In a speech focused on economics, 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate Phil Murphy hearkened back to Newark's vaunted industrial past to try to light the way to a better business future for New Jersey.
"From Thomas Edison to Bell Labs to biotech and life sciences, our state has been the birth place of inventions that have changed the course of human society," said Murphy, alluding to the famed American inventor who achieved some of his first innovations in Newark during a speech Thursday held on the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the city's University Heights neighborhood. "Somewhere in New Jersey, perhaps on this campus, is the next Wizard of Menlo Park."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy and Essex County Chair LeRoy Jones Jr., who will be instrumental in deciding who gets the coveted line A in Essex County in the Democratic primary next June.
It was no accident that Murphy, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and the sole declared Democratic gubernatorial candidate, chose NJIT, which produces approximately 25 percent of the Garden State's engineers, to roll out a nascent plan to drive New Jersey's economy forward and provide relief for the state's beleaguered middle class.
"[I have] a vision for a dynamic, STEM-driven economy, built on world-class universities and wholly modern infrastructure," said Murphy in reference to the science, technology, engineering and math fields that he believes will create greater job opportunities and grow New Jersey's economy.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, tried to take on a more populist stance with a proposal geared more toward Main Street than Wall Street: the creation of a public bank, owned by the people of New Jersey, designed to make investments in and for New Jersey.
"Instead of investing $1.5 billion in foreign banks, we will invest in New Jersey’s main streets - in our students, in our small businesses, and in our infrastructure," Murphy said. "It will provide capital to communities that, for too long, have been ignored by the financial system, whether they be women-owned businesses, businesses owned by people of color, or small businesses with big ideas who have up to now only had doors slammed in their faces."
Murphy noted Newark's advantageous geographic location close to New York City as a constant positive economic factor for New Jersey's largest city. He also pointed to local institutions such as City National Bank, a Broad Street fixture that is the only black-owned bank in the state, as a critical provider of capital to small businesses in Newark.
Sitting among the crowd assembled for Murphy's speech, a living Newark institution drove the conversation away from business and back to politics, specifically the looming June 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary fight.
"I've had dinner, lunch and breakfast with [Jersey City Mayor] Steve Fulop. I've had dinner, lunch and breakfast with [Senate President] Steve Sweeney. I met with all of them, including Mr. Murphy," said Sharpe James, the still popular former Newark mayor who recently declared his support for Murphy, listing two other potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
"The only one who didn't talk just about winning, but about how to make New Jersey better, was Phil Murphy," James said. "I didn't stay in office for decades because I was a name. It's because I would climb poles, knock on doors, lick stamps and walk every street and block. I believe in the old-school, door-to-door campaign style. We are going to motivate people to get out in the streets again. And I'm to work every block and every ward of Newark."
Fulop, who has hinted at, but has yet to declare a potential Democratic gubernatorial run, has been politically bruised in recent days.
Last week, Murphy's campaign filed an eight-page complaint with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission accusing Fulop of using his mayoral campaign funds to run for governor.
Days later, a meeting organized by supporters of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a staunch ally of Fulop, meant to encourage Fulop's potential run for governor was canceled only one day after Murphy mentioned the meeting of Baraka supporters in his ELEC complaint against Fulop.
Off to the side of the audience, Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones Jr. stood and watched Murphy's speech. Newark is the political heart of Essex County, which is often the source of the most Democratic votes in statewide elections.
"I believe that Essex is the linchpin that will open up [a primary victory] for the next Democratic governor," said Jones, moments before Murphy and Jones exchanged both smiles and handshakes. "And whoever wins Newark wins Essex."
Murphy corroborated Jones' evidence of Essex's exceptional electoral importance in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"There is no question that Essex County, and Newark in particular, are central to any political aspirations that anybody has got in this state, period," said Murphy, who campaigned in downtown Newark and the city's Ironbound neighborhood last week. "This is a county, and a city, of enormous political consequence."
One of Edison's inventions, the incandescent light bulb, still light up the world's streets. In New Jersey's political world, the spotlight is turning to the streets of Newark, the capital of Essex County, the nexus of the primary battle to come in June.
Murphy was asked why, up to this point, he is the only candidate who has officially stepped on to this critical political battlefield.
"I'd like you to ask them that question and give me a shout and let me know," Murphy said before he sped off to his next campaign stop. "I don't know."