Front-Runner Phil Murphy Wants to Be NJ’s Next Governor

Elbowing out his early competition among Democrats, Wall Street millionaire Phil Murphy charts a path to the governorship.

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Murphy, 59, has never held public office. “We’re not part of anybody’s machine,” he declares.
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Murphy, 59, has never held public office. “We’re not part of anybody’s machine,” he declares.
Photo by Fred Conrad

If you want to run for governor of New Jersey, you need to be good with names. Take the people who attended a  Democratic breakfast at a meeting hall in Union County one week before November’s presidential election. Phil Murphy seemed to know them all. He took the slow route through the crowd, shaking hands, flashing his toothy smile and scrunching his 6-foot-3 frame down into selfie range. Reaching the podium, he gave shout-outs to others on the dais and to the local party officials at the balloon-festooned tables, where eggs were being served.

“Let’s make sure we give it up for the three freeholders who are on the ballot a week from Tuesday,” he called out, identifying the three candidates by their first names: Linda, Sergio and Bette Jane. “They have richly earned our support.”

It was still seven months until the Democratic primary, which will formally anoint the party’s candidate for governor, but Murphy was already being cited as the presumptive nominee. In his introduction that morning, state Senator Nicholas Scutari called Murphy “the next governor of the state of New Jersey.”

It was the kind of rallying cry routinely heard as elections near, but the gubernatorial vote was still one year away—and just three weeks earlier, several other highly regarded Jersey Democrats had been themselves elbowing their way toward a gubernatorial run. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop had been marshaling his forces in the North, and Steve Sweeney, the state Senate president from Gloucester County, had been arming in the South. Others mulling their own runs included state Senator Raymond Lesniak, the emcee of the breakfast. After two terms of an increasingly unpopular and distant Chris Christie, the governor’s throne seemed destined for a Democrat, and the primary season was shaping up as a protracted trench war.

But New Jersey’s political currents are swift and strange, and within the course of just a few frantic, early-fall days the primary (to be held June 6) started looking like a coronation. Fulop announced that he would not run and that he would back Murphy, whose TV ads had been ubiquitous for months. In South Jersey, Sweeney saw Democratic leaders in the northern counties closing ranks around Murphy and soon stepped aside, as did Lesniak. And so, before a single New Jerseyan had cast a vote, Murphy—the 59-year-old former U.S. ambassador to Germany, a retired Goldman Sachs partner who had never held elected office and who launched his own campaign with $10 million of his own money—was the governor-in-waiting. Now, here he was in Union County, rallying a roomful of Democratic regulars whose names he knew, but who barely knew him.

“Don’t believe the hype that he’s just some wealthy guy who wants to come in here and take over the state of New Jersey,” Scutari had said in his introduction.

So who is Phil Murphy? For starters, he’s a multi-millionaire whose money put him in the race. But when Murphy makes his pitch to voters—at campaign events, fundraisers, party gatherings—he talks mostly about how he didn’t have much of the green stuff growing up in the first-ring suburbs of Boston. The youngest of four children, he lived until age nine with his family in the Newton house that had belonged to his late grandparents. “We were jammed in like sardines,” he tells New Jersey Monthly. “My brother slept on the couch, and I slept on a bed in my parents’ room.”

Until third grade, he went to Catholic school, Our Lady Help of Christians, where he played Jesus in the Passion play, then enrolled in public school when his family bought a house of its own in Needham, another Boston suburb. His father, who hadn’t finished high school, managed a liquor store and then worked at the distribution center of a baby-clothing manufacturer. The younger Murphy worked there, too, during summers while he attended Harvard, where he majored in economics and was president of Hasty Pudding, the student theatrical society.

“I’m kind of a ham, and I don’t really have a problem making a fool out of myself,” he says. His talents as an actor, singer and dancer were sufficient to earn the lead in his senior-year show, and also to play King Arthur in a summer-theater production of Camelot. “I thought about acting as a career. I mercifully never did anything about it because I wasn’t good enough.”

After graduating in 1979, Murphy sold college textbooks for Prentice-Hall for two years, paying off student debt and saving for tuition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he earned an MBA in 1983. Then came a swift and lucrative rise at Goldman Sachs, with stops in New York, Hong Kong and Frankfurt.

“It was apparent that I was a good people person—good with clients, good managing people. I like it, and it probably shows even today in this endeavor. I don’t think you can fake that; either you like being with people or you don’t,” he says. “I had a hunch that turned out to pay off, which was that most everybody who’s going to go work for a big investment bank is a finance guy or gal, but there’s probably not a surfeit of heavily people-skilled managers. It turns out I was completely right.”

Murphy grew wealthy in his two decades at Goldman Sachs and settled into a tony area of Middletown in Monmouth County with his wife, Tammy, and their four children. They live in the same riverside neighborhood as Jon Bon Jovi, who has appeared at events for the candidate. Murphy also became a major Democratic fundraiser. “I was so miserable after Kerry lost to Bush,” he says about the 2004 election. He was soon serving as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean, helping to raise $300 million.

“He’s the kind of Democrat that I really like, which is liberal on social issues, but fiscally careful,” Dean said in November after speaking to about 200 small donors squeezed into a Trenton restaurant at a Murphy fundraiser. “The thing that’s really important is that he never loses his temper. The way he disagrees with you is, instead of saying ‘I think you’re wrong,’ or ‘This is the way it should be,’ he starts asking questions, and if he’s right, he leads you around to the conclusion that he’s right rather than telling you he is. It’s a great leadership trait.”

The Obama administration rewarded Murphy in 2009 with the ambassadorship to Germany. He served there until 2013, when he returned to New Jersey and started laying the groundwork for his campaign. Murphy announced his candidacy in May 2016, months ahead of the traditional schedule, and made the rounds of the county party leaders.

“Please kick the tires, and please know that we’re in this for the right reasons,” Murphy said at the Trenton fundraiser. “We’re not part of anybody’s machine, not taking orders from anybody; we’re doing it to do the right things.”

In his stump speech, Murphy cited his political hero, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and a host of issues dear to Democrats who have chafed under Chris Christie. Among his key talking points: a higher minimum wage, more affordable college, and child and caregiver tax credits. “Getting the economy right means not only do we have to grow it, we have to make it fairer,” he said.

On the stump, Murphy also cites the endorsements he quickly secured from 12 of the state’s 21 Democratic county leaders and five labor organizations after Fulop’s withdrawal.

Those endorsements clearly have stacked the Democratic deck in Murphy’s favor—but they haven’t entirely scared off all comers. At deadline, several other Democratic hopefuls, including Assemblyman John Wisniewski, State Senator Ray Lesniak and former Treasury Department official and federal prosecutor Jim Johnson, had announced their intention to seek the nomination. They face long odds against Murphy.

“It doesn’t matter what the roughly 200,000 people who are going to show up to vote in the primary think,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Rather, he says, what matters are the county leaders and local party committee members—“a few thousand”—who determine which candidate gets the party line on the primary ballot. “All the endorsements that Murphy has already lined up would be extremely difficult to overcome,” concludes Murray.

Whoever takes on Murphy from either party is likely to invoke the inevitable comparison to Jon Corzine, the former U.S. senator and New Jersey governor who also made a fortune at Goldman Sachs and used it to pave his way into politics. When confronted about his shared background with Corzine, Murphy makes a comparison of his own—between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. “Two different athletes,” Murphy says in his practiced deflection. “A-Rod and Jeter were both Yankees, right?” He leaves it to others to decide which athlete he most resembles.

Murphy was in full Jeter mode at the Union County breakfast, playing the loyal and affable teammate who can deftly “pal,” “buddy” and “God bless” his way through a crowd, grateful to be in the game. “We want to get this state back to stand for the things we used to stand for,” he said to a round of applause.

“I think that helps dissuade a lot of comparisons to Corzine,” says Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, who watched Murphy in action last February at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Walk to Washington, the annual train ride and networking opportunity for the state’s politicians, lobbyists and business leaders. “I remember that Steve Fulop went from the front to the back of the train once, and the whole time, it looked like he was in a dentist’s chair,” says Hale. “Murphy went up and back twice, and you would have thought he was hanging out watching the Super Bowl with his best friends.”

The breakfast was the first time Murphy and Lesniak had met since Lesniak pulled out of the race. (“It was just impossible for me to raise the money when the entire Democratic establishment coalesced around Murphy,” Lesniak tells New Jersey Monthly.)

The two men greeted each other graciously. “That’s the way it should be, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to disagree,” says Lesniak, who gently pointed out one area of disagreement to the audience after a speech in which Murphy, while trumpeting Hillary Clinton’s virtues, called her law school alma mater, Yale, the nation’s best. (“And that’s an assessment made by a guy who went to Harvard,” Murphy added.)

No, Lesniak corrected him, the best law school is much closer to home. “I mean, here he is in New Jersey talking about Harvard and Yale,” Lesniak said later. “I have to stick up for Rutgers.”

Kevin Coyne is a longtime New Jersey Monthly contributor and teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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