David Richter spent years preparing for his first foray into politics.
The 53-year-old Willingboro native and former CEO of construction giant Hill International, already held degrees in law, engineering and business from the likes of the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford, when he decided a few years ago to return to school yet again to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in anticipation that he would one day run for Congress.
But no political science class or book could prepare him for the roller-coaster political ride he’s been on the last two months.
Richter was once the Republican front-runner to take on Congressman Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, the sprawling South Jersey territory that includes all of Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem counties, as well as parts of Gloucester, Ocean, Camden and Burlington.
But his 2nd District prospects changed quickly after Van Drew voted against impeaching President Donald Trump, then changed parties and received a glowing endorsement from Trump and the president’s allies.
“I think the one thing you learn is if you want certainty in life — don’t go into politics,” Richter said during a recent interview. “The (2nd District) race did look very good and this was my first race for anything. … But the reality is when your Democratic candidate switches parties and becomes a Republican, gets not endorsed but embraced by the president that you’re running to support, it makes the race very challenging. And that’s an understatement.”
Following the shake-up, Richter set off some political dynamite of his own when he leaped into the neighboring 3rd Congressional District, where three Republicans were already competing for the nomination to run against incumbent Democrat Andy Kim.
Preparing for a primary
He’s now found himself in an old-fashioned intraparty brawl against fellow Republican Kate Gibbs, a former Burlington County freeholder who was unseated during the 2018 blue wave, and who, like Richter before Van Drew’s switch, was viewed as the favorite to secure the GOP nomination.
Gibbs accused Richter of trying to bully her out of the race, while Burlington County Republican chair Sean Earlen said he was “district shopping.”
Richter argues that neither accusation is true and that he made the switch because he wants to serve in Congress and help return Republicans to control of the U.S. House for Trump. Once Van Drew changed parties and appeared secure, he said that “task” was done. But he said he still was interested in serving his country and began looking at the neighboring 3rd District.
He considers the district to be his home district because he grew up there and because his family’s business was founded in Burlington County and flourished there.
The district is made up of nearly all of Burlington County and a large portion of neighboring Ocean County and has traditionally been represented by Republicans. Trump won the district by six points in 2016 but Kim defeated Republican Tom MacArthur in 2018 by a razor-thin margin to become only the second Democrat in over a century to serve the district.
Richter, who has homes in Princeton and Avalon, attended public school in Willingboro before his family moved to Cherry Hill in Camden County, where he graduated from Cherry Hill East High School. He would continue his education at University of Pennsylvania where he earned degrees in management, civil engineering and law, and he practiced law in New York City before returning to New Jersey to assist with his family’s business, helping it to grow into an international giant in the industry.
While successful in business, Richter claims he has long been interested in politics and nursed the idea of someday running for office.
“My whole life I’ve been interested in politics and public policy and our government and how it works and who is running it,” he said. “And I always knew that at the end of what I hoped would be a successful business career, and it has been, that I would run for office someday or serve in the government and serve my country in any way I could.”
He said he originally began looking at the 2nd District in 2017 because he believed MacArthur would remain in office in the 3rd and because he and his wife planned to retire to Avalon, Cape May County.
Following Van Drew’s flip, he turned his sights on the 3rd District and became convinced Kim was beatable — he described him as both a “weak incumbent” and “far too liberal for the district he represents” — but that the Republicans running in the district seemed unfit for the task.
After speaking to Republican officials, among them former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, he announced the switch, arguing that Republicans should put forward their best possible candidate during such a critical election year.
Funding a campaign run
Squaring off against Gibbs and their primary battle has already produced its fair share of fireworks, beginning with Gibbs’ response to Richter’s decision to leapfrog into the 3rd District race.
“Anyone who thinks they can push me around doesn’t know anything about South Jersey women. I was raised by a single mom who taught me how to stand up for myself and never back down from a challenge,” Gibbs said in a statement. “To our party leaders who like to talk about empowering and supporting young Republican women to run and serve, well, here I am. The ball is in your court.”
Richter countered that Gibbs was the “least weak of three weak candidates.”
He pointed to her 2018 election loss to George Youngkin, a Democrat who suspended his campaign in October after a past arrest following a domestic dispute became public. He also said the $142,903 Gibbs’ campaign reported raising through December, was not enough to compete against Kim, whose war chest is flush with some $2.2 million in available cash.
Richter reported raising $652,980 through Dec. 31 and having just over $515,000 in available cash. His fundraising sum included a $500,000 loan he made from his personal finances to his campaign.
During his interview, he said he was prepared to give another $500,000.
“I’m prepared to commit on the whole race, primary and general election, a million dollars of my own money. I can assure you that a million dollars won’t be enough to beat Andy Kim. I’ve got to raise several million on top of that. I believe I can do that. And I’m convinced that no other candidates can raise anywhere near the funds they need to raise to beat me in the primary, much less take on Andy Kim in the general election.”
Richter’s self-funding does come with some strings, at least on paper. According to his campaign’s Federal Election Commission’s last report, he is charging 5% interest on the loan. Though the FEC permits candidates to charge interest on their personal loans to their own campaigns, it’s uncommon and considered highly unusual for so-called “self-funders.”
MacArthur did not collect interest when he loaned his campaign $5 million when he won the 3rd District seat in 2014. He wound up forgiving the maximum amount of the loan permitted.
MacArthur’s predecessor, former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan, loaned $350,000 to his campaign in 2010. He also did not charge interest on the loan.
Asked about the interest, Richter said he was unaware charging interest on the loan was unusual and that he doesn’t intend to collect the interest.
“When we were discussing it, I was asked if I wanted interest or not,” he said. “We did check that to make sure we complied with all the federal laws. It didn’t seem to be a big factor and I don’t expect to ever collect the interest anyway.”
Already an endorsed candidate
Richter downplayed Gibbs’ endorsements from GOP leaders such as New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., arguing that such out-of-district endorsements would not be a factor with primary voters.
He was critical of the Burlington County Republican Committee for endorsing congressional candidates in December. Though Richter also received the county’s endorsement to run in the 2nd District, Richter blasted the organization for handing out the endorsement so early, arguing that it was done to give Gibbs the endorsement “on a silver platter.”
He stressed that Ocean County’s endorsement was still available and a potential game-changer in the primary since it will confer the preferred ballot spot in Ocean County, which has more registered Republicans than Burlington.
All four Republican candidates running in the district interviewed with Ocean County’s screening committee Saturday and the county committee members are expected to vote on the endorsement in March during an open convention.
Richter believes Ocean’s endorsement would make him the clear favorite to win the nomination and the general election race but that he would not encourage any of the other Republicans to drop out.
“I don’t encourage anybody to not run for office. I like democracy. I like the voters having a choice on primary day,” he said.
On Saturday, the screening committee, however, recommended Gibbs, despite learning days before of her municipal court record. She took responsibility for the incidents and apologized.
“Frankly, I think I’m a better candidate. I’ve got a track record of success in life that a union staffer doesn’t have,” he said, adding that Gibbs has focused too much on her age and gender.
“I think the party does and should do more to encourage women and minorities to run for office. But should we hand them the keys to the nomination just because she’s young and she’s a woman? No of course not. We have to field the best candidate we possibly can against Andy Kim because, frankly, Kate Gibbs running and losing to Andy Kim doesn’t do anybody any favors, including Kate Gibbs,” he said.
The Trump question
Richter has also taken aim at Gibbs’ leadership position with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, charging that the building trades union supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race rather than Trump. He also said Gibbs has failed to make a clear endorsement of the president and his agenda.
“She’s not been a supporter of the president. And I have been. I’ve endorsed the president for reelection, she hasn’t. I think she’s tried to stay as far away from the president as possible and I think that’s a mistake,” he said.
Trump is a potent force in the primary and the general election. While the president has not officially endorsed Richter in the race, his campaign did invite him to be one of the five Republicans to deliver remarks at his endorsement rally for Van Drew last month, a fact Richter’s campaign has trumpeted in a web video featuring Richter’s remarks.