Murphy surges towards Democratic primary in Newark, courting urban vote

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy at a pre-election rally at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy speaks to Essex County Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

Phil Murphy flashed his 1000-kilowatt smile to a crowd of approximately 1,000 people at the Robert Treat Hotel on Saturday in downtown Newark, three days before the Democratic gubernatorial candidate faces the voters in the primary election. 

Murphy made a final request to a critical mass of Democratic primary voters, hoping for a voter plurality in the tens of thousands that will give him his party's nomination for the November general election. 

"As Newark goes, and as Essex County goes, so goes the state of New Jersey, let there be no doubt," said Murphy. 

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"We have to crack the back of the home foreclosure crisis. Environmental justice in communities like Newark is just as important if not more important than open space," he said. "We need a governor who will commit to comprehensively reform the criminal justice system in the state with the widest white/non-white gap of persons incarcerated in America. We need a governor who will make our economy and our society fair again. I will be that governor."

Murphy made his final urban surge stump speech in a city critical to Democratic primary elections. Newark is the political heart of Essex County, the pulse of which cannot be ignored as it is often the source of the most Democratic votes in statewide elections. 

"This is not the time for games. These are the first statewide elections that we've had in the country since the election of 45," said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a reference to both the election last fall of Republican President Donald Trump and the looming closely-watched gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. 

"We have to make sure that if we have a crazy person in the White House, we have to have a sane person in the Statehouse," Baraka said. "Nobody has our back in the White House. We need somebody who has our back in the Statehouse." 

Moments after the Weequahic High School marching band paraded away, Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones Jr, trumpeted the plurality vote number needed from Newark and the surrounding towns to help ensure that Murphy gets a chance in the November general election to get to the governor's office.

"The plurality is going to be 30,000 votes," Jones proclaimed to loud cheers. "Ask your friends, neighbors, and boyfriends and girlfriends who have broken up to get back together on Tuesday and vote. Come on home. We're not winding down. We are winding up." 

"We're going to have a full operation out in the street in the South, Central and West Wards. Those numbers are going to be a lot different than the Board of Education election," said Amiri "Middy" Baraka, Jr., the mayor's brother and chief of staff, referring to the traditionally low-turnout April election. "We're going to have buses, sound trucks and boots on the ground of people who are familiar with the districts." 

"We're going to do what we do best: bring out the vote during primary season," said North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. "Come primary day, we're ready." 

Murphy launched his campaign early, in May 2016, campaigning often in Newark, 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, creating a domino effect that cleared the 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.

"This campaign is going to close the way it started - as a grass-roots campaign," said Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, Murphy's campaign manager and who also serves as chair of the Montclair Democrats. "We've knocked on over half-a-million doors and done small business street walks in cities like Newark. Now we have to close it out."

Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, will face off on Tuesday against primary rivals such as Jim Johnson, an attorney from Montclair and an under secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth), and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville). 

His competitors have assailed Murphy for the amount of money that he has poured into the primary campaign, reportedly more than $20 million. 

Murphy has continued to defend himself as a son of middle-class parents who grew up in humble circumstances outside of Boston before working his way up the economic ladder with two degrees from Harvard. 

But even more important for Murphy's credibility, especially in cities such as Newark, is how his stump speech will shift after the primary. Murphy spoke on Saturday about key urban issues such as home foreclosure and criminal justice reform. 

But if he wins the Democratic primary on Tuesday, he will be compelled to transfer to a policy platform focused on issues such fixing public train transit problems, fully funding suburban schools and reducing property taxes, core suburban concerns that could move Murphy away from urban concerns.

Murphy dismissed any notion that he would experience post-primary urban abandonment. 

"Are you kidding me? I go out of my way to talk about things like the white/non-white gap in the persons incarcerated in our criminal justice system when I'm in suburban communities. I never want people to say I was one thing then and a different thing now," Murphy said while he pointed to the new 22-story residential high-rise building under construction next to the Robert Treat Hotel and across the street from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). 

"We should be happy that building is coming. I've got a skill set and a set of experience that I hope would contribute to more development. But if Newark only works for the in-comers, and doesn't work for the people who fought and stayed here, we will have failed. We've got to develop the South Ward just as much as we've got to put that building up." 

As Murphy sped off towards his next campaign stop, an eclectic crowd continued to mill around downtown. In the corner of the hotel ballroom, former Mayor Sharpe James, an early supporter of Murphy who was dressed in a navy track suit with a matching slightly sideways Yankees cap, munched on a hot dog before slyly sliding out of a side door. 

Roberto Clemente, Jr., the son of the late namesake baseball player who is venerated by Newark's Latino community, came to show support.

But one of the most truly important people in the crowd was neither famous nor connected. He is a primary voter on Tuesday, a member of a prized, deep cache of Democratic votes in Newark. 

"Murphy maybe can do something for Newark, but people have got to be ready to do it for themselves. They have to go out and get it," said Lamar Gresham, 23, who lives in the city's South Ward. "Murphy has to motivate people and stay positive. Then he's got a shot to help us make positive moves." 

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