COURT HOUSE – The first thing a visitor notices in the Spartan conference room of Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st) are portraits of the five presidents whom he most admires.
To the surprise of some, three role models for the South Jersey Democrat are Republicans. Abraham Lincoln is his favorite, an example of courage and principle. There are the two Roosevelts, Theodore, a Republican, and Franklin, a Democrat.
John F. Kennedy’s famous visage graces a wall and finally there is a portrait of a smiling Ronald Reagan. But to his constituents, this mélange is no surprise.
Their senator who has been overwhelmingly reelected many times is no cookie-cutter Democrat, a cause of some consternation to his fellow party members in Trenton at times.
Where and how did this principled and charismatic man’s character develop? The Herald sat with him to find out.
Van Drew was born in New York City and raised in Paterson. He is the only son of an Episcopal priest and his wife.
“I went to public grade school and Catholic high school.” He graduated from St. Mary’s in Perth Amboy. Summers were spent “at the shore from Ocean County on down to Cape May.” So it was no shock to his family that after college at Rutgers and dental school at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a residency with the Veterans Administration, he headed south.
“I literally drew a circle on the map and within that circle we bought a house in Ocean View," said Van Drew. So a young Van Drew, his pregnant wife, and a dog Maui settled into life in Cape May County.
He brought more than his family and dental license with him. He brought the values he learned in his parents' house, “My dad was very open minded. He was very tolerant of various ideas all the while being firmly grounded in his own beliefs,” Van Drew said recalling his father.
He admits that being a clergyman’s son was sometimes “challenging,” probably more for his parents than for him. “I wasn’t always an angel,” he says with a wry smile. He was an altar boy and confessed that he never went through a crisis of faith.
”I do my best to understand what it is like for folks who do,” he said.
That may be one of his greatest gifts, his ability to understand others’ positions, a gift of empathy. He learned this from both parents whose life work was to meet people at the most difficult as well as the happiest times of their lives.
“Life is tough,” he found out watching his father ministering to parishioners. He said he learned to value “the ability to pray because life is tough. I feel sorry for folks who don’t believe in anything.”
He married a Catholic and converted to Catholicism in 1979. He attends St. Joseph Church in Sea Isle City. He also appreciates other religious traditions, Christian and non-Christian. He admits to loving the energy he feels fellow shipping with Evangelicals and appreciates their service to the community.
How did this dentist and minister’s son get into politics?
“I think perhaps naively because since I was a little boy I was always fascinated by politics and politicians,” he admits. He was greatly influenced by his father in this.
“My dad was a very independent thinker and encouraged discussion,” he said.
Does it bother him that so many citizens have such a low opinion of professional politicians? He understands why and some of that reputation is well deserved. “Parts (of the process) are unpleasant, and challenging and some disgusting and a lot very tough,” he commented. It is the little successes, the opportunities to help regular people who have been abused, neglected or run over by the system.
Van Drew recalled a moving incident where his office was able to make the difference.
“There was a little 5-year-old girl who had cancer behind her eye. All of her doctors including the best specialists in Philadelphia said there was only one doctor who could help her. But the Insurance company wouldn’t pay for her to see him. The problem was he was in Texas and outside of the network,” he said.
After the senator threatened to hold a press conference in front of the corporate headquarters of the insurance company, the matter was resolved. The little girl saw the specialist and received the treatment she needed. “As painful as some of this is sometimes you really can make a difference,” he said.
Van Drew is an optimist who doesn’t take anything for granted. Whether in Trenton trying to educate North Jersey colleagues about the rights of gun owners or campaigning for office he does not assume the victory is automatically his.
“You can lose at any time, I always remind my staff.” Then he added, “If I work hard enough and talk to people and learn their concerns and work, work, work then maybe.”
That attitude has helped him deal with his fellow progressive Democrats from districts north of the county line. “That’s who I am, more conservative than my more progressive friends.” How do his colleagues feel about his religious beliefs? “Your faith gives you strength to be persistent in moving forward. But I don’t think politicians should use it as part of their campaign.”
He also believes that his faith allows him to be more patient with those who disagree with him. “Don’t be mean spirited. To some degree, the other side can offer good ideas and it doesn’t hurt to listen,” Van Drew said.
He has also had the ability to choose a good team to work with. Because of his early dealings working with veterans, he has had a special respect for them. It is no coincidence that both assemblymen in the district, Robert Andrzejczak, and Bruce Land, are the most decorated members of the Assembly. Van Drew recruited both.
Besides his faith Van Drew finds his strength and joy in his family, his wife and two children. His son Jeff, Jr. is a lawyer and certified public accountant. Daughter, Danielle, is about to add to his happiness when she gives birth to his first grandchild, an event he is really looking forward to soon.
Then there are the dogs. “I am a dog lover,” Van Drew declared showing a picture of his two German shepherds.
When addressing the heroin epidemic rampant in the county and nation, he grew quiet. “It is a many faceted problem and has to be addressed that way.” He cited the over-prescribing of pain pills getting people hooked, the "porous" borders allow for the flooding of the country with cheap product and the loss of the continuity of the family and the loss of faith, hope and love. “People feel extraordinary pain and try to cope with drugs and other things.”
“God is always an equation in your life and life is short. Jesus came to give us some understanding and hope,” he said.
It is that attitude that enables the senator to deal with desperate constituents, contrary colleagues, stubborn bureaucrats, and powerful companies.
To contact Helen McCaffrey, email hmccaffrey @cmcherald.com.
ED. NOTE: Faith and religion are important facets in the Cape May County community. The author plans to do stories on various aspects of religion and what impact it has on those who practice it. She encourages those with ideas on subjects to email her at email@example.com for consideration.