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Murphy Lays Out Big Ambitions for Urban Renewal in New Jersey

The man who wants to be next governor proposes a sweeping agenda of tax breaks, help for small businesses, job training, criminal justice reform, and more

phil murphy
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy speaking yesterday about his urban agenda during a major policy speech at a community center in Newark's South Ward

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Murphy put forward a wide-ranging urban renewal agenda yesterday, saying New Jersey’s cities “hold tremendous promise” that’s waiting to be unlocked after seven years under Gov. Chris Christie’s economic policies.

Murphy, in the second major policy speech of a campaign launched last year, called for expanded tax breaks for low-income workers, a $15 minimum wage, and more help for small businesses and urban schools. But he also widened the scope of what he said needs to be done as part of his urban revitalization agenda by including calls for environmental justice, job training, criminal justice reform, and even the legalization of marijuana.

“We must firmly understand that urban revitalization means more than just new buildings and new residents,” Murphy said during an event held inside a former Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Newark’s South Ward that’s been converted into a community center geared toward technology.

“We can’t just grow the pie if we don’t make sure everyone’s got their own piece of the pie,” Murphy added.

Several mayors who attended yesterday’s speech praised Murphy’s approach, saying his focus on jobs, education and other issues is exactly what’s needed to revitalize their communities.

“It’s all about jobs, it’s all about the economy and putting people to work,” Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz said.

Polls show Murphy still has work to do with voters

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, is widely viewed as the leading contender in a Democratic primary that will also feature state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and former U.S. Treasury official Jim Johnson of Montclair, among others. Christie, a second-term Republican, cannot run a third time due to New Jersey’s constitutional term limits, and with the governor struggling to overcome historically low approval ratings, most Democrats believe New Jersey voters will be unlikely to give Republicans another try when they go to the polls this fall.

In the run-up to the June party primary, Murphy, a Middletown resident, has been successful at gathering support from many of the state’s most powerful county Democratic parties; he picked up Middlesex County’s endorsement earlier this week. But early polling suggests he still has work to do with voters.

Murphy garnered 17 percent support among Democrats who were surveyed recently by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll. That put him well ahead of the other candidates, but also only tied with a “someone else” option. During the speech yesterday, Murphy said he will need the support of the state’s urban leaders to become New Jersey’s next governor.

“New Jersey is a great state, with incredible cities that hold tremendous promise,” he said. “I am an optimist. I believe we stand at the verge of unlocking that promise.”

Murphy ticked off a list of policy changes that he said are needed to boost the economy in New Jersey’s cities, including expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and lifting the minimum wage to $15. He also said establishing paid sick leave and equal pay for men and women working in the same jobs will be priorities of his administration.

Renewed pledge to create a state public bank

“It’s not just the good thing to do or the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” Murphy said.

And just as he did last September during a major policy speech on the overall state economy, Murphy renewed a pledge to create a public bank in New Jersey. Such an institution would be able to partner with community banks to provide financing to small businesses in urban communities, and also offer affordable loans to college students, he said. So far, North Dakota is the only U.S. state to operate a public bank.

“It will help those who, for too long, have been ignored by the financial system, especially urban high-school graduates who need affordable loans and small businesses owned by women or persons of color that need capital to grow,” Murphy said. “Our small businesses, as a whole, will lead in creating new jobs.”

Stressing the need for environmental justice and making sure new infrastructure investment includes an effort to fix pipes that cause lead poisoning, Murphy said, "This is not just about roads, bridges, tunnels, or rails, but also the connective tissue beneath the pavement. Our children and whole communities, for example, will benefit from water lines free of lead."

Murphy also promised to end raids of the state’s Clean Energy Fund that have become a regular occurrence since Christie took office in early 2010. The fund is supported by a surcharge on utility customer bills and is supposed to be used to promote energy efficiency and cleaner ways of producing power, but Christie has used the annual state budget process to redirect over $1 billion to other purposes during his tenure.

“Clean air and water are just as vital to life in our cities as they are in the Highlands or the Pine Barrens,” Murphy said. “By putting our clean-energy dollars to their proper purpose, we can utilize the sun and wind to power our new urban communities.”

Previously called for higher taxes on wealthy

Murphy did not provide details yesterday on how he would replace the funding in the budget if the clean-energy diversions are ended, or how he would pay for his other proposals, though he did pledge to end corporate tax incentive programs and has previously called for higher taxes on the wealthy.

On criminal justice reform, Murphy listed a number of proposals that would part ways with the approach followed by Christie, a former federal prosecutor. Most notably, especially in the wake of recent efforts to highlight the issue of drug addiction, Murphy said he is for the legalization of marijuana, something Christie has vocally opposed.

“I will seek to legalize marijuana and eliminate the more than 24,000 arrests that bog down the courts and hurt the future prospects of those arrested in low-level drug cases,” he said. “We are lucky to be in the position where other states have gone first, so we know what works and what doesn’t.”

Murphy also called for the creation of a commission to review all criminal laws, including those with harsh sentences, and a review of expungement practices, particularly for nonviolent offenses.

“As one mother in Newark once asked me, ‘How come no one ever went to jail for bringing our economy to its knees and my son can’t get a job because of a bogus marijuana charge?’ Good question,” Murphy said.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer credited Murphy for taking “a comprehensive approach” to urban policy that included the issues of affordable housing, infrastructure and criminal justice reform.

“He hits all the major points. I’m looking forward to working with him,” Zimmer said.

Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp said Murphy’s call to fully fund urban schools and to put more focus on preparing students to go to college meshes with a top priority for his community. “It’s a progressive agenda that speaks to the needs of the state,” Mapp said. “Making it easier for kids to go to college, that appeals to me.”

Diaz, the Perth Amboy mayor, said the biggest issue for urban communities is job creation, and she praised Murphy for recognizing that much more needs to be done at the state level. “We’re in dire need of bringing jobs back to our urban centers,” Diaz said.

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