Phil Murphy Seeks to Win the Hearts (and Votes) of Newarkers

Phil Murphy, campaigning in Newark for the third time in less than two weeks, again applied shoe leather to the streets of New Jersey's largest city as the sole declared candidate continued to set the pace in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary race.

"As a political matter, as Newark and Essex County goes, so goes the gubernatorial election. And even more importantly, as a governing matter, as Newark goes, so goes New Jersey," Murphy said.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Germany addressed a crowd of nearly 600 people packed inside the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Irvine Turner Boulevard in Newark's Central Ward for a campaign town hall meeting, one of many Murphy has been holding across the state, on Tuesday night.

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Former Essex County Exec Thomas J. D'Alessio (left), Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins (center) with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy (right) at a campaign event Tuesday in Newark (Photo by Mark J. Bonamo.)

Murphy's interest in Newark underscores the importance of the city in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Newark is the political heart of Essex County, the pulse of which cannot be ignored as it is often the source of the most Democratic votes in statewide elections.

An array of Newark's past and present political personalities ringed the lodge meeting hall floor like boxing match spectators around Murphy, the happy Irish warrior, who championed his policy ideas center stage as he continued to wait for his potential primary challengers to enter the ring.

The notable assembly included Newark City Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, former Essex County Executive Thomas J. D'Alessio, Jermaine James, a former aide to Mayor Cory Booker, former Councilwoman Marie Villani, longtime Newark political operative Oscar James and prominent local attorney and former Newark council candidate Calvin Souder as well as prominent members of the community from the South, Central and West wards, including non-profit leaders, educators, clergy, senior leaders, small business owners and former City Hall employees, though no current ones.

Befitting his former job as diplomat, Murphy maintained an even-keeled and affable tone as he addressed a range of issues affecting Newarkers, including illegal guns, criminal justice reform and the city's economy.

But diplomacy was done when former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, a Murphy ally and the self-designated street fighter in this race, took to the stage and lambasted and lacerated two of Murphy's most prominent potential primary rivals.

"Phil Murphy is not another Christopher Christie-in-waiting like the mayor of Jersey City," said James in reference to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, who has been subpoenaed to testify in the upcoming trial of two allies of the Republican New Jersey governor who have been charged in the George Washington Bridge scandal, also known as Bridgegate. "[Fulop] will be busy answering questions at the trial. He has to answer those questions."

"And Phil Murphy will not be a puppet to a boss in South Jersey," James added, referring to potential candidate Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a longtime ally of South Jersey power broker and insurance executive George Norcross, as well as Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. "I don't believe that we want a private citizen to be the boss of New Jersey."

"All the other candidates wanted to know was how can we trick people into voting for them," James continued, noting that he met with all of the other potential 2017 Democratic primary candidates, including Fulop and Sweeney, before deciding to back Murphy. "Phil Murphy was the only candidate who said that he was concerned about making New Jersey and Newark better. He's accessible. You can go talk to him. And he's here."

In an interview, James doubled down with his critique of both Fulop and Sweeney, focusing particularly on Fulop.

James pointed to how earlier this month, 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.

James then noted how a meeting organized by supporters of 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.

James also highlighted questions that have arisen following court filings last month that mentioned Fulop's representation prior to his election as Jersey City mayor of a Port Authority tenant, Foreign Auto Preparation Service, or FAPS, which owed $2.8 million in rent and fees to the agency.

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Former Mayor Sharpe James praises Phil Murphy and lambasts Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.

According to the filings, Fulop discussed some kind of agreement in September 2012 with David Wildstein. Wildstein, who then served as a Port Authority executive, later pleaded guilty to involvement in Bridgegate for his role in closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge because Fort Lee’s mayor, a Democrat, declined to endorse Christie in his re-election bid.

"[Fulop and Sweeney] have issues," said James, the still popular politician who stopped to take selfies with a stream of well-wishers. "And if you declare your candidacy for governor, then these issues become a public issue. Fulop worked for FAPS. No one knows his salary. No one knows nothing. We need transparency."

Fulop senior adviser Michael Soliman called James' critique an outright lie.

"While Steve Fulop is focused on fighting for the people of Jersey City, it's unfortunate that people affiliated with Phil Murphy's campaign want to outright lie about Mayor Fulop's record," Soliman said. "It's abundantly clear that Phil Murphy has no traction, so he and his allies have resorted to doing and saying anything to get even an inch closer. It's shameful and desperate. Here's what we've learned - Phil is trying to be the next [former Democratic Governor] Jon Corzine, only his desperation sets him apart."

Representatives of Senate President Sweeney did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, reiterated a key economic policy proposal during the town hall meeting that he introduced at Newark's NJIT campus last week: the creation of a public bank, owned by the people of New Jersey, designed to make investments in and for New Jersey.

"[A public bank] can play a very important role working with community banks like City National Bank to give them more capital to allow that capital to get to small businesses which right now are being starved," Murphy said in an interview. "That's the reason why they're not growing."

City resident Karim Aquil Sharif came to hear Murphy speak in the hope of finding a Democratic gubernatorial candidate that will help Newark grow.

"I think that corporations are coming back to Newark and are investing back into the city, but they need to come into the neighborhoods and build them up, not just downtown," said Sharif, a retired chef who lives in Newark's Central Ward.

"I'm looking for someone to make that happen," he said. "And I'm going to be watching to see which candidate wants to show up here in Newark to make it happen along with all of my neighbors. We're all going to be up into this race. At least this guy Murphy is willing to come to our community and meet with us and give us an introduction as to what he's about. He acts like he wants to win."

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