While few New Jerseyans had heard of Phil Murphy when he announced his run for governor of New Jersey last May, the former Goldman Sachs executive who served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama was well-known in national Democratic circles.
In 2006, Murphy was tapped by then-Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean to chair the fundraising arm of the national party, where he raised close to $300 million over a three year period.
"I met Phil when he was running a series of dinners for all of the Democratic candidates who were running for president in 2004, and we hit it off," said Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004. "So when I didn't win, and I needed a new finance chair, I called Phil."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy greets former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean at a fundraiser hosted by Newark real estate mogul Miles Berger.
Now Murphy is calling in his chits. Dean was the featured guest at a fundraiser for Murphy Tuesday evening in the Presidential Suite of the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark.
Murphy's work at the DNC not only raised money for the party, but also helped him create an intricate political network of Democratic allies ready and willing to help. While Murphy is a first-time candidate, he is not a political neophyte.
The Tuesday event hosted by Miles Berger, owner of the Robert Treat Hotel and the CEO of The Berger Organization, raised about $30,000 for Murphy's campaign and drew a host of bold face names from local business and politics, including Newark Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, former Councilman Calvin West, Communications Workers of America (CWA) union leader Lionel Leach, and former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, all early Murphy supporters.
Chip Hallock, president and CEO of the Newark Regional Business Partnership, was also present. He was politely jostled by other people at the event, canapes and cocktails in hand, who were seeking the ear, attention and autograph of Murphy, who is generally perceived to be the 2017 gubernatorial frontrunner.
The event also attracted other city and county power brokers, including Amiri "Middy" Baraka, Jr., chief of staff to and brother of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Phil Alagia, chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. Both Baraka and DiVincenzo rallied to Murphy's side by October.
The fundraiser is the second in as many months at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. Last month, the candidate raised $50,000 at an event hosted by James, West, Leach and Chaneyfield Jenkins and her husband, Kevin Jenkins.
Murphy said raising money for the DNC taught him the importance of fundraising in politics.
"Raising money in and of itself doesn't fix problems, but it allows you as a party to play up and down the entire ballot. It allows you to take every single vote seriously. It allows you to play in red counties and red municipalities meaningfully," Murphy said. "And then if you win, you've been in places that your party should be in, which then makes it theoretically easier to govern."
For the national Democratic Party, governing will be theoretical for a while in the wake of Hillary Clinton's defeat by Donald Trump and with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. In their remarks to the fundraiser crowd in Newark, both Murphy and Dean talked about how to put their party in turnaround.
"One of the factors in what happened [in November] was that we stopped investing in all 50 states. We stopped caring about the whole ballot. We stopped really standing up for every single vote. And we probably got what we deserved," Murphy said. "This has to change."
"This party needs to be rebuilt, again," said Dean, who successfully deployed a 50-state, grass-roots party building strategy during his tenure as DNC chair from 2005 to 2009.
"The rebuilding starts here, and not just in the wards of Newark. New Jersey and Virginia have their gubernatorial races this year, the first two really big elections since the one we just had," Dean said. "We need to win them both, and Phil Murphy is going to win the race here."
Dean recently dropped out of the running for a second stab as DNC chair. Yet Dean, who hails from the same state as former presidential candidate and progressive icon U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, cut right to the point about what he feels the Democratic Party needs going forward, including the outcome of the 2017 gubernatorial race.
"What New Jersey needs is really good management to deal with its very serious problems with pensions and schools. There's not much that's ideological about Phil Murphy," Dean said. "I think that there is too much ideology in politics."
Murphy still needs to win the Democratic primary in June, and while two front runners -- Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Senate President Steve Sweeney -- withdrew from the race in the fall, numerous candidates are still in the running, including Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Sayreville, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee who co-chaired a committee that investigated Gov. Christie's Bridgegate scandal. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Wisniewski served as the chairman of Sanders' campaign efforts in New Jersey.
Despite his own progressive leanings, Dean said New Jersey needed a leader like Murphy.
"I don't know [John Wisniewski] at all, but I do know Phil," Dean said. "The way you rebuild the party is by winning these 2017 races. Phil Murphy will be a building block."
The 2016 election cycle was defined in many ways by the fire of a populist revolt, sparked by the anger of white working-class voters who feel left behind in a demographically changing America and by an evolving global economy. This deep discontent was the incendiary device that fueled both the Sanders and Trump campaigns, and which contributed to the latter's victory.
A continual theme in Murphy's campaign is that he is an outsider railing against special interests and raging against the machine politics that still crank the Garden State's gears. But if he gets to the top in Trenton, Murphy's path to power will have been trailblazed in part by his deep ties to the national Democratic Party establishment, evidenced by Dean's show of support in Newark.
Murphy shot back at this dichotomy in the same way that he has tried to fight off claims that he is just another elitist Wall Street executive playing politics, the mantra of those who derided Democratic former Gov. Jon Corzine's one term in office before he was defeated by Gov. Chris Christie in 2009.
Murphy hearkens back to his childhood in the Boston suburbs, where he grew up in an Irish-American, working-class household rooting for the Tony Conigliaro-era Red Sox before he won acceptance to Harvard and started his trajectory to power. He notes how along that path, he built one particularly important relationship out of many.
"I grew up with nothing. I slept in my parents' bedroom until I was nine years old, and those memories burn deeply inside of me. I truly am the outsider, because I've never been elected to office in this state," Murphy said.
"When Howard Dean and I embraced each other, he was hardly the establishment," Murphy said. "Because we're in the streets and the establishment has come to us, don't confuse that with us becoming part of the establishment. We're still the same people with the same message. I have no hidden agenda, and I'm not part of the system. If you're part of the system, I don't think that you can claim to be the savior of that very system."