The Sanders Message Faces Another Test in New Jersey

A candidate with ties to the senator is up against a heavy establishment favorite next year for the Democratic nomination for governor.

New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski
AP Photo/Mel Evans
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Zach C. Cohen
Dec. 6, 2016, 8 p.m.

A long­time le­gis­lat­or, call­ing for an end to spe­cial in­terest and Wall Street con­trol of polit­ics and the eco­nomy, is run­ning in a Demo­crat­ic primary against an es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ite with sup­port from party lead­ers.

Echoes of the Bernie Sanders-Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­id­en­tial primary are ob­vi­ous in the Demo­crat­ic race to re­place New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie. But this blue-state battle might be even more chal­len­ging for Sanders’s brand of pro­gress­ive polit­ics thanks to the state’s unique eco­nomy, geo­graphy, and primary-bal­lot­ing pro­cess.

State As­sembly­man John Wis­niewski, Sanders’s former cam­paign chair­man in the Garden State, launched his bid for gov­ernor late last month, telling a crowd of 150, “The deck is stacked … by ma­chine polit­ics and big-money spe­cial in­terests.” He faces, among oth­ers, Phil Murphy, a former bank­ing ex­ec­ut­ive and am­bas­sad­or to Ger­many.

“We’re talk­ing about a dif­fer­ence in a value sys­tem,” Wis­niewski said in an in­ter­view last week, be­fore cri­ti­ciz­ing Murphy, a Gold­man Sachs alum, for seed­ing his cam­paign with $10 mil­lion.

But Sanders’s mes­sage didn’t con­nect by the time of the June pres­id­en­tial primary. Sanders won just two of the state’s 21 counties, while Clin­ton won nearly two-thirds of the vote, with her top four counties by raw vote com­ing in the shad­ow of Wall Street.

Un­like in the middle of the coun­try, said Ben Dwor­kin, a polit­ic­al-sci­ence pro­fess­or at Rider Uni­versity, it’s harder to make Wall Street the “boo­gey­man” in north­ern New Jer­sey, where a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion re­lies on it “for their in­come, either be­cause they work there or they’re en­gaged with it in some way.”

Murphy spokes­man Derek Rose­man played up Murphy’s status as a first-time can­did­ate, call­ing him “an out­sider who has spent the bet­ter part of the last dec­ade serving our na­tion abroad” and re­fer­ring to Wis­niewski as “the con­sum­mate Trenton in­sider.”

“The choice for Demo­crats next June can­not be more stark,” Rose­man said in an email.

Long­time New Jer­sey polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives have signed up with Murphy, in­clud­ing Brendan Gill, Steve De­m­icco, Brad Lawrence, and Ju­lie Ro­g­in­sky. Many of them worked for an­oth­er former Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­ut­ive in New Jer­sey Demo­crat­ic polit­ics: former Gov. Jon Corz­ine.

While an anti-Wall Street mes­sage plays dif­fer­ently there, Murphy has still down­played com­par­is­ons with Corz­ine and hasn’t placed that part of his back­ground at the fore­front of his cam­paign mes­sage, as Corz­ine did at the start of his polit­ic­al ca­reer. When Corz­ine first ran for Sen­ate (with the help of Tad Dev­ine, a con­sult­ant for both Wis­niewski and Sanders), he ran TV ads pro­claim­ing his cre­ation of “700,000 New Jer­sey com­pany jobs” from his perch at one of “the world’s most im­port­ant in­vest­ment firms.”

“I can­not see them just du­plic­at­ing the Corz­ine cam­paign of 2000. … It’s a dif­fer­ent Amer­ica. It’s a dif­fer­ent New Jer­sey,” Dwor­kin said.

The Sanders com­par­is­on for Wis­niewski sim­il­arly goes deep­er than the can­did­ate. He hired the same con­sult­ing team that led Sanders’s un­der­dog pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, in­clud­ing Dev­ine-Mul­vey-Longabaugh, Re­volu­tion Mes­saging, and Tulchin Re­search. Wis­niewski cam­paign man­ager Robert Beck­er also or­gan­ized the Ver­mont sen­at­or’s suc­cess­ful cam­paigns in Iowa and Michigan.

“They did a very good job. … That’s the kind of team I’d like to have on my side,” Wis­niewski said.

Sanders hasn’t en­dorsed Wis­niewski yet, but he said at a Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or break­fast last month that he “may very well” do so. Wis­niewski said last week he plans to talk to Sanders “soon” about the race.

Poll­ster Ben Tulchin said the can­did­ates’ shared world­view “will res­on­ate with voters, par­tic­u­larly the groups Bernie did so well with, young­er voters in par­tic­u­lar.” And after be­ing act­ive in en­dors­ing can­did­ates up and down the bal­lot in 2016, Tulchin said this race will be “a good op­por­tun­ity for Bernie if he wants to get in­volved.”

Murphy boasts sup­port in the pop­u­lous New York City area, where county chair­men en­dorsed Murphy in Septem­ber shortly after Jer­sey City May­or Steven Fu­lop un­ex­pec­tedly dropped out of the race.

The multi-mil­lion­aire’s cause is bolstered there with the re­sources to get on the Big Apple’s ex­pens­ive air­waves ahead of both the primary and gen­er­al elec­tion. Mean­while, Wis­niewski said he is con­fid­ent pub­lic fin­an­cing, should he qual­i­fy, would al­low him to keep up with Murphy in paid me­dia.

Murphy has also cleared polit­ic­al hurdles in South Jer­sey. State Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Steph­en Sweeney’s exit from the race led Murphy to se­cure the sup­port of county lead­ers in the Phil­adelphia and At­lantic City sub­urbs. One of those counties, Cam­den, is the home base of polit­ic­al power broker George Nor­cross.

That sup­port goes fur­ther than en­dorse­ments else­where. Party lead­ers wield in­cred­ible in­flu­ence in as­sign­ing fa­vor­able bal­lot place­ment along­side the party’s en­dorsed can­did­ates for oth­er of­fices, a po­ten­tially sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vant­age for Murphy, a former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee fin­ance chair.

“If you think the su­per­deleg­ate pro­cess hampered Bernie Sanders, that has noth­ing on the county or­gan­iz­a­tion pro­cess in New Jer­sey state primar­ies,” said Patrick Mur­ray, the dir­ect­or of the Mon­mouth Uni­versity poll.

Cor­rec­tion: The art­icle ori­gin­ally mis­stated the tim­ing of New Jer­sey’s pres­id­en­tial primary. It was in June.

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