A wealthy former Wall Street executive has poured millions of dollars into his gubernatorial campaign, winning endorsements ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary while drawing searing populist attacks from his rivals over his career with the global finance firm Goldman Sachs. Phil Murphy’s rivals draw comparisons between him and former Gov. Jon Corzine, also a former Goldman executive, alleging the more than $15 million Murphy gave to his campaign bought support from the state’s powerful county political bosses and voters. The race to take the New Jersey governor’s office back from Republican Chris Christie comes as Democrats nationally weigh whether distancing themselves from Wall Street will help them counter President Donald Trump and his populist Republican allies.
Murphy faces five Democratic challengers, including two state lawmakers and a former federal prosecutor, in the primary. Five Republicans, including Christie’s lieutenant governor and a state lawmaker, are running in their own primary.
The winners will face off in a November election that will decide who replaces the term-limited Christie.
Murphy is blurring the line between establishment and insurgent just as Democrats reckon with whether their best candidates should come from within or outside the traditional party structure. He says he’s proud of his time at the bank, but he notes it’s just one facet of his background. He also served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany and was the finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean. ”The choice? Insider Wall Street politics or main street New Jersey values,” says a voiceover in an ad from Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, which compares Murphy and Corzine to three Goldman alumni who work in Trump’s administration.
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Jim Johnson, a former treasury official under President Bill Clinton and an ex-federal prosecutor, has hit the Goldman connection as well. ”What kind of party are we?” Johnson asked in a recent tweet, contrasting a timeline of his career with Murphy’s, which spanned more than two decades at Goldman, including stints in Frankfurt, Germany, and Hong Kong. Johnson says Murphy’s political contributions thanks to wealth earned at Goldman are a poor fit for Democrats. ”It’s not just having the right policies it’s actually having a strong political culture to have that strong fight,” Johnson said. Christie also took a swipe at Murphy on Thursday, telling reporters that Murphy is ”no different from the guy over there,” while pointing to a Corzine portrait on a wall. ”The only difference between Phil Murphy and Jon Corzine is that Phil Murphy doesn’t have a beard,” he said. ”… They both bought the nomination, they both have no experience.”
Murphy acted this week to curb the claims he’s dousing the race in cash to buy votes, promising he’d abide by spending limits in the general election. ”Progressive values are not a book that I have to read or an abstract concept,” said Murphy, who backs a host of liberal issues, including a $15 minimum hourly wage. ”I’ve lived it my entire life.” The disconnect between progressivism and a career on Wall Street might resonate with some Democratic voters, but not enough to shape the primary’s outcome in a race that will likely have low turnout, said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics. He says only a sliver of the party cares about that.
And Murphy isn’t the only Democratic candidate with money. Wisniewski and state Sen. Ray Lesniak have operated law firms that profited from public contracts, and Johnson worked at a major New York law firm for more than a decade.
All four of the leading Democrats have jockeyed to move to the left, with Murphy and Wisniewski in particular eager to assume the mantle of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist who lost the 2016 Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton. Sanders relentlessly attacked Clinton for her connections to Goldman, including paid speeches and fundraisers. He also ripped Obama in April after he accepted a $400,000 speaking fee for a Wall Street conference. Sanders has remained neutral in the New Jersey race, but his former campaign manager backed Wisniewski, who led Sanders’ campaign in New Jersey. Sanders’ son Levi Sanders, a legal advocate in New England and former senior adviser to his father, has endorsed Murphy.
”You can’t just say that just because somebody was something they can’t change their views or perspective,” Levi Sanders said. ”If you look objectively speaking what Phil represents, he represents what progressive values are all about.” Murphy is leading in polls by double digits, and the endorsements from county party officials are expected to give him a considerable boost. Even so, the populist attacks against him have resonated with some voters.
Elizabeth Meyer, 40, of Branchburg, represents the kind of voters Democrats hope to energize this year. The Democrat, who says she was unengaged with politics until Trump’s election, said Murphy’s level of spending worries her and she plans to vote for Johnson.