On a warm night early in October, Democratic candidate for Governor Phil Murphy literally danced around the center floor of a sparsely attended campaign town hall in Emerson. Telling attendees his “origin” story – “growing up my family didn’t have two nickels to rub together” – he gesticulated, pointed to members of the crowd, crouched in a baseball stance to demonstrate his readiness, and joked about his teenage son.
It was a dazzling performance – one that caused a woman at a later gathering to remark “he’s been trained. It looks like he knows improv.”
She was not far off. Murphy, a 60-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, dabbled in theater at Harvard, where he was the president of the famous Hasty Pudding Club. He toyed with the idea of theater as a career but eventually changed course and got his MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Yet it wasn’t just his performing ability that was impressive that night – it was also his memory for names, as he warmly introduced the county chairman, county executive, a number of freeholders, Emerson councilmen, and other Bergen County officials. He even singled out two women who were campaigning for town council in a neighboring Republican town. To watch him as he told one youth “I love you Sean”, you would have thought this retail political game was old hat and these were long-time friends.
Not so. “Almost no one knew him 18 months ago,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, of Bergen’s 37th district. That was before Murphy opened his wallet and spent $21 million on the primary campaign.
More importantly, Murphy and his wife donated more than $620,000 to Northern New Jersey Democratic county organizations since 2014. In total, they gave nearly $1 million to local Democratic organizations and candidates during that time.
That war chest seemed to chase one of his major rivals, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, out of the race. And by locking up North Jersey county chairmen, it caused Senate President Steve Sweeney, his other key rival, to reconsider and decide to stay put in the Senate.
The money still rankles some Democratic faithful, as well as average voters, who resent what they see as his having bought the primary race. In the general election, Murphy is ahead in the polls by double digits. Most observers believe that has less to do with Murphy than it does his opponent, Kim Guadagno, who has served as lieutenant governor to the historically unpopular Chris Christie as well with general unhappiness with the Republicans in Washington D.C.,
It is unknown how much Murphy is worth but he released his tax returns Thursday, showing he earned $4.6 million in investment income in 2016. He owns homes in Middletown, Berlin, and Italy.
Grew up working poor
But Murphy is quick to point out that he was not always rich. His father never graduated high school and his mother worked as a secretary. Murphy grew up in a crowded home in the suburbs of Boston that housed him, his parents, his three siblings, and an aunt. Murphy, the baby of the family, slept in his parent’s bedroom until he was 9 years old.
He says he and his family always worked but they were “middle class on a good day.” His mother instilled in him the need for an education and he eventually went to Harvard on student loans and part-time jobs, where he graduated with a degree in economics.
After graduating Wharton, Murphy went to work for Goldman Sachs, where he stayed for 23 years, steadily climbing the ladder. Two of his most significant jobs were international posts. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Murphy was given the top Goldman job in Germany, where he served for four years. He was then promoted to Hong Kong right after the turnover to China. From 1997 to 1999, he headed up all of Goldman’s Asian operations other than Japan.
It was at Goldman that Murphy met his wife, Tammy, who served as an analyst at the firm. Tammy actually remembers initially meeting him when she was a senior in college at the University of Virginia and he came to interview potential employees (a colleague interviewed her, not him.) Once at Goldman, although they came to know each other and worked on projects together, it wasn’t until they were both in Europe seven years later that Murphy actually asked Tammy for a date. They were engaged 18 days after that and in six months were married.
They now have four children: Josh, 20, a student at Tufts University and Emma, 18, who is working on Murphy’s campaign during a “gap” year. They also have two boys at Philips Academy in Massachusetts: Charlie who is in 11th grade and Sam in 9th grade. The older two children also went to Philips, where Tammy serves on the board of trustees. (She is also on the board of the University of Virginia.)
All four children play soccer, which seems to be a family passion, only strengthened by living in Europe. The Murphys own a stake in Sky Blue, the New Jersey women’s professional soccer team. Murphy is a fan of sports in general, and is known to group-text his kids with reminders of the night’s upcoming games — whether soccer, college, baseball.
After Murphy’s stint in Hong Kong, Tammy said they decided to live in New Jersey to raise their family because they had friends here and liked the area. They moved to a home on the Navesink River in Middletown in 2000, one that costs the Murphys more $200,000 in property taxes each year.
Murphy remained at Goldman Sachs until 2006, when he left the firm as senior director.
It was while he was in the process of retiring from Goldman that Murphy became more engaged in politics. He was appointed chair of a state Commission on Pension and Benefits in 2005 by former Gov. Richard Codey. The commission issued a whole host of recommendations — a number of them targeted at politicians who get pension credit for years at low-paying jobs such as council members, only to take full-time posts at the end of their careers for highly compensated retirements.
Most of the recommendations were ignored — Murphy said they were “thrown in the dustbin— which Codey blames on former Gov. Jon Corzine, who succeeded him as governor.
Shortly afterward, Murphy became involved in politics at a national level. He first served as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2006 to 2009 under former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean. Murphy has said he raised $300 million for the first Obama campaign.
Dean, who has since become a close friend, calls Murphy strong-minded, straightforward and tough. “Phil is one of the smartest people I know, he’s just the person New Jersey needs at a time like this.” Dean adds that he is a “born manager of people” who expects a lot of them but not in an obnoxious manner, a clear reference to the state’s current governor.
“He’s not a screamer,” said Dean. “But he’s tough as nails. Toughness is not waving your hands, blustering and telling people to shut up and sit down. I measure toughness as making a plan, sticking to it and taking the consequences. That’s Phil”
That view of him may be evidenced by his reaction to Guadagno’s hammering away at his support for New Jersey as a sanctuary state. She has pointed to immigrants who become criminals — such as the rapist of a 6-year old girl and the accused terrorist in New York earlier this week — as the type of person that would be given sanctuary if Murphy were elected. Murphy has called her claims the lowest of the low, saying criminals must be treated as such by the justice system, no matter who they are.
Still, Guadagno’s accusations seem to get some traction but Murphy has not wavered in his stance.
In 2008, Murphy was appointed ambassador to Germany by President Barack Obama. Recently in Newark to stump for Murphy, Obama told the crowd that Murphy took the job at a critical time — right after the worst depression since the 1930s — when it was essential that Europe partner with the U.S. to save the economy.
“We needed someone good, credible, and solid in Germany,” said Obama. “Not only did he do such a good job … but he became a celebrity in his own right, he was on TV all the time, went town to town representing the U.S.”
In the United States, however, Murphy’s time as ambassador to Germany will be remembered for a minor scandal, after classified cables of Murphy criticizing German officials were made public on Wikileaks. In one of the documents, Murphy called German Chancellor Angela Merkel “insecure.” Although some German officials demanded Murphy be recalled, he apologized to officials and everyone seemed to move on, leaving it as only an embarrassing episode.
Upon returning to New Jersey, Murphy joined his wife Tammy in becoming active in nonprofit charity work. There are those that know Tammy from the early 2000s, when she co-founded 2ndlfoor.org (a youth hotline) and was active in local charities such as Monmouth Medical Center Foundation. They are quick to point to her as the real family activist. In addition to her local work, Tammy is also a founding board member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and serves on other international and education boards. Despite this, she demurs and says that is only due to her having left Goldman earlier, in order to follow Phil and raise a family.
“Phil and I are completely joined at the hip,” she said, noting that if he wins the election, she plans to jump into the job of first lady “with both feet.” But she adds that Murphy is committed to his ideals and points to his own service as evidence of them. Murphy has served as a board member of the national NAACP; he founded New Start Career Network, which offers employment help to those 45 years and older; and headed up the board of 180 Turning Lives Around, a Monmouth County-based domestic-abuse counseling center and women’s shelter.
Murphy had been considering a run for governor for a number of years, and in 2014, he created New Start New Jersey, a progressive policy organization that was launched with great fanfare. Murphy’s friend and neighbor, Jon Bon Jovi, was at his side. In 2015, he launched a Super PAC, confusingly called New Way for New Jersey
Since 2016, Murphy has been crisscrossing the state with his many famous friends, expounding on his progressive message — a fair economy, a $15 minimum wage, gun regulation, meeting pension obligations, legalization of marijuana, a solution for foreclosures, investment in higher education and a less racist criminal justice system.
He promises to be an activist governor, working to fix things, rather than what he sees as inaction by the Christie administration.
His first three priorities, he has said, are getting the New Jersey economy back on track through government initiatives; improving our transportation network, especially commuter rail; and supporting environmental causes, including investing in a green economy.
Those three things, he has said, are no-brainers for New Jersey, given its geographic location and its history. He notes that the state was once known for its innovation — Thomas Edison and his company, the pharmaceutical industry, and the birth of telecommunications. But New Jersey has lost its pride of place to California and Massachusetts.
Murphy noted that both California and Massachusetts are high-tax states, just like New Jersey, so that’s not the real problem, despite conventional wisdom. The difference is how money is invested for the future, Murphy says. “I want California to be the New Jersey of the West Coast,” said Murphy to one audience last month.
“His message and principles are much more in line with Blue Jersey,” notes Weinberg.
The biggest criticism against him is one of his biggest advantages — the complete support of the NJEA (New Jersey Education Association.) The state’s most powerful public union, which is currently going toe to toe with the Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney in a nasty effort to throw him out of office — was one of the first organizations to wholeheartedly endorse Murphy.
“The big question is, what has he promised them,” asks one Democratic insider. The worry that Murphy will be unable to solve some of the state’s intractable problems like pensions and benefits and school funding due to his allegiance to the NJEA is common among Democrats and Republicans.
Murphy says no one has been promised anything. But he believes that the union has given into demands and made sacrifices during the Christie administration, which then did not fill its part of the bargain. Murphy said he thinks the state must meet its obligations before it asks for any more sacrifice from the NJEA.
Dean said he would be very surprised if Murphy promised any supporters anything, saying he is more skilled and experienced than that. “I guarantee he knows he will have to say no to people.”
Another frequent concern is that he will be too much like the unpopular former governor, Jon Corzine. They have many similarities, as they are both wealthy, former Goldman Sachs executives, and came from national profiles to serve in Trenton.
“He’s a national Democrat from that class of elites,” said one Democrat. “New Jersey takes an acquired understanding. I don’t know that he has that.”
Another Democrat points to Corzine’s inability to get what he needed done, due to some intransigence of entrenched interests. “I think he’ll be surprised (if he gets to Trenton.)”
And even Weinberg worries that Murphy hasn’t really internalized the task that would be before him if elected. “Nothing works in New Jersey,” she said. “(If he wins) I hope he does a nationwide talent search because we need the best possible people to fix our economy.”
But others say the fact that he is untested politically is really what makes people nervous — but then again, it’s simply an unknown.
“Let’s be honest,” said Codey. “The Democratic party in New Jersey is kind of fractured. It’s time for an outsider. In fact, there couldn’t be a better time.”