AGAINST THE GRAIN

Man Versus Money and Machine

Democratic party leaders want to anoint a wealthy ambassador as the next governor of New Jersey, but they’re overlooking one of the more compelling candidates of 2017.

New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson (right)
Courtesy of Johnson For Governor
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

One of the Demo­crats run­ning to be­come the next gov­ernor of New Jer­sey is a former fed­er­al pro­sec­utor who went after or­gan­ized crime rings, an un­der­sec­ret­ary of the Treas­ury in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion who scru­tin­ized the fin­ances of in­ter­na­tion­al drug car­tels, and a re­former who has led ef­forts to im­prove com­munity re­la­tions with po­lice in his post-gov­ern­ment­al ca­reer. He boasts a rags-to-riches story as the second mem­ber of his fam­ily to gradu­ate from col­lege. Bor­row­ing from Pres­id­ent Obama’s cam­paign play­book, he is cast­ing him­self as an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an who can heal the di­vi­sions in a polit­ic­ally-po­lar­ized state.

No one is giv­ing Jim John­son, 55, much of a chance against front-run­ning Phil Murphy, 59, the wealthy Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­ut­ive who later be­came Am­bas­sad­or to Ger­many. It’s hard to even find much cov­er­age of John­son’s can­did­acy in the New Jer­sey press. But any­one who un­der­stands the im­port­ance of a com­pel­ling nar­rat­ive in polit­ics should be pay­ing close at­ten­tion to his cam­paign.

The New Jer­sey gov­ernor race—or, at least the Demo­crat­ic primary—is shap­ing up as an early test of the in­flu­ence of money and party bosses. New Jer­sey is one of the few re­main­ing states where un­der-the-radar in­siders wield tre­mend­ous in­flu­ence. Party lead­ers can fun­nel money to their pre­ferred can­did­ates, dis­suade in­terest groups from de­fy­ing the party line, and even de­note the of­fi­cial party pref­er­ence on bal­lots. In the gov­ernor race, that means New Jer­sey Demo­crats could see Murphy’s name in huge typeface on the bal­lot as the party-backed can­did­ate, with John­son (and oth­er primary can­did­ates) de­moted to fine print.

At a time when the en­ergy in the Demo­crat­ic Party is against Wall Street bil­lion­aires, it’s a bit coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive that a can­did­ate in 2017 is favored mainly be­cause of his eye-pop­ping wealth. But with tele­vi­sion ads cost­ing a for­tune to air across the state, self-fun­ded can­did­ates have an auto­mat­ic leg up over the com­pet­i­tion. Former Gov. Jon Corz­ine, an­oth­er Gold­man Sachs alum, pumped over $28 mil­lion of his own money in­to a los­ing reelec­tion cam­paign in 2009. Murphy brought in $7.3 mil­lion of in­come last year alone, ac­cord­ing to fin­an­cial dis­clos­ures, and loaned his cam­paign $10 mil­lion in star­tup money. John­son is start­ing his fun­drais­ing from scratch.

But if there was one les­son of the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, it was that money is only as ef­fect­ive as the can­did­ate’s mes­sage. Clin­ton out­spent Trump sig­ni­fic­antly in the battle­ground states to no avail. In­sur­gent can­did­ates now have ef­fect­ive tools to over­come a fin­an­cial de­fi­cit, in­clud­ing di­git­al ad­vert­ising that gen­er­ates vir­al buzz and or­gan­ic ex­cite­ment from on­line so­cial net­works.

“In the last year, if you haven’t been sur­prised with what’s happened with polit­ics, you haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion,” John­son told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I be­lieve in the polit­ics of con­vic­tion, not cal­cu­la­tion. I have lived my life build­ing un­likely co­ali­tions. I be­lieve not only is bridge-build­ing pos­sible but it’s all about who I am. The mes­sage of change that I bring, and track re­cord of change that I have will res­on­ate across the cam­paign.”

John­son’s cam­paign team is fa­mil­i­ar with us­ing an un­tra­di­tion­al play­book to pro­pel un­der­dog can­did­ates. His me­dia strategist John Del Cec­ato brain­stormed the mem­or­able ad for New York City May­or Bill de Bla­sio—fea­tur­ing his Afro-wear­ing son, Dante—that fueled his can­did­acy. Del Cec­ato told Na­tion­al Journ­al to ex­pect a sim­il­ar type of un­con­ven­tion­al ad cam­paign to in­tro­duce John­son to voters. An­oth­er cam­paign ad­viser, Doug Ru­bin, helped elect Dev­al Patrick as the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an gov­ernor of Mas­sachu­setts. Like John­son, Patrick was a Har­vard Law School gradu­ate with no polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence pri­or to run­ning — and was ini­tially viewed as a long-shot. He ended up win­ning his primary in a land­slide against the state’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al and a free-spend­ing ven­ture cap­it­al­ist.

John­son will be us­ing a strategy that has been a time-tested for­mula for Demo­crat­ic un­der­dogs: Win over the sub­stan­tial Afric­an-Amer­ic­an vote in a di­verse state, while ex­cit­ing white pro­gress­ives with a story that in­spires en­thu­si­asm. His cam­paign is also bet­ting on the the­ory (cham­pioned by Dav­id Axel­rod) that voters are look­ing for a rem­edy, not a rep­lica from the past. John­son’s wonky nature, soft-spoken de­mean­or, and de­sire for con­sensus couldn’t be more of a con­trast from out­go­ing Gov. Chris Christie.

Out of of­fice, Pres­id­ent Obama has pledged his fo­cus will be on re­build­ing the Demo­crat­ic party, help­ing to build a bench of tal­en­ted of­fice­hold­ers. He’s got an op­por­tun­ity to weigh in right away in a race pit­ting one of his top donors against someone whose rhet­or­ic is re­min­is­cent of his own ideal­ist­ic vis­ion of the past. If the New Jer­sey gov­ernor race was de­cided by résumés, John­son would be con­sidered a top con­tender. But the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment’s ral­ly­ing be­hind Murphy is proof pos­it­ive that money, not mes­sage, of­ten makes the party go round.

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