties despite his criminal past and “rampant” rumors about his buying ballots.

In the primary campaign, Weborg said, Callaway bused dozens of his people to the Atlantic County Democratic convention and effectively delivered the party endorsement to Kennedy.

“I’ve never personally witnessed anything illegal,” Weborg said. “But he has a strong reputation for doing sinister things to win elections, for both parties. It’s gone on for a long time.”

In testimony that surfaced earlier this year in State Superior Court in Atlantic County, a former employee of Callaway’s said he helped his boss fix ballots for the better part of 15 years. Candidates for the Pleasantville School Board sued Atlantic County, claiming Callaway was responsible for election irregularities.

The employee, for example, said that changing the signatures on ballots was commonplace, and that Callaway even used steam machines to open sealed ballots for alteration.

Callaway has denied the allegations in the lawsuit and called the ex-employee “a drunk,” but the details of his court testimony match closely with reports of others.

Former Atlantic City mayors took action

In 2017, Don Guardian, the former Republican mayor of Atlantic City, hired private detectives to tail Callaway and his workers. Guardian called a news conference and released a video that purportedly showed how Callaway improperly harvested votes.

Priscilla Dimario, who worked in Guardian’s campaign that year, said she spent weeks tracking the movements of Callaway and his workers as they rounded up bags full of ballots and delivered them in small batches to the elections office in the county administrative building.

Callaway’s workers, Dimario said, had full access to a restricted entrance used by employees. Fleets of minivans carrying 15 people apiece pulled up at the entrance every day and delivered another stream of ballot mules, she said, adding that Callaway and his people never had to sign in at the front desk like other visitors.

Callaway’s workers would hole up in a public restroom with bags of ballots while he guarded the door. Then, Dimario said, they would emerge from the restroom with neatly packed bundles of ballots.

While a state law allows people to serve as ballot bearers for other voters, it limits bearers to carrying three envelopes at a time. Bearers must also sign their name on the outside of the ballot. The law was championed by the late Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan in response to complaints about Callaway.

“It sounds crazy, but Craig and his people had free rein,” Dimario said. “It was clear he could do whatever he wanted. The most galling thing is that it is goes on in every election, and everyone knows. And still, nothing happens.”

Guardian’s campaign eventually went to state and local law enforcement with videos and a range of other evidence. Dimario said she does not know if any investigation ensued but said the campaign never got a response from the authorities.

A ‘100-percent legal’ operation

Callaway did not respond to several phone calls. But in an interview last week, he strongly denied any wrongdoing and said his operation is legal.

“I am 100-percent legal and 100-percent effective,” Callaway said. “People attack me because they are jealous and don’t understand how I work.”

Callaway was president of Atlantic City Council in 2003 when he was caught on tape accepting a $10,000 bribe from a contractor seeking work in a redevelopment project. He was convicted of extortion and spent more than three years in the South Woods State Prison.

But he was back on the streets after being released in 2006 and used his deep connections to Atlantic City’s Black and growing Bangladeshi communities to build a formidable “vote messenger” service.

“What I do costs a lot of money, but they pay me because I deliver,” Callaway said.

Suleiman, the county Democratic chief, said some political candidates from both parties would probably continue to seek out Callaway’s services. But he said he is urging candidates to build their own get-out-the-vote teams, especially after Callaway embraced a Republican like Van Drew, who drew the ire of Democrats across the country last year for switching parties and proclaiming his loyalty to Trump.

“People in my party want to smack this guy upside the head. A lot of Dems will cut ties,” Suleiman said. “And for those who don’t, is it really worth doing something unethical, possibly even illegal, to get elected?”

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