Can a Goldman Guy Preempt the Sanders Wing?

Phil Murphy tries to avoid the fat-cat label in the New Jersey governor race.

Democratic New Jersey governor candidate Phil Murphy
Chet Susslin
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
March 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

As un­likely as it seems, Phil Murphy, a former Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­ut­ive and Demo­crat­ic fun­draiser, is cam­paign­ing to be New Jer­sey’s next gov­ernor by ap­peal­ing to the party’s Left.

Murphy, the front-run­ner to re­place New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie in this Novem­ber’s elec­tion, is mak­ing the case that he is not the Daddy War­bucks fig­ure de­scribed by his op­pon­ents. The former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee fin­ance chair and bank­ing ex­ec­ut­ive por­trays him­self as the pop­u­list an­swer to angst about cur­rent polit­ics in Trenton and Wash­ing­ton.

“This is a mo­ment for rad­ic­al sur­gery, rad­ic­al re­ima­gin­ing of the state,” Murphy said in an in­ter­view.

Murphy’s ad­vant­age in the June primary comes from his fin­an­cial re­sources (he’s donated $10 mil­lion of the $21 mil­lion raised by his cam­paign) and en­dorse­ments from county party lead­ers, who de­term­ine fa­vor­able place­ment on the bal­lot for the low-turnout June primary. But the self-de­scribed “proud, lifelong, pro­gress­ive, blue-blue-blue Demo­crat” also hopes to con­vince skep­tic­al voters, in­clud­ing those who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’s pres­id­en­tial run, that he has the “proof points” to back up his pro­gress­ive can­did­acy.

“Listen, did I work on Wall Street? You bet,” Murphy said. But, he em­phas­ized, grow­ing up he slept in his par­ents’ bed­room be­cause “we had so little money” and he “worked il­leg­ally as a dish­wash­er” as a teen­ager be­fore pay­ing his own way through col­lege. (Of course, War­bucks came from mod­est be­gin­nings, too.)

Murphy’s cam­paign had spent over $10.7 mil­lion as of Decem­ber, ac­cord­ing to his cam­paign’s latest quarterly fil­ing with the New Jer­sey Elec­tion Law En­force­ment Com­mis­sion. But a Janu­ary poll of the primary by Fair­leigh Dickin­son Uni­versity showed Murphy lead­ing with only 17 per­cent of the vote, tied with “Someone Else” and with all oth­er po­ten­tial chal­lengers trail­ing.

That gives hope to Demo­crats like John Wis­niewski. The as­sembly­man, with the help of Sanders al­lies and a sup­port­ing su­per PAC, is or­gan­iz­ing the type of shoe-leath­er cam­paign his staff hopes will over­come scant fin­ances and poor bal­lot po­s­i­tion, said cam­paign man­ager Robert Beck­er. Wis­niewski’s aides ar­gue that Murphy isn’t the pro­gress­ive he claims to be, point­ing to a state com­mis­sion Murphy chaired that, among oth­er things, would cut be­ne­fits to pub­lic em­ploy­ees.

Wis­niewski doesn’t have the anti-Murphy field to him­self. Jim John­son, a former Treas­ury un­der­sec­ret­ary, has said he raised enough money to qual­i­fy for pub­lic fin­an­cing. And state Sen. Ray Les­niak said he de­cided to seek the nom­in­a­tion after see­ing a “nar­row open­ing” for an “is­sue-based, grass­roots” cam­paign, he said in an in­ter­view.

“It ap­pears very clear to me that he’s plat­eaued,” Les­niak said of Murphy. “He could spend $20 mil­lion, $30 mil­lion, and his mes­sage—and him as a mes­sen­ger—is just not res­on­at­ing with the voters.”

Murphy isn’t ig­nor­ing his primary chal­lenges. His team has dis­trib­uted mail­ers at­tack­ing Wis­niewski’s re­cord on gun con­trol, and he boasts the en­dorse­ment of Bernie Sanders’s son, Levi Sanders. Sen. Sanders an­nounced in Janu­ary that he wouldn’t en­dorse Wis­niewski, his former state cam­paign chair­man. And like Wis­niewski, Murphy con­siders his op­pon­ent in­au­thent­ic.

“I can’t ac­cept any in­siders in the New Jer­sey scene—giv­en the state of our state—claim­ing a mantle of an out­sider,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s op­pon­ents aren’t just com­pet­ing with Murphy for at­ten­tion and vo­lun­teers. “The lib­er­al side of the party is frac­tured among a lot of dif­fer­ent ef­forts,” in­clud­ing call­ing for con­gres­sion­al town halls and con­duct­ing protests against Pres­id­ent Trump, said pro­gress­ive act­iv­ist Alex Law.

“Just, quite frankly, at this point there just isn’t enough time to reach enough people … even if these can­did­ates had mil­lions of dol­lars to spend, which they do not,” said Law, who lost a primary against in­cum­bent Demo­crat­ic Rep. Don­ald Nor­cross last year.

Murphy and his op­pon­ents will need to air ads in the ex­pens­ive New York City and Phil­adelphia me­dia mar­kets if they hope to reach voters. Their main tar­get is the un­de­cided-voter bloc that com­prised half of re­spond­ents in the same Janu­ary FDU poll.

“As of this stage of the cam­paign the only people who are pay­ing at­ten­tion are the few thou­sand party lead­ers and act­iv­ists,” said Patrick Mur­ray, dir­ect­or of the New Jer­sey-based Mon­mouth Uni­versity poll.

Murphy still has work to do to shore up his left flank. Pro­gress­ive act­iv­ist Jim Keady, a two-time con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate, sees Murphy as the de facto front-run­ner by vir­tue of his or­gan­iz­a­tion­al head start. And while he said he’s not per­son­ally “troubled” by Murphy, the former Sanders DNC del­eg­ate is wary of an­oth­er “coron­a­tion,” es­pe­cially of someone with Murphy’s résumé.

“That is one of the chal­lenges Phil Murphy faces: … Is he will­ing to re­ject his past?” Keady asked of his bank­ing ca­reer.

Murphy con­ceded that his past places him just two de­grees of sep­ar­a­tion from the same White House that he lam­basts for fa­vor­ing the “very well-off … at the ex­pense of the work­ing men and wo­men.” For in­stance, he worked with Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Steve Mnuchin and Na­tion­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil Dir­ect­or Gary Cohn “to great­er or less­er ex­tent” at Gold­man Sachs.

But he op­poses them on Trump’s agenda, es­pe­cially when it comes to weak­en­ing con­sumer fin­an­cial pro­tec­tions.

“Frankly, I don’t care about their qual­i­fic­a­tions. It’s just wrong,” Murphy said. “They’re on the wrong side of his­tory.”

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