Phil Murphy is the kind of guy who would easily fit in at the Navesink Country Club, dispensing advice about the stock market to other one-percenters who might be in his golf foursome.
Or he could just as easily fit in at the Embassy of the United States in Berlin’s Pariser Platz, holding court on the latest developments in German politics.
But where you might not expect the former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Ambassador to Germany to fit in is an African Methodist Episcopal Church on Martin Luther King Blvd. in Newark’s predominantly black Central Ward.
But there he was one day recently, standing before a group of nearly 60 black ministers as the presumed Democratic gubernatorial candidate, tackling tough questions ranging from the future of the underfunded state pension program, education in urban settings, including the ongoing educational policy battle between the role of public schools and charter schools, as well as the impending return of the Newark public school system from state to local control.
Presiding Elder Larry Dixon of the Atlantic City District of the AME Church leads prayer at Saint James AME Church in Newark, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy met with nearly 60 black ministers recently. The Rev. Ronald Slaughter (far left) and Bishop Jethro James (far right).
The Rev. Ronald Slaughter, the pastor of Saint James AME who organized the gathering, said he was impressed with Murphy’s ability to communicate so easily with the clergy.
"The man can relate," Slaughter said. "I think he’s genuine, I think he’s sincere, and I think he’s going to follow through if he’s elected governor. I think he’s going to be different from other politicians we’ve seen and keep his word, which is very important."
For Democrats like Murphy, running for statewide office demands a careful cultivation of the urban base. That means countless meet and greets and town halls in cities like Newark, in front of groups like African Americans, Hispanics, and Portuguese.
Murphy, a Harvard educated, Irish-American from Boston, has a natural comfort level, it seems, no matter where he is campaigning.
"He was very comfortable,” said Carmen Cortinas, a Cuban-born, longtime resident of Newark’s Ironbound, where Murphy recently held a town hall meeting at Sport Club Português. “And don't forget a previous Irish guy that resonated with everybody. That was John F. Kennedy. You can't get more Irish than that.”
Cortinas, a retired teacher who came to the meeting with her daughter and fellow public school teacher, Amanda, said she had never heard of Murphy before the town hall meeting.
"I was impressed that he thought enough of the Ironbound to come see what we need, and that he thought enough of the governor's position that he started his campaign early," Cortinas said. “One of his main priorities is education and the teachers' pension fund. The state has to meet its commitments, and Murphy seems committed to doing this."
The residents of the Ironbound are particularity committed to their neighborhood, a pride that is as palpable as the sounds of spoken Portuguese and Spanish heard in the streets.
The close-knit Newark East Ward community is far different demographically from the Irish-American precincts of Murphy's native Boston, but Murphy stresses his own humble beginnings as part of his stump speeches.
Growing up outside of Boston, he says his family was "middle class on a good day," but that his parents' push for the power of education helped Murphy and his three older siblings achieve their individual versions of the archetypal American Dream.
Murphy, 59, won a scholarship to and graduated from Harvard, got an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, then spent 23-years at Goldman Sachs until retiring a decade ago.
Murphy subsequently served as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee and was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, where he served from 2009 to 2013.
Murphy managed to get out so far in front of his potential rivals for the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary race that he seemingly secured the nomination earlier this month.
Potential rivals Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Senate President Steve Sweeney bowed out before they ever officially entered the primary sweepstakes, although other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, such as Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Tom Byrne, son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne, are still in the running.
Phil Murphy takes a question from an audience member at a recent town hall meeting at Sport Club Português in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood.
Since declaring his candidacy in May, Murphy has spent a lot of time campaigning in Brick City. He has hosted dozens of town hall meetings, personally knocked on hundreds of doors and visited Newark so many times that natives started to wonder if he was getting breakfast at Vonda's Kitchen on West Kinney Street every day.
Murphy's omnipresence in Newark, the political heart of Democratic vote-rich Essex County, played a critical role in his stunning recent endorsement surge in several key heavily Democratic New Jersey counties, including Essex.
While Murphy and his GOP rival will work to attract independent suburban voters as the November 2017 general election approaches, for now, Murphy is working on shoring up his base, the core urban voters that make up a large percentage of registered Democrats.
Out of a total population of approximately 8.9 million people in New Jersey, 19.7 percent are Hispanic or Latino, while 14.8 percent are African-American, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. In Newark, out of a total of approximately 281,000 people, 52.4 percent are African American, while Hispanics or Latinos make up 33.8 percent of the population.
As for whether Murphy can ultimately be comfortable with all of the concerns of the Garden State's African Americans, the Rev. Slaughter, a clergy member and therefore a part of one of the most powerful, political and social forces in his community, was optimistic.
“The advantage that Ambassador Murphy has is that this man actually has a plan, and it’s not just a business plan,” Slaughter said. “He’s shown a willingness to come into the minority communities and share his policy ideas.”
Slaughter said Murphy worshipped in Saint James Church at its Wednesday noon service immediately before he announced he was running for governor on that same day in May. It’s that kind of attention to the urban community that could pay dividends down the road for Newark.
“We need a governor that doesn’t just use us at voting time,” Slaughter said. “We need a governor, and an administration, that is present and focused for their entire time in office -- a governor who is sensitive and concerned about the voices and needs of the marginalized and overlooked population of this state."