During the weeks when he reaped the whirlwind of a political domino effect that left him as the odds-on favorite in New Jersey’s 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary race, Phil Murphy followed the advice given to his fellow Boston Irish-American, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, around the time of his inauguration in 1961.
“You’re something of Irish and something of Harvard," the famed American poet Robert Frost said to JFK. "Let me advise you, be more Irish than Harvard.”
Murphy, a Harvard grad who grew up just outside of Boston, did precisely that as the Goldman Sachs alumni overcame the elitist stigma of Wall Street to win a populist victory with a stunning coup de grace, executed in the streets of Newark and surrounding Essex County, in record time.
Murphy did what Frost asked JFK to do: he got his Irish up.
It’s easy to dismiss Murphy as just another Jon Corzine, the one-term governor and Goldman Sachs alum who critics say used his fortune to buy his way into New Jersey politics.
But to do so would underestimate Murphy’s considerable charm and work ethic that allowed him to win over key supporters early on, like former Newark Mayor Sharpe James.
Phil Murphy on the steps of the Essex County Historic Courthouse accepts the endorsement of Essex County's Democratic political establishment. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, with arms folded, stands behind him. Photo Credit: Mark J. Bonamo.
During town hall meetings in Newark and other locales in Essex County, Murphy exhibited the innate Irish gift of the gab used to great effect by generations of Irish-American politicians before him.
“All the other candidates wanted to know was how can we trick people into voting for them,” James told NewarkInc.com before a Murphy town hall meeting in Newark's Central Ward last month, noting that he met with all of the other potential 2017 Democratic primary candidates before deciding to back Murphy.
“Phil Murphy was the only candidate who said that he was concerned about making New Jersey and Newark better,” James said. “He's accessible. You can go talk to him. And he's here."
Murphy was never the first choice among those in New Jersey who decide such things. Many of the county chairs, the elected officials, the party bosses and the donors had supported or were somewhere along in the process of supporting either Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop or state Senate President Steve Sweeney, although neither had formally announced a run for governor.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the recipient of Fulop’s support in Newark’s 2014 mayoral election, put his chips all in with Fulop. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, given his close alliance with South Jersey power broker George Norcross, was believed to be pushing his chips toward Sweeney.
Fulop, who was elected mayor of the state’s second largest city in 2013, had been working the rubber chicken circuit around the state for the better part of a year. The young and talented mayor was considered by many to be the future of the Democratic Party in New Jersey.
But, for reasons still unknown, Fulop unexpectedly withdrew his name from gubernatorial contention, creating a domino effect that cleared the path for Murphy.
While there are other Democratic candidates still mulling a run, including Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Tom Byrne, the son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne, Murphy is a lock for the Democratic nomination, barring any unforeseen disasters to that would derail his campaign.
The story of how that happened is more than just the simple tale of a guy with loads of money buying an election.
Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy. Photo credit: Mark J. Bonamo.
It all began when Murphy and his wife, Tammy, sat down in his Monmouth County home with Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill.
Gill, 41, who also serves as chair of the Montclair Democrats, held a variety of key staff positions for several prominent New Jersey Democrats over the years, including U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) and the late U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), In 2014, Gill managed former Newark mayor and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker's (D-NJ) reelection campaign, and later served as a senior advisor to Booker.
Money certainly helps and Murphy used the $10 million he loaned his campaign wisely. He hired a slew of veteran, yet young, political operatives from around New Jersey, snatching them up before Fulop or Sweeney could come up with counter-offers.
Guided by Gill, Murphy's campaign crew includes well-known Garden State political personnel such as operatives Dave Parano, Mike Delamater, Jenny Davis and Julie Roginsky among others, as well as rising policy guru Matthew Platkin.
Gill conceived Murphy's early campaign launch in May as a way to gain better name recognition for his as yet little-known candidate. Gill then shopped Murphy around to his network of insiders who collectively serve as New Jersey’s Democratic establishment.
Murphy worked the backrooms and the main events, all the while with Gill in tow. He attended the New Jersey League of Municipalities meeting in November, even hosting an event with rocker Jon Bon Jovi. He rode the fabled New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Train to Washington in February, and was omnipresent at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, rubbing elbows with the rank and file at late night after-parties.
Murphy also launched a shoe-leather campaign that included walking the streets of Newark, meeting with shop owners and restaurateurs as if he were running for mayor of a small town. During one stretch in early September, Murphy made three campaign stops in Newark within 13 days, leading some locals to wonder when Murphy was going to take up residence in downtown Newark's refurbished Robert Treat Hotel.
Murphy’s decision to concentrate so heavily on Newark was pivotal.
With the largest number of Democratic votes in New Jersey, Newark is a highly sought after prize for any Democratic candidate.
In 2000, U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli dropped his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination when then-Mayor James threw his support to Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, who went on to win the primary and was elected governor in 2001, before resigning in disgrace. McGreevey reincarnated as one of Fulop’s inner circle of advisors.
While Fulop did have the support of the city’s current mayor, Baraka does not enjoy the same influence that James wielded at his peak, and so, Baraka’s endorsement did little to help Fulop lock down Newark.
The city’s North Ward votes were tied up with DiVincenzo and in the city’s Central Ward, Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, joined James in pledging her support to Murphy.
Newark was split and so it was still very much in play.
Once Fulop dropped out, it seemed for a brief moment that the race would be Sweeney’s to lose. Norcross made a series of calls to insiders in critical New Jersey counties such as Essex to ascertain support for Sweeney.
When Sweeney didn’t gain traction, those who sought to stop Murphy sought to enlist U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who Garden State Democrats generally believe would clear the field if he parachuted into the 2017 Democratic primary battle.
When asked by NewarkInc.com following an appearance last Wednesday at a press conference in Newark if he was about to run for governor, Booker, a celebrated surrogate speaker for Hillary Clinton, laughed out loud as if he just heard the comic, crazed rantings of a political court jester.
“I am focused like a laser beam on the 2016 elections,” Booker said before he escaped the pack of journalists surrounding him, got into his waiting black SUV and sped off to his next event. “We shouldn't be distracted.”
Another phone call was made to DiVincenzo. NewarkInc.com asked the Essex County Executive before the same Wednesday press conference if he was running for governor in 2017, and, if not, who he was supporting.
DiVincenzo, who also has worked closely with the now highly unpopular outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie, offered no comment at that time.
It was soon very apparent that the clock for Sweeney, who has also worked closely with Christie on such highly controversial issues as state pension and health care benefit reform, had run out. As a result, there was nowhere for Norcross to go to stop Murphy.
Sweeney announced last Thursday that he would not seek the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
On Friday, just about every Democrat in Essex County, including Baraka, stood in front of the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark to offer their support for Murphy.
"I supported Fulop because I'm loyal. He didn't have to help me in 2014. And I live and die by the decisions that I make," said Baraka, who can be seen standing behind Murphy at the press conference with arms crossed. "I always thought that Murphy was a likable individual and that his policies were close to mine in terms of what I believed and fought for.”
For DiVincenzo, the relief that comes from the party unifying behind Murphy is clearly welcomed, considering what could have been: a contested primary that would have put his legislators in peril.
“The chairman always said from the beginning that Essex County was going to be united,” added DiVincenzo. “And that's what happened today.”
Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones Jr., who walked a perilously thin line for much of the last year, said he is comfortable with Murphy as the nominee.
"It's been a long time that I've been talking to Phil Murphy," said Jones. “I feel good about his vision and his desire to be governor. Things happened that expedited this, and we never expected to be in this position at this early stage. But it's the right time and the right decision. And it's time to elect a good guy like Phil Murphy as the governor of this state."
Another lifetime Essex Irishman and key early Murphy supporter was not present at the endorsement ceremony. Yet from a distance, his Irish eyes were smiling anyway.
“People call Phil Murphy just another rich guy, but he wasn't raised that way. His family had no real money, and he got a scholarship to Harvard,” said Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor and senate president and a member of Team Murphy's kitchen cabinet.
“Sure he made money, but don't hold it against him,” Codey said. “A guy can try to buy votes, but you can't buy every individual. He's been doing all those town hall meetings around the state, including in Newark and Essex County, to engage voters on the issues. And after Fulop dropped out, all of that good will that has been generated kicked in.”
Lionel Leach, president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1039, expressed his belief that the entire state's labor unions will now coalesce behind Murphy.
An Irvington native, Leach added that he believed that the importance of Essex County in Murphy's rise should truly focus on the impact made by the county's capital and New Jersey's largest city.
“This is Essex County's moment, but more importantly, this is Newark's moment,” Leach said. “At the end of the day, Newark is not the capital of New Jersey, but it's the capital for politics in New Jersey. And it all started here.”