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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