I get it: Phil Murphy is probably going to win the Democratic Party primary in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race. As Graham Vyse, writing for New Republic tells it, “A Former Goldman Sachs Executive Is Running Away With This Year’s Most Important Race for Democrats.” Citing Quinnipiac poll data, he notes that Murphy was 17 points ahead of John Wisniewski, his closest competitor, as of last month, and even with more than half of voters polled identifying as undecided, that’s a significant margin given the primary election is now less than a month away. Indeed, the consensus opinion from experts seems to be that the race for the Democratic Party nomination is Murphy’s race to lose, and as Vyse muses, there is as much to say for him as there is to say against his rivals.
Though candidates like Wisniewski and Jim Johnson are painting themselves as progressive alternatives, the article tells of Phil Murphy as someone who agrees at least in principle with progressives on a number of issues, including a $15 minimum wage, improved environmental protections, a more progressive tax system, more responsible banking, and stronger gun control regulations. Aside from his stated policy stances, reference is even made to his personality and his willingness to shake hands and take selfies with everyone in a given venue. Moreover, with Democrats in control of both the State Assembly and State Senate, and with party members nationally struggling to win races at the gubernatorial level of late, it is argued that for the Democrats, as “desperate” as they are, and with Murphy being a “sufficiently progressive” candidate, “maybe it’s just as well” that the kind of progressive spirit that won Bernie Sanders such popularity among young voters hasn’t quite taken hold in New Jersey and that being a former Goldman Sachs doesn’t disqualify him from winning the race. A win is a win, right?
Maybe I’m being a bit naïve here, but what exactly does it mean to be “sufficiently progressive?” Does that mean you, say, support only the decriminalization of marijuana as opposed to its legalization? Are you against fracking only on weekends and holidays? Do you think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad but consider NAFTA in its current form “a’ight?” The notion of a candidate being sufficiently progressive is quite a distinction for Graham Vyse and others to be making, not least of which because it is a subjective assessment. By this token, the idea of sufficient progressivism would appear to be dependent, to a large extent, on one’s circumstances and where he or she fares in the polls. During the 2016, Hillary Clinton repeatedly tried to distinguish herself from her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders by referring to herself as a “progressive who gets things done.” In this context, “sufficiently progressive” would appear to mean progressive enough that she can draw enough support from Sanders supporters and independents without alienating prominent donors or losing her the race. Well, um, it was a nice idea while it lasted.
While not of the magnitude as a presidential election, once again, with the New Jersey gubernatorial election, we have a situation where the Democratic Party nomination is all but assured (in this case, for Phil Murphy), and projections indicate Democrats should carry the day come November. Of course, the specifics are a little different with the race for New Jersey’s next governor, as rather than picking a successor to Barack Obama, a man who, through no conscious effort of his own, inspired feelings of division, New Jerseyans will be choosing someone to replace Chris Christie, whose approval ratings are in the dumps, whose legacy is tainted by Bridgegate, who failed badly in his bid to win the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination—spending a good bit of time away from the state of New Jersey in the process, mind you—and who has since become more or less a shill for Donald Trump, the President who evidently denigrates the office he holds at every turn. In addition, New Jersey tends to vote blue, as they did in this most recent presidential election, coming out for Hillary at a clip of around 55% to Trump’s 41%. There’s no chance that a GOP candidate can upset Murphy, right?
Pardon my cynicism, but wasn’t Clinton supposed to be a shoo-in with Trump’s campaign in disarray and with all the things he did and said leading up to the election that were supposed to disqualify him? Sure, FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress about re-opening the investigation into Hillary’s finances and revelations about the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were contributing factors in her electoral defeat. I mean, just ask her—she’ll tell you. Still, complacency from a campaign and its supporters alike can be a difference-maker for the associated candidate, and while Kim Guadagno, the presumptive front-runner on the GOP ticket in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, is not an odds-on favorite based primarily on her association with Christie as his lieutenant governor, to start coasting at this point can be dangerous. We saw the unexpected happen in the United Kingdom when Brexit referendum voters opted—narrowly, but still—to Leave the European Union. We may yet see it if Marine Le Pen manages to upend Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election. To reiterate, the New Jersey gubernatorial race is not of the same echelon as a national election, and the details are different, notably concerning the incumbents in each instance.
All this aside, and even if his primary victory is all but assured, to think that Phil Murphy is unassailable in the general election may be an ultimately specious mentality for Democrats to take in advance of November. Back in January, Alan J. Steinberg, writing for The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey-based newspaper, opined that Kim Guadagno isn’t such a dark horse candidate vis-à-vis Murphy. As Steinberg reasons, “conventional wisdom” dictates that Murphy should win based New Jersey’s history as a Democratic state and the guilty-by-association political albatross hanging around the neck of his likely Republican rival. However, this, Steinberg argues, underestimates the positive assets Guadagno brings to the table as a communicator, as a political candidate aware of the issues facing her state, as a problem-solver, as a professional, and as a public official. Not only this, but Guadagno contrasts on a number of key points with Phil Murphy—and in ways that may work to her benefit.
For one, while Kim Guadagno owns a distinguished record of public service, Phil Murphy does not. As Alan Steinberg profiles, Murphy served without significant achievement in the roles of chair of former governor Richard Codey’s New Jersey Benefit Task Force and as U.S. ambassador to Germany. Indeed, Murphy’s greatest contributions seem to be directly to the Democratic Party in terms of securing donations as DNC National Finance Chair from 2006 to 2009—a role which he began by tapping into his list of contacts at his Ivy League alma maters and Goldman Sachs—and as a personal donor to various Democratic Party committees. That’s not even remotely the same thing. Moreover, while Guadagno may be burdened by her association with Chris Christie, Phil Murphy’s ties to Goldman Sachs stand to hurt him in the arena of public opinion. I’ll let Steinberg explain in his own words:
Murphy’s career successes were achieved at Goldman Sachs, the ultimate symbol of American oligarchy. And it is this perception of “Murphy, the Oligarch” that constitutes his ultimate political albatross, especially when it pertains to lifestyle.
Guadagno, her husband, New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Michael Guadagno, and their three sons live a decidedly nonostentatious middle-class lifestyle. By contrast, Murphy, his wife Tammy and their children, during his tenure as ambassador to Germany, lived a lifestyle right out of the former Robin Leach television series, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” This lifestyle was vividly portrayed by Agustin C. Torres in articles in the Jersey Journal.
We are living in an era of a growing anti-oligarchical mood, as evidenced by the surprising showing of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Murphy is well aware of this. The oligarchy issue could result in a low turnout for Murphy among Sanders voters.
Rank-and-file voters tend not to like rich candidates who throw their money around—who would’ve thought? Certainly, in the eyes of New Jersey progressives, the subject of how Murphy has used his finances has been a bone of contention. Back in June of 2016—almost a year-and-a-half before the gubernatorial election—Murphy’s first television ad began airing in the Garden State. As Democratic rival for the nomination Jim Johnson has highlighted, Murphy has already spent upwards of $10 million on his campaign before even getting to the primary, raising questions about his professed desire to institute campaign finance reform and, by virtue of this, his commitment to progressive values. For those aforementioned Sanders voters, this smacks of a candidate buying the nomination, a sore subject after Hillary Clinton, big-ticket fundraiser in her own right, had a network of support from Democratic leaders and superdelegates at her disposal as the race was just beginning. Even if the charge against Murphy is arguably somewhat overblown given he and Clinton, or for that matter, fellow Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine, are obviously not the same person, can you blame Sanders voters and other progressives for having such a strong reaction when getting money out of politics is one of their top concerns?
As a Sanders voter in my own right, the amount of money injected into the New Jersey gubernatorial race by Phil Murphy for Phil Murphy is not exactly endearing, nor is his legacy as a Goldman Sachs executive. I suppose I feel roughly the same way about this aspect of his personal history in advance of June’s primary as I did Hillary Clinton’s own connections to Goldman Sachs as a paid speaker in advance of the Democratic Party primary last year— a very, very well paid speaker. In fact, I still wonder what was so potentially damning within the transcripts of those speeches that she refuses to release them, like Donald Trump clutching to his tax returns like a baby to its mother. Concerning Murphy specifically, I also find it suspicious that various political and non-political—well, at least not expressly political—organizations have apparently been lining up for months to shower him with their endorsements. As with Clinton, there never seems to be proof of a quid pro quo, and in Murphy’s case, I don’t know that he did or even would donate to these organizations from his personal wealth for the purpose of securing much-desired public support. If anything, perhaps this says more about the state’s political landscape than it does about Phil Murphy, though to be fair, it’s not like he seems intent on bucking the trend.
And yet, over and over again, I keep hearing about how Phil Murphy is a good guy. In a November 2016 New York Times profile on Murphy written by David W. Chen and cited by Graham Vyse in his own article, he is depicted as a candidate who “oozes affability, remembers the tiniest details about people he has met and quickly owns up to his missteps.” He also has been engaging as a participant in town-hall-style political forums, actively involved in his campaign’s canvassing efforts across New Jersey, and the kind of guy who will shake hands with as many people as possible before walking out the door. He’s punctual. He worked his way up from a low household income. He has the backing of both Cory Booker and Robert Menendez. Maybe I’m wrong about Murphy. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Democratic groups in the state of New Jersey have so enthusiastically and so rapidly coalesced in backing him. Maybe I’m just being cynical for the sake of being cynical.
And yet. Irrespective of his finances, his history with Goldman Sachs, or his outward personality, I still have reservations about Phil Murphy as a candidate, and I’ll (finally) tell you why. Much as I’ve wondered how much national Democratic Party leadership “gets it” when it comes to owning up to strategic miscues (see also “Hillary Clinton, 2016 presidential campaign”) and forging a path forward for the party structurally (see also “Debbie Wasserman Schultz on grassroots candidates”), I wonder whether Murphy truly appreciates the unique challenges that face the state of New Jersey, and with this, whether he’s even running in a way that acknowledges he is campaigning for the seat of governor, and not something larger as his would-be predecessor Chris Christie did.
From that very first TV spot which aired back in June 2016, entitled “Honor,” Phil Murphy’s flair for the dramatic shines through. Standing in a small room full of people of different backgrounds, he talks about living paycheck to paycheck before putting himself through college, building a career, and learning how economies grow and create jobs. So he is running for governor of the state of New Jersey to reward the hard work of its constituents with better jobs, a higher minimum wage, and equal pay for equal work. And before proclaiming that he will have your back as New Jersey’s governor, he firmly boasts that he doesn’t owe the insiders anything. That’s Phil Murphy, progressive champion and political outsider for you. Please, please—all this applause is embarrassing!
Since then, though, the ads have continued, but with all the same fanfare and stock footage of smiling, industrious people, and yet few specifics on what he would accomplish beyond the platitudes he has already espoused. Special interest politics has failed our state. We’re going to grow the middle class. We need an economy that works for all of us. Make millionaires pay their fair share. Stop hedge fund managers from ripping us off. Affordable college. This is all great, but how? Beyond the formation of a public bank in the state of New Jersey, very little is said about what particular policies Murphy would effect if he were governor of the Garden State. The only thing I’m certain of is that Phil Murphy doesn’t owe the insiders anything, and that he’ll have our back—and that’s only because it has been drilled into my head with every commercial.
When he’s not not giving specifics, meanwhile, Phil Murphy is spending advertising money not to denounce his biggest Republican rival or even his biggest Democratic rival, but Donald Trump. Now, don’t get me wrong—I enjoy a good Trump-bashing as much as anyone; in fact, I do it pretty regularly on this blog. Still, I’m not running for governor—Phil Murphy is. As such, I feel like he should be speaking to Chris Christie’s failed leadership more than anyone else’s, if he indeed references anyone’s record outside his own. Here’s Exhibit B, a spot titled “Betrayed.” Yes, Donald Trump’s ramped-up immigration enforcement is a blight on our nation. Yes, “alternative facts” are stupid. Yes, deep down, I believe we are “better than this.” Unless we are ardent Trump supporters, however, we already know and subscribe to these ideas. Murphy isn’t telling us anything new, nor is he describing anything any other Democratic governor wouldn’t have to deal with. And he’s not talking enough about certain issues that are particularly relevant to New Jersey voters, including the serious pension shortfall facing the state, concerns about our transportation infrastructure, funding for schools and higher education alongside debates about school choice and testing, and the ever-present preoccupation with property taxes, consistently the highest in the nation. So, while Phil Murphy is busy defending us from the machinations of Donald Trump, who’s actually going to be fixing the problems he inherits from the Christie administration? The office of governor is a full-time job, in case you are unaware, Mr. Murphy, sir.
See—this is where not having a more competitive primary is potentially very dangerous, and beckons genuine reform. Democratic leaders in New Jersey, as they did for Hillary Clinton in the general election, view the quick consolidation of support across the state as an asset, as it shows a sign of strength for the party. For a significant portion of New Jerseyans, however, this is evidence of a political “machine” and of a “rigged” system, and this threatens to turn off these valuable voters for this election, if not longer. In turn, if Democrats and independents don’t come out in force for Murphy come November, and the supposed wide margin between him and Kim Guadagno or another GOP candidate doesn’t turn out to be the blowout many experts anticipate it will be, this “coasting until after the primaries” strategy could backfire. At any rate, it risks the prospect of starting to undo the havoc wrought by Chris Christie. You know, assuming there is a legitimate plan to do this beyond not owing the outsiders anything and having our back.
To bring this to a close, and to repeat, Phil Murphy may be more than the sum of his wealth and his experience in the financial sector, and may have a legitimate plan to deal with the various crises facing the state of New Jersey. In spite of what Graham Vyse and like-minded individuals may insist about him being “sufficiently progressive,” though, and as much as the Democrats could use a win at the state level, victory isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all when the wrong policies may not only be detrimental to voters, but may cost the party in the months and years to come. Jon Corzine’s tenure as governor ended in ignominy and scandal, paving the way for loudmouth Chris Christie to swagger his way to the head of New Jersey’s government. Chris Christie, given his obsequious loyalty to Donald Trump and the sheer brazenness behind the bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, is likewise carrying out the end of his term under a dark cloud of disgrace, and a bigger cloud at that. Eventually, Murphy is going to have show us something beyond rehearsed lines from his commercials and that cheesy smile he forces from time to time. If he doesn’t, he may find it hard to govern—if he even it makes it that far.