Murphy celebrates Democratic gubernatorial primary victory in Newark

Supporters at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark on primary night congratulate Phil Murphy, who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Phil Murphy, who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, accepts congratulations from supporters at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark on primary night Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

Phil Murphy claimed the 2017 Democratic nomination for governor in Newark on primary night, promising to both boost New Jersey and challenge President Donald Trump.

"I reject completely the us versus them leadership that defines Chris Christie and Donald Trump," said Murphy to a surging crowd of more than 1,200 people at the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark on Tuesday night. "The lesson I've learned is this: it's not what you take, it's what you give back."

Murphy won convincingly over his Democratic primary rivals. With 93 percent of precincts reporting, Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, won over 48 percent of the vote. Jim Johnson, an attorney from Montclair and an under secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) both hovered at around 21 percent. Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) received around five percent of the vote.

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In the November general election, Murphy will face Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who defeated Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli in the Republican primary.  

Murphy launched his campaign early, in May 2016, campaigning in the state's largest city well before potential rivals, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop or state Senate President Steve Sweeney, had an opportunity to jump into the race. 

Fulop and Sweeney unexpectedly withdrew their names from gubernatorial contention by October, which cleared a path for Murphy among party insiders, who closed ranks around the candidate last fall on the steps in front of the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark.

Many of Murphy's prominent early supporters in Newark, including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, former Councilman Calvin West and Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, were visible in the crowd Tuesday night.

"Some factions from Newark felt that Murphy was the best candidate at a time when Newark was evenly divided between Murphy, Sweeney and Fulop," said James, wearing a straw hat with an Essex County Democratic Line A handbill wedged into the brim. "We were outgunned and outnumbered, but we galvanized support along the way." 

Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor and senate president and a member of Team Murphy's kitchen cabinet who was in the front row as Murphy gave his victory speech, said Newark played a big role in Murphy's victory. 

Codey then grabbed Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who initially supported Fulop for governor, warmly by the shoulder and said that Baraka's quick shift to Murphy also made a difference.

"Getting Baraka on board was huge," said Codey. "When Fulop got out, he was in. It was instantaneous."

While the treasure trove of Democratic votes in cities such as Newark play a key role in party primaries, many voters in big cities often feel abandoned as candidates reorient their policy platforms away from urban issues such as the high rate of home foreclosure and criminal justice reform. Instead, core suburban concerns such as fixing public train transit problems, fully funding suburban schools and reducing property taxes tend to come to the fore. 

Murphy has stated that he will not shift too far from urban concerns in the months to come, noting that he points out issues such as the white/non-white gap in prisoners incarcerated in the criminal justice system when he campaigns in suburban communities. 

Baraka pointed out that any divide between urban and suburban issues might be exaggerated. 

"Foreclosure is also a suburban issue," Baraka said. "All of these type of issues affect all working families in New Jersey. And all of them don't just live in the cities." 

Murphy ran off a litany of progressive policies during his speech that he said he would support if he makes it to the Statehouse, including raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour, the restoration of the millionaires' tax, the legalization of marijuana beyond medical use, and improved infrastructure. 

He also pushed back against claims that his Wall Street past puts him out of touch with middle-class New Jerseyans, saying that he will "close loopholes that only benefit Wall Street money managers" if elected governor of the Garden State. 

The eyes of national political observers are locked in on New Jersey and Virginia, whose closely-watched gubernatorial contests are seen as referendums on Trump.

The Robert Treat Hotel is no stranger to presidential politics. President John F. Kennedy stayed in the hotel during his 1960 campaign, with his face etched in bronze by the hotel's front door in memory of his visit.

The ghost of Trump haunted Murphy's speech, with Murphy framing his New Jersey gubernatorial campaign within a panorama of resisting the president and his policies. 

Murphy, who grew up outside Boston, hearkened back to Kennedy's call to make a difference as he stood in the vortex of state and national politics on the hotel stage. 

"The very essence of America is now under assault. We have a president who thinks that tweeting is leadership. Make no mistake - what Donald Trump does in Washington matters right here," exhorted Murphy as he excoriated what he called President Trump's 'warped vision of America.' "We are better than Donald Trump and we are better than Chris Christie." 

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