NEWARK, NJ - Everyone in New Jersey knows that all roads and all trains ultimately lead to Newark, the state's largest city.
With the Garden State, and all of America, at a crossroads, former U.S. President Barack Obama came to downtown Newark this week to back Phil Murphy's bid to become New Jersey's governor less than three weeks before the Nov. 7 election.
Woven into the 44th President's words was one constant thread: what leadership really means for Newark, New Jersey, and the nation.
"The world counts on America having its act together. The world is looking to us as an example. The world asks what are values and ideals are, and are we living up to our creed. Just as the world is looking at us, [on Election Day] the world is going to be looking at New Jersey," said Obama to more than 1,000 people inside a packed ballroom in the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark on Thursday, the crowd chanting 'four more years' in a mass act of wishful thinking.
"Phil Murphy wants to make sure that young people here in Newark don't feel like they have to leave Newark in order to have a job. He wants to make sure that those young people who have strayed and taken the wrong path have a chance to get their lives back together again," Obama said. "That's the work of active citizenship that we need."
The fact that Obama's visit to Newark in support of Murphy was the first campaign appearance he has made since he left office in January is a testament to the longtime professional and personal relationship between the two men.
In 2006, Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive, was tapped by then-Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean to chair the fundraising arm of the national party, where he raised close to $300 million over a three year period, including during Obama's victorious 2008 presidential campaign.
Murphy was later appointed by Obama as U.S. Ambassador to Germany, where he served from 2009 to 2013.
Murphy is now in the final days of his electoral battle with Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno, who has served as Gov. Chris Christie's lieutenant governor for almost eight years. Guadagno incensed a host of notable Newark leaders earlier this month after her campaign released a highly negative attack ad slamming Murphy.
Murphy, who has been a constant campaign presence in Newark since he began his gubernatorial bid in May 2016, brought it all back to Brick City as he discussed the issues that frame voters' choices when they approach their polling place.
"We need to embrace new leadership with new priorities, respecting and reinvesting our urban communities just like Newark," said Murphy to the overflow crowd, listing a litany of initiatives that he hopes to achieve if elected to the top spot in Trenton. These policy plans include improving the state's fraying infrastructure, promoting the growth of innovation technology, helping to implement criminal justice reform, and instituting what Murphy termed to be 'sensible' gun safety laws.
"We need a stronger, fairer economy that doesn't work just for a few, but touches everyone," Murphy added. "And we're going to be laser-focused on getting this state fixed and back on its feet again."
Newark native and state Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34), Murphy's lieutenant governor candidate, focused her speech on what needs to happen for the state in the years ahead.
"We have to change the dialogue in New Jersey, and we have to change the channel after eight years of division," said Oliver, resplendent in a purple dress, whose color also showed her solidarity with Domestic Violence Awareness Month. "We can't afford another four years of 'sit down and shut up.' Let us take our state back."
Prominent politicos from throughout Newark and all across New Jersey were in attendance for the display of Obama's presidential firepower on behalf of Murphy.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr., Phil Alagia, DiVincenzo's chief of staff, Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr., former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10), state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), state Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin (D-34), Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin, and East Orange Councilman Chris James, who also serves as the New Jersey Democratic State Committee executive director, were all in the room.
Prominent pastors were present, too, including the Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter, pastor of St. James AME in Newark’s Central Ward. Slaughter presides over one of the largest African-American church congregations in the city, the type of constituency critical to winning votes in cities such as Newark.
Shortly after Baraka made an impassioned introductory speech to further fire up the crowd, the mayor told TAPinto Newark what the visit of the first African-American president to Newark in support of Murphy means.
"It means we're going to win," Baraka said.
From the podium, Obama made sure that he made Murphy the man of the hour. But at the same time, he rhetorically delved deeper into a vein that goes to the heart of what democracy means in America.
"The most important office in a democracy is not president, governor, or mayor. The most important office is the office of citizen. All of us have a responsibility to make our democracy work," Obama said to loud applause.
"If you make Phil Murphy the next governor of New Jersey, and Sheila Oliver the next lieutenant governor of New Jersey, not only will you move New Jersey forward, but you're going to send a message to the country, and you're going to send a message to the world," Obama said.
"We are rejecting the politics of division. We are rejecting the politics of fear. We are embracing the politics that says everybody counts, that everybody deserves a chance, that everybody has dignity and worth. The politics of hope - that's what we're fighting for," the former president said.
Obama is not the first president to speak at the Robert Treat Hotel. A bronze plaque positioned just to the left of the front entrance is emblazoned with four faces of four Presidents who have stayed at the more-than century old hotel, a keystone of downtown Newark. The faces depicted are those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy.
J.F.K., escorted by Leo Carlin, Newark's last Irish-American mayor, campaigned in Newark just weeks before he won the 1960 presidential election, which made him the first Irish-American president. An apocryphal story holds that J.F.K. and Frank Sinatra, star singer and Jersey icon, partied at the hotel after the Democratic standard-bearer had made his rounds around town.
The Obama-Murphy rally in downtown Newark was not a remembrance of things past. Rather, it took place in real time at a time when national political observers see the New Jersey governor's race as part of a referendum on the leadership of GOP President Donald Trump.
But judging by Murphy's speech in Newark during his own campaign close to 60 years later, the words of the great American author William Faulkner ring true - "the past is never dead. It's not even past."
"At this moment in time, my wife Tammy and our kids are here because of four people - my late mom and dad, John Kennedy and our honored guest today, let there be no doubt about it," said Murphy, who, according to Murphy campaign manager and Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, specifically asked Obama to come to Newark first when the former president planned to come to New Jersey on his behalf.
"Our president thinks he can get a gentleman's C in moral authority, when we all know that it's a pass-fail test. We will not be silent," Murphy added. "You may conclude, as we have, that governors will never have mattered more than now. We're going to have a governor with a steel backbone who stands up to this president. And we're going to get this state fixed and back on its feet again. You have my word."