Charges of blackmail and racism fly in race for Congressman Rob Andrews’ old seat

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 the four Republican 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.

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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 DistrictWhen 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

Garry CobbCobb, 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 GustafsonIn 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.”

Gustafson spent $10,000 for the cable TV buy, raising more than half of the money after the first quarterly finance reporting deadline in mid-April. At that time, she hadn’t raised the $5,000 minimum to meet the threshold for required filing and neither had any of her opponents.

But Gustafson claims to have far more political and campaign experience than her challengers, none of whom have any, save for Lee Lucas, who won the primary in a 2009 General Assembly race but lost in the general election then lost the primary the following year when he ran for Andrews’ seat in Congress.

“You just can’t jump into congressional politics. You have to be prepared,” said the 62-year-old Gustafson, whose own political history begins and ends at an unsuccessful run for Collingswood borough council and two runs for school board — once successful, one not. After winning on her second try, she served on Collingswood’s school board for three years.

Gustafson grew up in Washington D.C. to a military father who worked at the Pentagon, and she hails from a family that traces its New Jersey roots to before the Revolutionary War. She received an associate’s degree in retail merchandising at Marjorie Webster Junior College in Washington. She’s pursued a career as a retail buyer, executive, and owner and now works as president of a children’s clothing distribution company with her husband, with whom she has five children.

Gerald McManusMcManus, 47, has lived his entire life in South Jersey. From his birth in Camden to a childhood in Stratford and Lindenwold (where his father was a councilman) and a current residence in Winslow Township, he also stayed in-state to earn a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Rowan University. Because his father passed away when he was 10, McManus worked as a janitor throughout high school to help his mother support the family.

After graduating from college, he entered the vending business, as his parents had before him, and five years later founded his own vending company. He sold it in 2002 and later became a residential real estate professional. He follows current events closely, as evidenced by his frequent — and specific — references to international politics, economic statistics, and quotes from the Wall Street Journal.

“If anybody is going to win it’s because they know the issues,” he said. “‘Gee, Claire, you played field hockey; Gee, Garry, you played football.’ If Garry has better ideas and beats me because of it, God bless him. But I know the issues better than they do and I think my (agenda) is the clearest there is.”

Lee LucasLucas, a 56-year-old Navy vet from Gibbstown calls himself, “Just a blue collar guy, a lowly worker. I have no power or authority over anyone in this world.” He’s been quoted in the media saying attendees at a recent NAACP-sponsored candidate debate (that he and Cobb didn’t attend) would just be looking for handouts, and that he danced a jig because he frustrated the state’s Republican establishment when they tried to talk him off the Assembly ballot five years ago.

But in an interview this week with NJ Spotlight, he tempered his rhetoric. He professed that he didn’t use the “n-word” in a fight against his white neighbors as alleged in 2006 and he doesn’t find it an acceptable term for white people to use against African-Americans. He doesn’t condemn poor people, as the media has reported. Instead, he feels that, “If you’re an unwed mother on government assistance and you choose to continue to have more kids, I consider that lifestyle inferior.” And while the Associated Press quoted him saying that he skipped the debate because, “They’re not going to vote for a fiscal conservative like me. They want to know what all the free handouts are going to be,” he told NJ Spotlight that he forgot about the debate but regardless feels he’d be wasting his time giving speeches to people who wouldn’t likely vote for him.

It is true, as reported, that the married high-school graduate who grew up in Woodbury Heights is choosing not to raise money or set up any Internet or social media presence because he believes a primary isn’t worth the effort.

IssuesLucas, does, however, believe it’s worth talking about the two issues that matter most to him: the economy and immigration. Tying the two together, he opposes fair-trade agreements and supports imposing tariffs on China to keep companies from outsourcing, and he’s miffed that the American government didn’t close its borders to legal immigrants when unemployment rates started rising in 2008. As for undocumented immigrants, he says, “Don’t fine companies that employ them; put the executives in jail. Even if it’s just 30 days in the county system, you’d have 10 million people walking back to Mexico within a month.”

Gustafson feels the federal government should bring jobs back to cities like Camden and its surrounding small towns like by encouraging young entrepreneurs to open mom-and-pop microbusinesses downtown with the help of tax credits and programs to promote these opportunities.

“We have an amazing city that is the welcome mat into New Jersey from Philadelphia,” she said of Camden. “We should have retail and jobs on the waterfront to make it the jewel that it is. And in South Jersey’s towns like Collingswood, the restaurants are doing well. So if we could bring back just five retail locations per town.”

Gustafson tires of overspending by the federal government and hopes to be able to force Congress to reduce the debt. She also wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and favors strong Constitutional rights, such as the Second Amendment.

McManus says to create jobs, he’d like to steer the country toward energy independence and a fair tax, which would eliminate the business and income tax while boosting lower-income citizens by providing them with a “prebate” that would reimburse them ahead of time for sales taxes so they’d have more money to spend.

“We’d allow businesses to do more and encourage them to expand here in the U.S. It’s going to help cut social spending, as the social safety net is strained, to say the very least,” he said before adding that a fair tax would, in his opinion, increase competition in the workforce, which would lead to higher wages.

Cobb wants to assist workers and small businesses by lowering taxes and decreasing regulation. In cities like Camden, he would encourage unemployed mothers to build resumes and identify career strengths by performing volunteer work in the community, and he suggests that citizens shift spending in Washington to the local level.

He also seeks to pass reforms that would stop the bi-state Delaware River Port Authority from spending toll funds on economic development projects in the Philadelphia and South Jersey region — a controversial practice that the scandal-ridden agency stopped several years ago. However, this month, state lawmakers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania simultaneously introduced legislation to officially prevent this sort of spending, which Cobb says benefits powerful Democratic party politicians and their cronies. If passed, the bills would need approval from both governors, Congress and the president.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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