Murphy walks Newark's streets as 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary race heats up

Phil Murphy stepped inside Dan's Hats and Caps on Branford Place in downtown Newark on Thursday afternoon to do two things. 

The former U.S. Ambassador to Germany bought a classic Kangol cap, a hat more associated with movie star Samuel L. Jackson than the Irish tweed style favored by his ancestors. As he tried it on, the sole declared 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate asked his potential constituents to back his run to Trenton.

"We've got to grow the economy," said Murphy, who wore the hat during his tour of New Jersey's largest city as part of his shoe-leather campaign effort. "I wish there was one signing ceremony on the deck of an aircraft carrier to do it, but there isn't. But that begins in the big urban centers. That begins in Newark."

The former Goldman Sachs executive toured a series of small businesses throughout Newark, explaining how a product of Wall Street can relate to Main Street.

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy tries on a cap at Dan's Hats and Caps on Branford Place in Newark. (Photo by Mark J. Bonamo)

"Small business owners, when you add them together, are overwhelmingly the biggest employers in the state," Murphy said. "We have to make it easier for these small business owners to start their companies and have a state environment in which that can happen."

But to build New Jersey businesses, Murphy was not sold on an often-used tool to spur urban economic development - tax abatements.

"I get worried about giving them out. I think unfortunately in other cities we've gone hog wild, and in many cases they come at the expense of the rest of the city," Murphy said. "The need for city services as cities grow is going to go up, not down. Somebody has to pay for that."

Education is another critical issue in Newark's future growth and development. With Newark on the verge of regaining local control of its schools 21 years after the state takeover of its school district, Murphy, who has publicly stated his support for public schools, said he would support the restoration of local control if elected governor. He also touched upon a key factor in the often contentious debate about the future of urban education: the growth of charter schools.

"I have always understood the principles of charter schools, but it's gotten into an insane us-versus-them thing, and I'm not a buyer into that," Murphy said. "I want to understand the funding and the governance [of charter schools]. But the backbone of America is public education. That's the road to a better future, whether its Newark or anywhere."

Murphy's road trip took him to Mompou Tapas Wine Bar and Lounge on Ferry Street in the Ironbound section of Newark. Steve Yglesias, Mompou's owner, noted what Newark needs to grow economically. He hopes Murphy's business background could help the city move forward.

"Every town has slightly different rules and regulations that you need to follow. We need a more cohesive plan for all municipalities," Yglesias, the president of the Ironbound Business Improvement District, said. "If you're a small business owner, I can't tell you how difficult it is to leave your business to handle the types of things that should be handled quickly."

Murphy came to Newark at the moment that the city could become the nexus of the 2017 gubernatorial primary campaign. Newark is the political heart of Essex County, which is often the source of the most Democratic votes in statewide elections.

Two of the potential 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidates have powerful allies in the city. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop has forged an strong alliance with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo is a longtime ally of South Jersey power broker George Norcross, the primary backer of Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

Yet Murphy has some potential Essex County supporters of his own waiting in the wings, including State Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor and senate president and State Senator Ronald L. Rice. Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill is a campaign consultant for Murphy. Sharpe James, the still popular former mayor of Newark and Newark City Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins are also ready to help guide Murphy to victory.

Murphy also stopped at BCT Partners, a strategic management, technology, and organizational development consulting firm with offices inside the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Enterprise Development Center, chatting with CEO Randal Pinkett and employers about business development in Newark.

Back on the street, he took time to throw a jab at his potential rival Fulop on the day that 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.

"If someone is going to go after this, it'll be me," Murphy said. "We need authenticity and transparency. Let's all be up front."

At Dan's, owner Daniel Phillips 2nd spoke out about two issues, one statewide in scope, the other more local.

"We've got to fix taxes," said Phillips, who pays over $20,000 in property taxes every year. "And we've got to remove the black eye from the city of Newark. It's not all that crime you see on TV. It doesn't even happen a lot downtown."

As gentrification spreads downtown, Murphy has a vision for Newark that includes the people like Phillips that kept the city alive after decades of physical and psychic recovery from the 1967 civil disturbances, a riot to some, a rebellion to others.

"This city will achieve its aspirations if its got a governor that has it's back," Murphy said. "It needs to be led well locally. And it needs to work for the people who stayed and fought. It can't just work for the new arrivals. That can't be Newark's future."

Murphy knows how important the Essex County Democratic Committee "line" is to get advantageous ballot placement for the upcoming June primary. But the only declared gubernatorial candidate, in the city that will play a major role in deciding the primary, dared his rivals to try to knock his new Kangol cap off even if he winds up off the line.

"I'm in the neighborhoods. I'm in the senior centers. I'm in the churches. I don't even think about not getting the line," Murphy said before making another campaign stop. "I'm trying to get the line in multiple places, period. This city and this county are at the center of whatever the outcome is. It's hard to ignore. And we're not giving any ground to anybody."

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