COURT HOUSE – The Cape May County League of Women Voters had as many as 40 active members in 2020, including some of the most powerful women in the county. Today, only four members remain, and the county commissioners’ debate, traditionally hosted by the League, was canceled because of Republican concerns about political bias. What happened? It depends on who you ask.
According to Jennifer Wolfson, who led the League until her resignation in August of 2022, a lack of internal communication and partisan social media posts are partially to blame.
According to E. Marie Hayes, county commissioner and former League member, the national and state-level Leagues hold a clear bias to which the local League is “beholden.” This bias, Hayes told the Herald, makes the League an unfit organization to host candidate debates going forward.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2nd), who is currently running for re-election also canceled a League of Women Voters-hosted debate against challenger Tim Alexander. The Press of Atlantic City reported that Ron Filan, Van Drew’s campaign manager, said leading members of the Atlantic County League are too biased to hold a fair debate.
The League of Woman Voters is a nationwide civic organization founded six months before women were granted a constitutionally enshrined right to vote in 1920. The group’s goal then, and now, is to encourage voter participation among eligible voters. The Cape May County branch of the League was founded in 1988, and in the ensuing decades has worked in places like high schools to help future voters understand the responsibility they are entrusted with.
Wolfson describes a “mass exodus” of members and board members from the Cape May County League in early 2021, shortly after the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. The national League put out a press release titled “League Condemns Domestic Terrorist Attack on the U.S. Capitol” on the day of the attack; Wolfson said that this press release spurred the “beginning of the end” for the local league.
Wolfson said that five of the League’s eight board members resigned shortly after the release, and around 20 of roughly 40 members resigned. She said that some leaders left for unrelated reasons, but that the overall trend was frustration over a perceived partisan bias.
At the time, Wolfson explained, much of the League was Republican. As prominent conservatives resigned from the League, Wolfson felt increased pressure to make social media posts that fell in line with the national and state League’s messaging. She referred to a June 24, 2022 post that advertised a Roe v. Wade rally. Though the post only received two likes, she said that it caused a stir.
“I can see where conservative parties would have an issue with that… We probably should not be participating in those discussions… Looking back, I would have made a different post,” Wolfson said.
In a call with the Herald, Hayes did refer to online posts as evidence that the League is no longer fit to host a fair debate. She said that she joined the League to promote voting and political involvement, not to promote partisan politics.
Hayes said that transparency is important to her and that she did not pull out of the League debate to dodge questions. “That’s not who I am,” she said.
Dr. Julia Hankerson, the only Democratic running for county commissioner, expressed offense at her opponent’s cancellation. Hankerson said that there are many issues that Hayes and other incumbents are unwilling to address in a debate setting, including the issues of homelessness and the closure of Cape Regional’s maternity ward.
Hankerson said that the local League is fully fit to host a fair debate, just as they have for decades. She said debate questions were to be selected by the voters, and that the moderator is almost always someone neutral from outside the county. “The League makes every effort to make the debate as neutral and objective as possible,” Hankerson said.
Dan Kurkowski, head of the Cape May County Democrats, said allegations that the League is unfit to host are both false and hypocritical. He said that the League has hosted local debates since the 1980s and that Democrats have always participated, even when the League’s board was overwhelmingly populated by Republicans.
Kurkowski said that several debates, including one in 2016 that he and then-candidate John Amenhauser took part in with Marie Hayes and Gerald Thornton, were hosted by the League even when Hayes herself was on the League’s board.
“Even when Marie Hayes was on the board, we made no allegations of bias,” he said.
Michael Donohue, chairman of the Cape May County GOP, declined to comment.
Beyond allegations in these specific instances, Hayes and Wolfson both expressed interest in reviving a non-partisan League. Wolfson stepped down due to exhaustion and frustration; she is a mother, a full-time student and has a full-time job. But she is still involved with the group and hopes that it can recover from recent blows.
“It has been a very difficult situation for me. I think the League of Woman Voters should revisit its publicity and marketing to be more inclusive of everybody. You are not going to be able to change someone's mind by promoting an agenda that they don't support on social media,” Wolfson said.
She is one of the last remaining members of the local League. “I can’t operate this agency on my own,” she said. “I’m asking my mother to help, I’m asking my family to help,” she said.
“But unless the Cape May County League merges with the Atlantic County League, she said. “I do not see a future for the local League.”
Wolfson said that the current controversy could have been largely avoided with better communication. She expressed frustration at the national and state level organizations for not better understanding the needs of local Leagues. But she also expressed frustration at conservatives who resigned en-masse.
“It’s not a black and white issue,” she said. “I felt that their concerns should have gone to the president. They should have communicated how the League could improve. If we can, moving forward, open the lines of communication to make it better, that would be great.”
After recent debate cancellations, some candidates for county commissioner will still participate in a Meet the Candidates event, hosted by the Middle Township Chamber of Commerce, Oct. 27 at 6 p.m. at the South 9 restaurant. When asked about the event, Dr. Hankerson said she was “not invited” but is “happy to go” if the invitation is extended.
Jeff Van Drew and Tim Alexander are still set to debate Oct. 19 at Stockton University.
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