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Ex-Wall Streeter (and Possible Candidate) Wants to Bring High-Tech Back to NJ

Democrat Phil Murphy, seriously considering run for governor in 2017, stresses urban renewal, middle-class resurgence at public-policy forum

phil murphy
Phil Murphy (D), candidate for governor

New Jersey’s next gubernatorial election is a full two years away, but former Wall Street executive Phil Murphy has been filling the void -- and getting his name out -- by hosting a series of public-policy forums promoting urban renewal and a middle-class renaissance.

The latest event held yesterday under the banner of his nonprofit organization “New Start New Jersey,” featured Murphy, a Democrat who says he’s seriously considering a run in 2017, highlighting the need for New Jersey to once again become a high-tech leader creating high-paying jobs.

“We were Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley was Silicon Valley, and let’s never forget that,” noted Murphy, who held the forum appropriately at Audible, Inc., the producer of downloadable audiobooks and a digital powerhouse that chose downtown Newark for its headquarters.

From there, the former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany turned the event over to Bruce Katz, founding director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Murphy later led a panel discussion that featured a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution, the president of New Jersey Institute of Technology, a mayor from a town trying to attract more “advanced industries,” and other experts in the high-tech field.

The panel’s conclusion? New Jersey can do more to boost its economy, which has lagged the national trend coming out of the last recession, by fostering more collaboration between urban communities, higher education, and the advanced-industries sector.

“This is about stakeholders truly collaborating to compete,” Katz said.

One example he offered would be an effort to shift the planning focus away from New Jersey’s suburbs and undeveloped “greenfields” to drive high-tech growth in the type of urban centers that young, skilled workers are now choosing to live in.

“The mayors are going to be key to this,” Katz said. “The state has to rethink, where does growth go?”

Murphy also talked of making the state more hospitable to workers, which he said involved talking about the minimum wage and earned sick leave.

“You’ve got to make it easier for people to live here,” he said.

Other suggestions the panel came up with included encouraging more vocational-technical training for New Jersey’s schoolchildren and simply increasing dialogue.

“There is no one quick fix,” said Joel Bloom, president of NJIT. “There is no one solution.”

Katz, during his presentation, posted a compelling slide depicting 16 different components of a New Jersey advanced-industries sector that existed in 1980, but has now been whittled down to just four.

“New Jersey is stumbling here,” Katz said.

He also criticized current tax incentives that are given to companies who move “a mile across a municipal border.”

His colleague, Mark Muro, said during the panel discussion that governors in other states, including Tennessee and Colorado, are showing real leadership in growing their technology sectors.

“They’re out beating the drum on this,” he said. “I think it’s a very competitive world out here, and this state is drifting."

Spokesmen for Gov. Chris Christie did not respond when asked for comment on that criticism yesterday.

The event also drew several Democratic mayors, including Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren. He raised the issue of transportation funding during the roundtable discussion, pointing to the role good transportation infrastructure plays in the advanced-industries field.

But Christie, a Republican, and Democrats who control the Legislature have yet to strike a deal on a new source of funding for New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund, even as gas-tax and toll revenue, the current funding source for state transportation spending, will soon generate only enough money to pay off the fund’s existing debt.

“The Transportation Trust Fund, they have to fund it, they have to put the money in,” Warren said. Murphy is one of several Democrats, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, widely expected to run for governor in 2017 to replace Christie, who is prevented by term limits from running again.

A Harvard and Wharton graduate, Murphy spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs before serving as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013. He was also the national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee in 2006.

The Middletown resident launched New Start New Jersey last November saying his goal is to “make the middle class stronger so people at the bottom can work their way in, and those in the middle class can be rewarded with greater stability and security.”

Yesterday he said bringing the focus back to the state’s high-tech sector is a big part of that vision.

“Advanced industries speak directly to our mission at New Start New Jersey,” Murphy said.

After the event, Murphy took policy questions, including his take on the current tax-incentive programs administered by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, an area where lawmakers have been seeking to beef up oversight.

Those incentive programs focus too much on just the math of what company may be coming to New Jersey or being enticed with incentives to stay, Murphy said.

“You start chasing your tail,” he said. “A better program is a more holistic one.”

But he also fielded questions about politics, including former first lady and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s fledgling bid for U.S. president, and whether he’s interested in replacing U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who was recently indicted on corruption charges. (He’s not.)

And on the topic of running for governor in 2017, Murphy said that’s something he’s “very, very seriously” looking at.

Murphy may not have the following and support that Sweeney and Fulop have as elected officials, but Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor, said he has the potential to be a “very interesting and very viable candidate.”

His nonprofit has already succeeded in bringing on board as a consultant Brendan Gill, an Essex County freeholder who managed U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s successful 2014 campaign.

Hale also said given Menendez’s legal troubles and the long-awaited indictments in Christie’s simmering George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, Murphy could seize on voters’ desires for a candidate who didn’t come up through New Jersey’s traditional political machines.

“There can be an appeal to someone who is outside of that system,” Hale said.

But as a former Goldman Sachs executive, Murphy would also be running less than a decade after New Jersey voters rejected another former Goldman executive, Jon Corzine, the last Democratic governor. He was unseated by Christie in 2009.

“People are going to paint him as Corzine all over again,” Hale said. “He’ll have to figure out a way to get over that.”

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