'Vote messenger’ working to get out the vote for Republican Jeff Van Drew in Atlantic City generates widespread criticism from local Black community, officials
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Fourteen years ago, Craig Callaway walked out of South Woods State Prison after a 42-month term for bribery committed while serving as the Atlantic City council president.
Federal agents taped Callaway, a Black man with deep roots in the city’s impoverished Black community, taking $10,000 from a contractor in exchange for lucrative work in a public redevelopment project.
Today, and every day through Election Day, Callaway is walking the streets of his native Atlantic City armed with $110,000 in get-out-the-vote money from Jeff Van Drew, the Democrat-turned-Republican who is fighting to retain his seat in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District.
“What I do is legal but it’s very expensive — it takes a lot of money,” said Callaway in a phone interview with NJ Spotlight News on Thursday. “In fact, I need a lot more money. We’re out in the streets. We’re hustling.”
Callaway describes himself as a professional “vote messenger.” He says he pays people to go around neighborhoods collecting filled-out ballots and then delivers them to drop boxes or to the local election offices. He usually works for Democrats, and earlier this year even worked for Van Drew’s opponent in the congressional race, Amy Kennedy.
Targeting minority voters
Callaway’s brand of vote hustling has generated widespread contempt from South Jersey’s Black community, and other critics, who say he’s perfected a voter suppression regime that could impact this tight congressional race. Top Democrats say the Callaway controversy reflects broader anxiety in the party that other pockets of minority voters in New Jersey may be targeted this year by similar tactics, or even outright intimidation. Voters are already awash in misinformation, and many are confused about voting in the state’s first almost all-mail general election.
“He’ll go around giving people $20 or $30 for their ballots and then he does what he wants with them — it’s like living in 1954 or something,” said Tanzie Youngblood, a retired schoolteacher from Gloucester County who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic congressional primary.
“Sometimes he just buys people hot dogs,” Youngblood said. “If you’re dirt-poor, you’re grateful. And a lot of people in Atlantic City are dirt-poor.”
Leading state Democrats say Callaway’s well-known tactics have been copied around New Jersey over the years. His street operation for Van Drew, they say, comes in spite of a new state law passed to limit the work of vote messengers because the practice has been prone to fraud.
“That law came about because of Craig Callaway and the damage his operation has done over the years,” said James Gee, a longtime adviser on race issues who is now chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat in New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District.
‘People are being disenfranchised’
Gee said the law stymies legitimate efforts to assist seniors and unhealthy voters across the state who cannot get to a ballot box or the post office. “Suppression efforts like Callaway’s continue on and on while our hands are tied,” Gee said. “It is not fair. People are being disenfranchised.”
Calls seeking comment made to Van Drew’s campaign and congressional office were not returned this week. Yoli Navas, a spokeswoman for Kennedy, declined to directly address controversy surrounding Callaway, but cited Van Drew’s support for President Trump’s “racial dog whistles” and efforts to suppress the Black vote.
Concerned Democrats are also worried about the state’s legacy of voter suppression. They point to the state’s 1981 gubernatorial election, when teams of “officers” wearing arm bands showed up to patrol polling stations in urban areas like Newark. The “National Ballot Security Task Force” turned out to be a squad of professional vote intimidators created and paid by Republican political consultants.
The paramilitary force targeted Black precincts and asked voters waiting in line to identify themselves and produce voter registration cards. In the election, Republican Thomas Kean defeated Democrat James Florio by less than 2,000 votes among some 2 million cast.
“Intimidation cost Florio the election,” said Democratic attorney Angelo Genova, who led a legal challenge to the Republican task force. A court-ordered consent decree that prevented similar tactics expired in 2018, leading to fears that a new era of sinister ballot tricks is upon us.
“Just when we need them, the protections voters had under the consent decree are gone,” said Genova.
Protecting voter rights
Philip Swibinski, a spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, said his party has already organized a volunteer force of 100 attorneys who are set to respond to any blatant attempts at suppression or voter intimidation as Election Day draws near.
“We’ll do whatever is needed to protect voting rights,” he said.
But in South Jersey, political leaders of both parties say they have little faith that many minority voters will not end up disenfranchised this year.
Former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican who once hired private detectives who videotaped voter buyoffs, said the problem is widespread. “It’s going on right now,” he said.
Pleasantville resident Doris Rowell, who is running again for the school board after losing in 2019, said she had a huge lead on election night, only to lose after Callaway came in with some 700 ballots that were mostly for her opponent.
Rowell ended up losing by 36 votes and is now suing the Atlantic County Board of Elections, claiming that the board essentially knew that Callaway was breaking laws limiting vote messengers. After the election, she said, many of the ballots wrangled by Callaway were rejected because of signature irregularities.
‘What happens down here needs to stop’
“I’m doing this for one simple reason. What happens down here in Atlantic County is not right and it needs to stop,” Rowell said.
Pastor Jerome Page, another Pleasantville resident and a member of the school board, says he has personally seen people sell their signed ballots to Callaway’s employees. The ballots, he said, are filled out later by somebody else.
“A lot of people get paid just to stay home and not vote,” Page said. “When you’re poor, when you’re on the streets, you’re happy to get a few bucks. The going rate right now is about fifty bucks, I hear.”
Lynn Caterson, a member of the Atlantic County elections board, said she could not comment on an allegation about voter suppression because there is an ongoing investigation of some primary election ballots delivered by Callaway.
“All I will say is that people should vote for who they feel is best and not how someone else might direct them to vote,” she said.
Callaway said critics like Page and Guardian just don’t understand how he works, and don’t really understand the Black community. He also dismissed a court affidavit, filed by a former employee in Rowell’s court case, who said he helped Callaway manipulate absentee ballots for 15 years.
“That’s all just lies,” Callaway said. “The fact is that I have a wealth of experience, a wealth of common sense and a wealth of intelligence. I’m effective because I know my own community. People like Guardian don’t know the community — that’s why they’re losers.”