Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy continued his political star power carpet bombing of rival Republican candidate Kim Guadagno in Newark this week as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder joined Murphy in New Jersey's largest city to show him strong support two weeks before the Nov. 7 election.
The primary policy focus of the event was one that is politically explosive in the city of Newark, the state of New Jersey, and the whole nation: the protection and expansion of voting rights, a privilege seen by many as under pressure from the administration of President Donald Trump.
And Murphy, side-by-side with Holder, who also served under former President Barack Obama, vowed to forcefully expand voter rights in the Garden State.
"The most aggressive thing that we're talking about is automatic registration at the Motor Vehicles Commission," said Murphy before an audience packed tight into his campaign office at 744 Broad Street in downtown Newark on Monday, one of the candidate's two offices in the city.
Murphy also listed other plans to expand voter rights in New Jersey, including online voter registration, same-day registration at the polls, in-person, early voting, as well as expanding voter rolls to include 17-year-olds who will be the standard 18-year-old voting age by the time of the general election.
Murphy also noted his intention, if elected governor, to allow ex-criminal offenders to vote, an issue acutely felt by many people in cities such as Newark.
"I know Utah allows restoration of voting rights [for ex-offenders]," Murphy said. "I'm thinking if they could do it Utah, they could do it in New Jersey."
Murphy then threw a rhetorical right hook at Guadagno, who has served as outgoing GOP Gov. Chris Christie's lieutenant governor for almost eight years.
"The particular bone to pick that I've got is that my opponent is not just the Lieutenant Governor. She's the Secretary of State," Murphy said. "So all of the things that I've spoken about, and more, are under her authority."
The tide of Democratic heavy-hitters have continued to hammer home Murphy's momentum going into the 2017 gubernatorial campaign's final days. Former Democratic President Barack Obama campaigned for Murphy in Newark last week. Former Democratic President Bill Clinton campaigned for Murphy on Tuesday in close-by Paramus, former Vice President Al Gore stumped for him in Monmouth County on Oct. 15, while former Vice President Joseph Biden appeared on Murphy's behalf in nearby Lyndhurst several months ago.
While few New Jerseyans had heard of Murphy when he announced his run for governor of New Jersey last May, he was already well-known in national Democratic circles.
In 2006, Murphy 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.
When Obama came to Newark last week to publicly back Murphy's bid for the top spot in Trenton, it was his first political campaign trail appearance since he left office in January.
Holder was the first African American to hold the position of U.S. Attorney General, a job that he held from 2009 to 2015.
The dark cloud hovering over those present was the Presidential Advisory Commission, which was initiated by President Trump earlier this year following his groundless claim that he would have won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election if he hadn't been scuttled by as many as five million illegally cast votes.
The controversial 11-member panel, officially chaired by Vice President Michael Pence, is commonly called the Kobach Commission because of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the commission's vice chair.
Earlier this year, in August, a federal judge declined to stop the Kobach Commission from collecting voter data. This decision led to a lawsuit that is trying to block the collection of voter data. The suit could now go to a federal appeals court.
The commission has only met twice since its first meeting in July. A third meeting has yet to be publicly scheduled.
Uncertainty about the goals of the bipartisan panel was reflected by the palpable unease of those present at the Holder-Murphy event in Newark, combined with a sense of urgency to combat any potential adverse affect the Kobach Commission could have, especially for urban, minority-majority communities such as Newark.
After Murphy and Holder expressed their mutual high regard for each other, Holder bluntly noted his disdain for the current state of affairs under the Trump regime.
"Republicans are afraid of the voters. They are trying to keep as many people away from the polls as they possibly can," said Holder, a New York native born of Barbadian parents, with Jersey roots in the Bergen County town of Teaneck, a fact that he proudly noted.
"Democrats, by contrast, think that we do better when more people vote. And so the things that Phil is outlining is to get more people to the polls, allow more people to express their opinions about the fate of our government, the fate of our nation, and the direction that we ought to be taking in the 21st century," Holder said.
"What is it that [the Republicans] are afraid of?" Holder added. "These are fact-challenged zealots who are running this commission. The notion that the woman who wants to be the next governor of this state would cooperate in some form or fashion with those people tells you about the kind of governor that she's going to be."
Another major national Democratic Party player came to Newark to add his voice to the chorus of support behind Murphy.
"To have Attorney General Holder here with us, who is leading an effort across the country making sure that we have an environment that is going to be robust, and much healthier, when it comes to making sure that we have representation across the country without these gerrymandered districts all across America, is significant," said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), who then explained why he came all the way to the Garden State from the Land of Enchantment.
"With all the work that has to happen across America, Phil is going to make sure that it's starting right here in New Jersey, which is critically important to us. And I really believe momentum is on our side. We're seeing it right here on the ground," Luján said.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka presented another angle about what democracy means directly from the streets of Brick City.
"When you talk about disenfranchisement and the manipulation of the vote, basically you're talking about people of color," Baraka said, referencing to the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2013 that effectively eviscerated an essential part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allowed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
"[The 2016 election] was the first presidential election without the protections of the Voting Rights Act," Baraka said. "We need to talk about how the deleterious effects of the Voting Rights Act being gutted affected people of color throughout the nation, and in cities like Newark. The push for more participation is the direction that we should be going in."
The crowd of about 50 people assembled in Murphy's campaign HQ was a collection of some of New Jersey's best and brightest legal minds along with many bold-faced names.
James R. Zazzali, a Newark native and a former Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, sat in the front row, listening intently.
Also fully focused as Holder spoke were former United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey Paul J. Fishman; Paul T. Fader, partner at the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt and Fader, who served as Chief Counsel to New Jersey Governors Richard J. Codey and Jim McGreevey; retired Monmouth County Superior Court Judge and Rutgers Law professor Edward Neafsey; Professor Paula Franzese, legal scholar and the Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall University; and prominent private attorneys Rajiv Parikh, Gerald Krovatin, David J. Pascrell, William J. Pascrell, III, and Christine Stearns, among others.
Holder told TAPinto Newark after the event how he feels that the rights of urban voters, such as those who live in Newark, could be particularly at risk.
"I think this Kobach Commission can't be underestimated in terms of the information that it's gathering, what it's going to do with that information, and the proposals that are likely to come from that commission," Holder said.
"There are specific things that we have to worry about in our urban centers, where you've got large populations of people who are disenfranchised because of their involvement in the criminal justice system," Holder said. "We also need to focus on gerrymandering, where you see people of a particular Democratic persuasion packed into a certain district, or cracked from certain districts, such that we have voting that is done in districts that are not drawn fairly. These are all of the kinds of things that people in urban districts need to be concerned about."
Ryan P. Haygood, Esq., president and CEO of the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, underscored his belief that voting is fundamental in order to create positive change throughout the state.
"I really like the frame that we should be thinking about New Jersey as a standard-bearer for expanding democracy. And Newark can specifically play a role in this process," said Haygood, one of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers, who was name-checked multiple times by Murphy during his remarks.
"Part of what we have to do in the city of Newark, and in cities across New Jersey, is talk about why voting matters, and what it cost people to get the right to vote," Haygood said. "If you want to change a community that suffers from challenging socioeconomic issues, sub-standard housing, and unequal access to health care, employment and education, voting is the lever through which change happens from the ground up in our communities."
Jim Johnson, an attorney from Montclair who challenged Murphy in the New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial primary, also spoke about the critical importance of voting in a democracy.
"Same-day voter registration has been shown to have a big impact on people's turnout. It would be terrific if all across the state, we had same-day voter registration," said Johnson, who some political observers believe might campaign for elected office again in the near future.
"We also have to change the nature of civic engagement, and voting is the tail end of that process," Johnson said. "That's a challenge to us in this state, and that's a challenge to us across the country. And I think we're going to see leadership from Phil Murphy that's actually going to improve the situation."
After the dialogue about the future of voting rights was done, Holder hit the pavement on Newark's Broad Street, the main artery that pulses through one of the most diverse, and most vibrant, cities in New Jersey and in all of America. But before he went on his way, Holder offered a parting thought, and, at the same time, delivered a parting shot to President Trump.
"It's going to be leaders like Phil Murphy who say 'Guess what? We're taking our country back,'" said Holder. "And guess what? He's the one who's going to make America great again."