More Democrats Eye NJ Gubernatorial Nomination

John Wisniewski, Ray Lesniak, others challenge Phil Murphy for place atop the 2017 Democratic ticket in New Jersey.

John Wisniewski.
John Wisniewski.
Photo courtesy of John Wisniewski.

Not all New Jersey Democrats are ready to crown Phil Murphy as the party’s 2017 gubernatorial nominee. Not just yet.

“We’ve run this model before, we’ve had Wall Street in the governor’s office, and it didn’t turn out so well,” says John Wisniewski, the longtime assemblyman from Sayreville who led the Bridgegate investigation in the Statehouse and who announced his candidacy for governor in November. “Politics in New Jersey is about money, and the Murphy campaign understands that, but that buys you insider status. So while I’ve been in Trenton for a number of years, I certainly haven’t been the kind of insider that is deciding the primary election before the ballots are even printed.”

In January, Ray Lesniak, the veteran state senator from Elizabeth, changed his mind about running. “I’ve crossed the Rubicon and I’m in all the way,” he says. “I’m not underestimating the power of Phil Murphy’s tens of millions of dollars that have secured for him all the endorsements, but there are many candidates throughout the country who have all the endorsements and all the money in the world but who lost because they had no record to run on and no message to the voters.”

Jim Johnson, a U.S. Treasury Department official in the Clinton administration and a former federal prosecutor, announced his candidacy in late October and opened a campaign office in his hometown of Montclair. “What I have heard from people who have been engaged in reform efforts over the years is a real appetite for change and for openness and for engagement with all the citizens of the state,” says Johnson, a fourth-generation New Jerseyan. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Other declared Democratic candidates include Bill Brennan, the former Teaneck firefighter and Seton Hall law school graduate who brought a citizen’s complaint against Governor Chris Christie over Bridgegate; Bob Hoatson, a former Catholic priest who founded Road to Recovery, a nonprofit to help sexual abuse survivors; Titus Pierce, whose Facebook page identifies him as an Army veteran of the Iraq war and a banker; Monica Brinson, whose LinkedIn page identifies her as a pharmaceutical sales rep; and Lisa McCormick, the publisher of a weekly newspaper and community news website.

Standing on the sidelines is Brendan T. Byrne Jr., the son of the former governor. “I’m thinking about it, but I’m not going to move forward unless I see a clearer path,” says Byrne, better known as Tom, an asset manager from Princeton and head of the State Investment Council. He describes himself as “more fiscally moderate” than the other candidates.

Adds Byrne: “No matter how good a person emerges, I just don’t think it’s all that healthy for democracy to have really no discussion at all.”

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