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3 on 1: Democratic Hopefuls Target Frontrunner in Second Debate

Phil Murphy’s lead going into the debate meant the other three candidates would be looking to land a glove on him

gubernatorial candidates
Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Candidates, from left, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Phil Murphy, Jim Johnson, and Sen. Ray Lesniak

The three candidates trying to make headway against Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Phil Murphy didn’t hold back last night during the primary contest’s second and final debate. But Murphy seemed to weather the attacks without suffering any major blows that could upset the race’s trajectory in the final weeks.

The retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany came into the week with a comfortable lead in the polls, and after his three challengers mostly played it safe during a debate held earlier this week in South Jersey, they unloaded on the wealthy frontrunner throughout last night’s debate in Newark.

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski raised Murphy’s own personal-investment portfolio as an issue, and he tried to use it to link Murphy to companies that profit from fracking for natural gas. State Sen. Ray Lesniak also dipped into Murphy’s economic background in an attempt to tie Murphy’s former employer to the mortgage crisis that set off the Great Recession. And Montclair lawyer Jim Johnson accused Murphy of being “in bed with the insiders,” a reference to the support he’s generated from the leaders of all 21 county Democratic parties.

Murphy holds back

But Murphy largely dodged the attacks, and he also chose not to launch any broadsides of his own during the debate, which was cosponsored by NJTV and NJ Spotlight, with NJTV’s Michael Aron serving as the moderator. Instead, Murphy stressed his own personal background, and he stuck to issues like funding the state pension system and reinvesting in mass transit. He also strongly defended his sweep of the crucial county party endorsements as a byproduct of strong campaigning.

“We’ve worked very hard to earn those endorsements,” Murphy said in response to his opponents.

When it came to the issues, last night’s debate, also brought out more policy differences among the four candidates. For example, the discussion of healthcare revealed Wisniewski as the only candidate supporting a single-payer system, and the talk of campaign finance gave Johnson a chance to highlight his positions on ethics reform. But the candidates may also have been too nonchalant when it came to talking about raising taxes to fund their spending priorities, something that could come back to haunt the Democratic primary winner this fall.

A political newcomer

Murphy, a 59-year-old Middletown resident, is a newcomer to elected politics, but he received 26 percent of the support from voters who were recently surveyed by Quinnipiac University. Johnson, Wisniewski, and Lesniak were all grouped together in the single digits, and within the poll’s 2.8 percent margin of error. According to the latest campaign-finance reports, Murphy also has a wide advantage in the fund-raising department, partly boosted by his own personal wealth.

With no voting record to sort through for dirt, Murphy’s opponents instead took aim at his background in finance, as well as his participation in a New Jersey public-employee benefits review commission that was convened in 2005.

Wisniewski, a 54-year-old resident of Sayreville, said the final report of the benefits commission chaired by Murphy opened the door to costly reforms for public workers that were signed into law in 2011 by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a charge Murphy firmly disputed. Wisniewski also accused Murphy of benefitting financially from fracking and pipelines through personal financial investments even while speaking against those practices on the campaign trail.

Portfolio vs. public

“How can you really expect the people of New Jersey to believe your environmental credentials when your financial portfolio takes different positions than you’ve taken publicly?,” Wisniewski asked during the most combative portion of the debate.

“There’s probably no good answer, in terms of those investments,” Murphy responded, adding that, if elected, he would put his financial portfolio in a blind trust.

“I mean what I say about fracking, I mean what I say about the environment,” Murphy went on to say.

But Johnson also seized on the moment to go after the frontrunner.

“Phil, I found your answer about your investments stunning,” Johnson said. “The idea that in this stage of the election and at this stage of your career that you have no good answer about your investments says something to all of us.”

Another assault

Lesniak, a 71-year-old Elizabeth resident, also took aim at Murphy during the same segment of the debate, asserting that a leadership role Murphy had at Goldman Sachs before he left the firm in the early 2000s helped lay the groundwork for the financial collapse that followed years later.

“Your perspective on your role at Goldman Sachs did not include the fact that you were on the management committee, on the management committee that established mortgage-lending policies,” Lesniak said.

“How can you run for governor with a record like that?,” Lesniak asked.

‘Pesky little detail’

“It’s a pesky little detail, I was long gone from Goldman when this crisis either built up or fell apart,” Murphy said in response.

He also pushed back at Lesniak, saying “I don’t think anybody here is harder on Wall Street than I am.”

“I’m calling for the hedge funds to get out of the business of managing our pension assets, I’m calling for a millionaire’s tax, I’m calling for the creation of a public bank,” Murphy went on to say.

Murphy’s support for a public bank, which would be modeled on the nation’s only other state-run bank in North Dakota, is something the other three candidates have refused to embrace. He stressed last night that the proposal is a good one, since it would allow the state to benefit from its tax deposits rather than major corporate banks.

“I know it’s a good idea because the bankers don’t like it, and the guys running against me don’t like it,” Murphy said.

Ethics proposal

Johnson, a 57-year-old former U.S. Treasury official, stressed that he’s the contest’s only candidate with a detailed ethics proposal. He’s calling for more transparency and stronger conflict-of-interest protections, among other changes. Johnson also stressed his experience in federal government as an asset.

“The best answer to organized money in politics is organized people,” Johnson said in his closing statement. “I’ve been fighting to bring people into the system, to bring real opportunity for real change.”

The discussion of healthcare policy allowed Wisniewski — who’s probably best known for chairing the legislative investigation into Bridgegate — to take the strongest stand in support of a single-payer system. And Lesniak stood out on environmental issues, pledging to make the state “fossil-fuel free” by 2050.

Tax hikes

But there was much agreement among the four candidates when it came to the issue of taxes, with none showing a reluctance to hike state taxes to bring in more money for priorities like local-school funding and the pension system. Although they didn’t call for any broad-based tax increases, there were suggestions that millionaires should pay more and the estates of wealthy residents should be targeted for increased revenue. That could be an issue the Republicans will try to exploit after the June 6 primary as they shift to wooing the state’s more than 2.4 million unaffiliated voters.

Murphy, however, didn’t seem too concerned about that while speaking to reporters after the debate ended.

“I will say what I believe is right,” Murphy said. “I want to be the governor who understands actually how you grow a state and that’s a big part of our future. It’s not just taxes, it’s not just expenditures, it’s growing the economy.”

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