Former Wall Street Exec and Ex-Ambassador Stakes Out Gubernatorial Terrain

John Reitmeyer | November 2, 2015 | Politics
Phil Murphy promotes agenda he portrays as geared toward interests of New Jersey’s middle class

Phil Murphy, former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Ambassador to Germany, is the first Democrat to declare his candidacy for governor.
New Jersey voters will go to the polls tomorrow for an election that will determine the makeup of the state Assembly for the next two years. But in the hallways of the State House in Trenton, it’s a contest that is still more than a year and a half away that is starting to draw a lot of attention.

The Democratic gubernatorial primary won’t be held until June 2017, but potential candidates are already laying the groundwork for a run, including former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.

Murphy, a Middletown resident, is being featured in a television ad that’s currently airing across the state to promote an organization called New Way

For New Jersey. That organization, which he chairs, promotes a progressive middle-class agenda, focusing on issues like college affordability, jobs and infrastructure investment.

The graduate of both Harvard University and the Wharton School of Business, a former senior director at Goldman Sachs, is also involved in an initiative launched last month by Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development that is aimed at helping New Jersey’s long-term unemployed residents.

The program, called the New Start Career Network, I aims to help those 45 and older who have been unemployed for six months or longer, which is roughly four in 10 of those unemployed in New Jersey, officials from the Heldrich Center said.

In all, there are more than 100,000 people in New Jersey who have been out of work for that long, a group that Murphy called “significant” in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

“This group doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” he said.

The new career network will provide free-of-charge help with job searches, resume writing, training opportunities, and interview coaching.

New Jersey has seen some improvement in recent months when it comes to unemployment, but the state is still struggling to recover all of the jobs lost to the last recession. And a dip in unemployment — New Jersey’s jobless averaged dropped to 5.6 percent in September — has come at the same time the state’s labor-participation rate has also been dropping, suggesting some of the improvement came from job seekers who simply stopped looking for a new job.

Murphy, whose family foundation is providing funding for the new program, said New Jersey’s long-term unemployed population is second-highest among U.S. states.

“This a group that in many ways is lost,” he said.

Other groups providing support and funding for the training initiative include New Jersey Resources, the Fund for New Jersey, the AARP Foundation, and the DirectEmployers Association.

Murphy’s activism on economic issues – last year, he launched another organization, a nonprofit called New Start New Jersey, that has held jobs-related events – has led to questions about his aspirations as a gubernatorial candidate.

He has a direct answer in response, saying his considerations are “very serious – and I make no bones about that.”

“I’ve also made no decisions,” he adds.

And he stressed that the television ads – one aired last week during “Monday Night Football” – are about highlighting the need for an agenda focused more on the middle-class in New Jersey, and not him personally.

“We have to be a middle-class state,” Murphy stressed.

Still, the ads and Murphy’s other activities in the run up to the 2017 gubernatorial primaries are doing a good job of introducing him to New Jersey residents as “the idea guy,” said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

“He’s a major player in the party right now,” Dworkin said of Murphy, who in addition to serving as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013 was also the national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee in 2006.

But Murphy isn’t the only Democrat who has started showing interest or at least drawing attention as a 2017 primary candidate. The likely field at this stage includes state Sens. Stephen Sweeney and Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

The 2017 primary is still 19 months away, but Dworkin said there are a few reasons why some of the jockeying has already begun.

[related]New Jersey voters haven’t given the same political party a third term in office for several decades, so with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, in the midst of his second term, the conventional wisdom is that the Democrat who prevails in the primary will go on to beat whomever the Republicans decide to run in November. Christie has also seen his popularity sag since he was reelected in 2013, making it that much harder for another member of his party come 2017.

And though the current GOP presidential primary is being dominated right now by candidates who aren’t elected officials, like businessman Donald Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Dworkin said he doesn’t think Murphy’s outsider status necessarily gives him an advantage over Sweeney, Fulop and the other elected officials who could make up the 2017 Democratic field.

Murphy, meanwhile, will also have to overcome the legacy of former Gov. Jon Corzine, another wealthy alumni of Goldman Sachs who made the successful transition from Wall Street to elected office, including the U.S. Senate, only to lose to Christie while seeking a second gubernatorial term in 2009.

But Dworkin, whose institute hosted Murphy during an event held at Rider last year, cautioned that Murphy is “not Jon Corzine.”

“His personality is different and I think the way he is approaching this nonprofit is also a different approach than the one used by Corzine,” Dworkin said.

And he also cautioned against drawing any conclusions about 2017 this early on, saying the nearly two years “is eons in political lifetimes.”