NEWARK, NJ - The Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter stood before 100 people at his regular weekly noontime service at St. James AME in Newark, providing a message that was both spiritual and political.
"Politicians come and go, but God will keep you from falling," said Slaughter, with cries of "Amen" resounding from the pews. "You need to make a choice to affirm who you are with."
One prominent politician, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, came to church for Wednesday's service in his role as a surrogate supporter of Phil Murphy, the front-runner in the June 6 New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial primary.
The Democratic candidates in the race are preaching that they are the true progressive, with left-of-center views that they hope will lead them to win in New Jersey and help shape the national Democratic Party's direction. The potential shift is even more crucial in the aftermath of the party's 2016 Presidential campaign defeat.
But first, Murphy must win nomination and that means courting a critical community that have seen politicians come and go: African-Americans in Newark, the state's largest city and a treasure trove of Democratic primary voters.
All of the Democratic primary candidates, including 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), have touted a range of progressive principles, 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.
Dean hails from the same state as progressive icon Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly called for the national Democratic Party to embrace progressivism as a way to recover from the 2016 presidential defeat. While the senator's son, Levi Sanders, has campaigned with Murphy, Sen. Sanders has not endorsed any candidate in the race.
Dean believes Murphy has the progressive bona fide platform to break through in New Jersey.
"A state public bank is ideal for urban areas. There are a lot of small, minority businesses that are struggling along, including here in Newark," said Dean, noting Murphy's proposal to create a bank owned by the people of New Jersey, designed to make investments in and for New Jersey. This proposal has received criticism from Murphy's rivals as impractical and potentially prey to ethics violations.
"The bank community doesn't really care enough about small businesses," Dean said. "A public bank will make it easier for inner-city people of all colors to get a leg up."
"The honest truth is that left and right don't really mean anything anymore," Dean added about a candidate's progressive label. "You have a President [Republican Donald Trump] introduce a budget that will cause a trillion-dollar budget deficit. These labels don't mean very much. It's the policies you have to look at."
Dean, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004, has a long-time political relationship with Murphy. In 2006, Murphy was tapped by Dean, then the Democratic National Committee chair, to head the fundraising arm of the national party.
Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive who later served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, raised close to $300 million over a three year period.
Murphy's interest in Newark underscores the importance of the city in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary. 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 primary and general elections. Murphy appeared early and often in Newark in the summer and fall of 2016, speaking to both town hall meetings and campaigning door-to-door throughout the city.
Murphy was never the first choice among those in New Jersey who decide such things. Many of the county chairs, the elected officials, the party bosses and the donors had supported or were somewhere along in the process of supporting either Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop or state Senate President Steve Sweeney, although neither had formally announced a run for governor.
In Newark, Murphy did win early support from former Mayor Sharpe James, former Councilman Calvin West and Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the recipient of Fulop’s support in Newark’s 2014 mayoral election, put his chips all in with Fulop. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, given his close alliance with South Jersey power broker George Norcross, was believed to be pushing his chips toward Sweeney.
But, for reasons still unknown, Fulop and Sweeney unexpectedly withdrew their names from gubernatorial contention in the fall, creating a domino effect that cleared the path for Murphy.
Derrick Green, senior political advisor in Murphy's campaign, noted Murphy's well-worn path through Newark.
"He's taken his progressive message of change to the streets of Newark," said Green, an African-African who is an elder in his church. "One thing that I have learned about the African-American community over the years is that when you respect them. They will respond. He has not taken their vote for granted."
The Rev. Slaughter noted he was ready to mobilize his faith community on primary day. His church's social action ministry is led by Craig Stanley, a former assemblyman who is the nephew of the late U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne, the nephew of former Assemblyman William D. Payne and cousin of current U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr.
"We've got over a 1,000 new registered voters. We're going to use our church bus and any other transportation to get people to the polls. We took our senior church members who can't get to the polls, got them absentee ballots, filled them out and turned them in," Slaughter said. "I don't tell people who to vote for from the pulpit. But I can tell them who I am voting for."
Among Murphy's rivals, Johnson has been the most vocal about Murphy's claim of being the true progressive in this race, trying to tear off Murphy's self-anointed prime progressive label to show his competitor's Wall Street past underneath.
Johnson is the sole African-American candidate in the primary contest. While Slaughter emphasized that this campaign is not about race, he took a look at Johnson's personal finances.
"Johnson is not broke. He's rich. He's a good guy. His family has history in this church. But he's not poverty stricken. He lives in Montclair. He doesn't live in Newark," Slaughter said, noting Johnson's membership as an of counsel member of the prominent corporate law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, according to the firm's website.
"I can't hold it against a person for getting a high-paying job if it better helps them help them take care of their families. Then I can sow seeds in organizations that can help the community. I would do just that, and that's what Phil is doing."
"Phil Murphy has spent up to $18 million on this campaign so far, including $15 million of his own Goldman Sachs fortune. Jim Johnson asked Murphy to agree to a spending cap, and he said no. Jim is using the public financing system," said Aleigha Cavalier, communications director for the Johnson campaign, which is headquartered in downtown Newark. "There really is no question when it comes to money who is using money to influence this race."
Slaughter said Murphy, who began his well-funded campaign in May, got a jump on his potential rivals in Newark, and that he now enjoys a huge advantage over his primary rivals.
"Murphy started having town halls in Newark before Fulop and Sweeney could. That made a difference, because then people could put a face to the name," Slaughter said. "You have people like Sharpe James coming out and speaking on Murphy's behalf. Guess what these people are to the community? Believable resources."
Murphy has been marshaling his national political resources this week in the final surge before the primary. Besides Dean, he has deployed Kathleen Sibelius, a former Kansas governor and United States Secretary of Health and Human Services for five years under Obama, as a surrogate speaker in New Jersey. Former Vice President Joe Biden is appearing with Murphy at a public rally in Lyndhurst this Sunday.
If Murphy wins the primary, he will have to alter his campaign themes for New Jersey's suburban voters. As he roams leafy cul-de-sacs, Murphy will more likely be looking on lawns for votes, not pounding pavement.
But in Newark, where issues of poverty and public safety still have prime importance, urban voters might sit on their hands rather than go to the polls in the general election if the suburban swift is too severe.
In his office, Slaughter picked up a bullhorn, turned it on, and spoke into it, disturbing the church's calm.
"Believe this - if Phil Murphy forgets us, there will be a problem," Slaughter said, smiling. "I don't need a bullhorn in the pulpit. But I will be the first person down there in Trenton, using this wonderful device in front of the State House, if he does forget us. I will personally call him out.