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Paramus Mayor Endorses Murphy — Harbinger for Bergen County?

Does Mayor LaBarbiera’s backing signal that Bergen — likely the last true swing county in the state — is up for grabs?

Mayor Richard LaBarbiera & Phil Murphy
Phil Murphy (right) picking up the endorsement of Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera, a strategy that has helped make him the likely Democratic candidate for governor.

The race for endorsements in the state’s approaching Democratic gubernatorial primary is on — and Phil Murphy, the first and as yet only candidate declared, is not letting his head start go to waste.

After making the somewhat unconventional decision to declare in May — some 18 months before voters will elect the state’s next governor — the former ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive has spent much of the summer racking up support for his fledgling bid. He’s nabbed the endorsements of several local and state lawmakers, has introduced policy positions that have met with some praise, and has been a regular fixture at political events and conferences in the state.

But the latest – and perhaps most surprising — piece of his burgeoning support system came on Friday, when Murphy accepted the endorsement of Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera. Flanked by several other Bergen County officials in the parking lot at Garden State Plaza, the two argued against state lawmakers’ “failure” to right an ailing economy.

“Our next governor needs to be one we can trust to stand up to the special interests and put the people of New Jersey first, and that’s Phil Murphy,” LaBarbiera said. “Phil is the only person with a substantive plan to rev New Jersey’s economy and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Most importantly, we can trust Phil to have our backs, and that’s why I’m endorsing him to be the next governor of New Jersey," Mayor LaBarbiera said.

It’s not the first endorsement Murphy has picked up in Bergen County, a densely populated and wealthy section of North Jersey that is considered by many observers to be the last true swing county in the state. That came earlier in the month, when the Democratic chair of Teaneck threw his support behind the candidate. And he’s picked up several more since, including the former mayor of Englewood Cliffs, council members from Elmwood Park, and Democratic candidates from Dumont.

Last week, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), the highest ranking black elected official in the state, said he will be supporting Murphy.

But the reason these mayoral endorsements are significant is that they signal Bergen county is up for grabs in the Democratic primary. Though Murphy is the first candidate officially out of the gate, there is still a roster of high-profile Democrats in the state who are poised to join the race for the party’s nomination, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

Some political observers had expected Fulop, who has spent time in the past few years laying the groundwork for local endorsements, to present a united north Jersey front in next spring’s primary. Murphy is a relatively unknown entity in the state compared with names like Fulop and Sweeney, which partly explains the Middletown resident’s early campaign launch.

Fulop is expected to get the backing of his home county, Hudson, but Bergen, as the state’s largest county and heavily democratic Essex, are the real jewels for Democrats in north Jersey.

Fulop went out on a limb in endorsing Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in 2014, and with his support and significant backing from Bergen, the Democrat would be a powerhouse next June. Sweeney, a close ally of South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, is expected to produce a unified support system in the southern part of the state. He just has to pick off a few significant backers in the north, some of whom may be in Bergen, since state Sens. Loretta Weinberg and Paul Sarlo are likely to be in his corner. Bergen County Democratic chairman Lou Stellato, meanwhile, has been mentioned as a Fulop supporter.

In Essex, it’s still unclear who Essex County executive and Democratic Chairman Joe DiVincenzo Jr. will support. There’s been talk of an alliance with Norcross, as well as support for Fulop.

Murphy, on the other hand, has used much of his time over the past few months working to acquaint himself with voters, giving a major policy speech in Newark earlier this month but also launching of a nonprofit last year aimed at advocating on behalf of middle class families, called New Start New Jersey. As earlier as 2014, in places like Atlantic City for the annual League of Municipalities Conference, the notoriously social pol could be found pressing the skin of state legislators and operatives at political events around the state, not to mention donating millions in personal funds to Democratic candidates up for election.

Now, he’s capitalizing on that work. In addition to the inroads he’s made in Bergen, Murphy has also turned heads in places like Essex County, another gubernatorial battleground for Democrats. In July, he accepted the endorsement of former Newark mayor Sharpe James, who called the candidate a “good man” ahead of the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

What’s more, the endorsement helps to symbolically advance certain narratives about Murphy’s campaign that ought to prove useful in the upcoming primary battle — and general election. With the state facing serious fiscal challenges, including a broken pension and benefit system and no funding for important infrastructure projects, and voters ranking the issue among their top concerns, experts say debates about the economy are likely to feature prominently in the next gubernatorial election.

Sweeney, as the highest ranking Democrat in the state, has worked to champion the pension and benefits issue as well as the state’s drained Transportation Trust Fund, a solution to which lawmakers in Trenton are still deadlocked over. Fulop, meanwhile, has touted the progress the state’s second-largest city has made under his leadership, including a booming real estate market and low unemployment rate. And potential Republican gubernatorial candidates, including Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), have also expressed concern for the state of the state’s economy, primarily when it comes to the issue of property taxes.

But Murphy, the former financial chair of the Democratic National Committee, made his own splash in that pool earlier this month when he called for a sweeping revision of state economic policies. At a well-attended policy speech in Newark, Murphy unveiled a plan to bring down inequality in the state by increasing the minimum wage, revamping student loan programs, and expanding tax breaks for the working poor. The centerpiece of the platform, however, was the creation of a state-owned public bank, an idea that was lauded by organizations like the Public Banking Institute.

By earning LaBarbiera’s endorsement on Friday, Murphy could reinforce the case that he might be best positioned to deal with New Jersey’s economic problems. Paramus, while not its biggest municipality, is an economic powerhouse in Bergen County due to its central location as home to many of the state’s largest malls. Murphy noted as much at the press conference, arguing LaBarbiera has kept the town’s “local economy strong despite New Jersey’s lagging recovery.”

“I’m honored to earn Mayor LaBarbiera’s endorsement, and I look forward to working with him to build a stronger New Jersey economy that works for all our residents,” Murphy said.

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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