Can a Sanders Democrat Win the New Jersey Governor’s Race?

Can a Sanders Democrat Win the New Jersey Governor’s Race?

Can a Sanders Democrat Win the New Jersey Governor’s Race?

John Wisniewski is fighting Wall Street money and the party machine.


Whither the Democrats after 2016? A year before the 2018 midterm elections, that question will get its first real test in New Jersey, one of only two states (along with Virginia) where the governorship is at stake this year. And just as last year’s presidential primary pitted Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, against Bernie Sanders, a left-leaning insurgent, the two leading candidates in New Jersey’s 2017 Democratic primary have staked out their turf in the party’s Clinton and Sanders wings.

Voters in deep-blue New Jersey, who have groaned under the weight of Governor Chris Christie’s Republican administration since 2009, are eager for a fresh start. With Christie’s approval rating at an all-time low of just 18 percent, the odds strongly favor a Democratic win over any of the potential GOP candidates aiming to succeed him.

The state’s Democratic primary, which takes place in June, is shaping up as a choice between the favorite, Phil Murphy, a multimillionaire and former Goldman Sachs executive with strong backing from the party establishment, and his leading challenger, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a veteran legislator and former chair of Sanders’s presidential effort in the state. For Wisniewski, the primary is an uphill climb, and he’s running an insurgent, populist-tinged campaign that he hopes will inspire the same enthusiasm that energized the Sanders movement.

To hear Wisniewski tell it, his campaign is part of a national effort to bring the Democratic Party back to its roots. “The party periodically has to go through reevaluation and soul-searching about its core beliefs,” he told The Nation. “The party went through that right after Ronald Reagan became president, and there was this view that the party needed to be more centrist. We had a movement led by the governor of Arkansas, who later became our president, about taking the party to the center. Over time, the party started to become indistinguishable from the Republicans. What we’re seeing today is a natural reaction that’s built up over the years, where a lot of rank and file feel that we Democrats haven’t stuck to our core beliefs.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Wisniewski faces is New Jersey’s entrenched system of party bosses. The state is notorious for the power wielded behind the scenes by a handful of figures, such as South Jersey’s George Norcross, an insurance executive, and North Jersey’s Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive (whose domain includes Newark). Along with other, less powerful Democratic machines and the party chairpersons in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, they exert enormous influence in primary elections, in part by controlling which candidate gets the favored first line on the ballot. In the 2016 presidential primary, the entire New Jersey Democratic leadership, including all of the state’s elected officials (except Wisniewski), lined up for Clinton, who won 566,247 votes to Sanders’s 328,058.

As for Murphy, his vast wealth gives him the ability—much like New Jersey’s previous Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, also a former Goldman Sachs executive—to largely self-finance his campaign. So far, Murphy has loaned his campaign at least $9.5 million, driving potential challengers from the race before it even began. And Murphy has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to county organizations and local politicians, helping to secure the support of all 21 county chairpersons. (According to state records, since 2014, Murphy has given $63,000 to the Passaic County and $60,000 to the Union County Democratic organizations, and with his wife, Tammy—also a Goldman Sachs alum—he’s funneled $148,850 to the Bergen County organization.)

In addition to the county leaders, Murphy has lined up support from New Jersey’s two senators, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez; most of organized labor, including the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA); and prominent leaders like Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Though Murphy is the clear favorite in a race that includes Wisniewski and several other challengers, he has opted to single out Wisniewski for strongly worded attacks, with Murphy’s campaign calling him a “21-year Trenton insider and party boss”—even though not a single one of New Jersey’s actual bosses have backed Wisniew­ski, and most have lined up in Murphy’s camp.

When asked what he thinks about the fact that Murphy’s campaign website doesn’t mention that he spent more than two decades at Goldman Sachs—it says only that he “work[ed] his way up to help lead a major international business”—Wisniewski responded, “I think that speaks for itself. The mind-set that comes from Goldman Sachs doesn’t connect with New Jersey voters.”

First elected to the state assembly in 1995, Wisniewski might seem to be a creature of business-as-usual Jersey politics, at least on the surface. Over the past two decades, he has chaired the Assembly’s transportation committee; led the 2011 reapportionment effort; served for three years as chairman of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee; and was a member of the Democratic National Committee.

But if you look a little deeper, you’ll see that Wisniewski has a strong independent streak. He hails from the city of Sayreville in central New Jersey, a former industrial town along the Raritan River whose factories have mostly shuttered since the 1960s, and he’s repeatedly been elected with strong support from labor and progressive groups. (Among his other achievements, he’s earned a lifetime score of 0 percent from the American Conservative Union for his voting record.) And he’s bucked the Democratic Party leadership and its boss-driven agenda time and time again.

For example, when Christie launched an aggressive assault on the pensions and health-care benefits of state employees in 2011, he did so with the support of Norcross, DiVincenzo, and other Democratic bosses, whose allies in the Assembly joined the Republican governor to give him the margin he needed to pass the changes despite massive protests outside the State House by the NJEA, the CWA, and other unions. In June of that year, Wisniewski appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, where he joined her in bemoaning the state of the Democratic Party and added, in regard to the pension-“reform” fiasco: “We fought real hard, but unfortunately there were some Democrats who chose to side with the Republicans on this bill.”

And in 2013, when Christie found himself enmeshed in a scandal over politically motivated lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, Wisniewski led the special committee investigating Christie and his cronies—but he says that leading Democrats in the Legislature expressed concern about his rocking the boat. “I received calls from Democrats saying, ‘John, this is not going to end well,’” Wisniewski recounted, “or, more tellingly, ‘You’re making it hard to get things done. The governor’s not going to agree to do things if you’re pursuing him.’” New Jersey, Wisniewski adds, is all about making deals, and some Democrats feared that his “Bridgegate” committee would hurt their ability to make deals with the Republican governor.

But it was Wisniewski’s decision in late 2015 to support Sanders’s primary campaign that put him squarely against the state’s Democratic establishment. Though Wisniewski had compiled a 20-year record as a liberal New Jersey legislator, he hadn’t paid much attention to the Vermont socialist before 2015. “I liked Senator Sanders, and I knew who he was,” Wisniewski told The Nation. But when he traveled to Minneapolis in late 2015 for a meeting of the DNC, he was astonished by the hundreds of supporters lining up to see Sanders, many of whom had traveled long distances. “I saw a level of enthusiasm and engagement that I didn’t see for any other candidate,” Wisniewski recalled. “It was on a lot of different levels—certainly about all of the progressive issues that Sanders represented, but it was also about the need for a change in our national Democratic Party, that we had become too corporate.”

Back home, Wisniewski signed up to chair the Sanders campaign. His decision didn’t sit well with the state’s Democratic leaders. “I announced my support for Senator Sanders, and I won’t use any names, but I had one assemblyman call me up and say, ‘I’m on board, I love everything that Sanders stands for. I’m glad you’re leading the effort. What can I do to help?’ And 48 hours later, I got a call from the same assemblyman, who said: ‘I got a call from my county chair, who said that if I support Sanders, I won’t get the party line for reelection next time.’ And I had a number of elected officials tell me, ‘I’m with you, but quietly. Unofficially.’ Below the radar, so to speak.”

One cause for concern was John Currie, chairman of the state Democratic committee and a strong Clinton supporter. “John Currie was furious that I came out for Bernie Sanders,” Wisniewski said. Months later, Currie got his revenge. In June 2016, Currie unceremoniously booted Wisniewski (along with Reni Erdos, another Sanders supporter) from the DNC, replacing him with an insurance executive who was also a party fund-raiser. “They weren’t content just to be cheerleaders for Hillary Clinton,” Wisniewski told The Nation. “They wanted to make sure that there was no opposition at all.” In the end, not a single party leader, big-city mayor, member of the State Legislature, or member of Congress from New Jersey backed Sanders. “They feared that what John Currie did to me, he’d do to them,” Wisniewski said.

For his part, Currie told The Nation that Wisniewski’s ouster from the DNC had nothing to do with his support for Sanders. “It’s my right to put anyone on the committee,” Currie said. “I preferred another gentleman.” Asked whether New Jersey’s county chairpersons have too much influence over the process for selecting a nominee, Currie said no: “I think county chairs bring discipline to the party. I like our system in New Jersey very much.”

Were Wisniewski to win the June primary, of course, Currie and the rest of the Democratic establishment would probably support him, though there’s no guarantee: In 2013, when Christie was running for reelection, a number of Democratic bosses in the state opted not to back Barbara Buono, their own party’s nominee. After her defeat, Buono issued a scathing denunciation of the “onslaught of betrayal” by “the Democratic bosses, some elected and some not,” who covertly supported Christie.

To prevail against these forces, Wisniewski will have to run an outsider’s campaign, much as Sanders did last year. That effort is well under way, he said: “We’re doing town halls, meet-and-greets; we have field organizers, phone banks, and we’re raising funds—$5, $27, because we’re not supported by a $10 million check.”

In January, Wisniewski led a meeting of some 270 organizers and activists at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, part of a National Day of Action called for by Sanders to oppose the Trump administration’s assault on health care. Standing before union members, retirees, and dozens of millennials who’d worked for the Sanders campaign, Wisniewski went far beyond defending the Affordable Care Act. To robust cheers from the crowd, he attacked “ideologues in Washington who really care only about insurance- company profits [and] fantasize about privatizing Medicare,” before adding: “I’m going to do everything I can to work toward a single-payer system right here in New Jersey!”

Meanwhile, a few days later, The Nation caught up with Phil Murphy at a gathering of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. Around 800 members packed a room at the Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel in Iselin, New Jersey, for a town hall organized in conjunction with Murphy’s campaign. “We endorsed Murphy back in October,” said Kevin Davitt, a spokesman for the carpenters’ union. Murphy, who’s been preparing to run for governor for several years, has aggressively courted labor’s support, and he’s earned the backing of the NJEA, the CWA, the Service Employees International Union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, and the police and firefighters’ unions. Tall, slim, and fit, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actor Michael Keaton, Murphy bounded onto the stage in Iselin, energetic and brimming with enthusiasm. He grabbed the mike, called out to people in the audience, acknowledged the standing ovation, and then shed his jacket. “What an extraordinary show of support!” he exclaimed. After a punchy speech to open the event, Murphy took questions from the crowd for more than an hour.

There was, however, evidence of careful orchestration for the slickly produced event. Just before John Ballantyne, the union’s leader, introduced Murphy, dozens of carpenters dutifully filed in to stand behind the stage as a camera-ready backdrop. People working for Murphy were everywhere, including videographers, press people, and event managers. Almost every question from the audience was prearranged, according to documents obtained by The Nation, which include an e-mail from Michelle McCormick of Groundwork Strategies, a PR firm, to Kenneth Smith of SmithMedia: “I’ve attached a draft agenda and the candidate questions for your reference”—along with a list of five questions to be asked by the audience. Sure enough, as Murphy called on “random” audience members, the printed questions on the list were read.

For his campaign, Murphy isn’t running as a centrist corporate Democrat, but rather as a progressive champion making a strong appeal to labor. Despite his more than two decades on Wall Street, he is quick to acknowledge that the financial sector is underregulated, that the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act was a mistake, and that Wall Street should have been held accountable for the 2008 meltdown. Asked by The Nation whether people at Goldman Sachs should have been criminally prosecuted for fraud rather than merely fined, Murphy deflected, saying: “Nobody on Wall Street has paid a price for bringing the country to its knees. I find that offensive and unacceptable.”

At the Iselin event, Murphy delivered a stem-winding populist speech. “We’ve got to grow the economy, but we’ve got to make it fair!” he said. “It’s not only unfair, but it’s rigged. It’s not honest.… It’s time for morning in New Jersey!” This prompted another standing ovation—led, it should be mentioned, by the union execs in the front row. Slamming right-to-work laws and calling for a minimum-wage increase, Murphy said: “We’ve done a lousy job in our party—the Democratic Party, the party of labor— reminding people that we are the party of labor.”

Concluding his speech, Murphy told the carpenters: “It’s easy for me to say the right things. [But] look at my life story and ask yourselves: ‘Does this guy’s life match up with what he’s telling us?’” In fact, it’s a good guess that few in the audience knew Murphy’s life story. As the meeting drew to a close, we asked some of the union members present if Murphy had made the sale. “I thought he answered the questions fairly and wisely,” said one veteran carpenter. “I’m going to do some more study about him.” Asked if he knew that Murphy had spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs—a fact that the candidate hadn’t mentioned once during his 60-plus minutes onstage—the carpenter thought for a moment before responding, “So you mean he’s the swamp we need to drain?”

Murphy was hired by Goldman Sachs in 1983, when he was fresh out of college. His many years there shaped his worldview and left him with a Rolodex of powerful contacts. “We [at Goldman Sachs] are elite in the sense the Marine Corps is elite,” Murphy said in 1998, according to The Wall Street Journal.

After stints heading Goldman’s Asia and Germany operations, Murphy returned to the New York headquarters in 1999, just as the firm—and Wall Street—were undergoing a dramatic transformation. That was the year Glass-Steagall was repealed and a ban was placed on the regulation of derivatives. Both moves were orchestrated by Robert Rubin, the Clinton administration’s Treasury secretary and another Goldman Sachs alum, and they took Wall Street and investment banks like Goldman to new levels of risky, highly leveraged speculative activities.

In 1999, Murphy joined the firm’s management committee, an elite group that included Hank Paulson, later George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn, now President Trump’s top economic adviser. Two years later, he became co-head of the division overseeing the assets of pensions, foundations, hedge funds, and other institutions and wealthy individuals managed by Goldman, which totaled $373 billion by 2003. And as a prime broker for investors, his division fed hedge-fund clients enormous lines of credit, fueling Wall Street’s speculative bubble.

Murphy gave up his day-to-day role at Goldman in 2003, becoming a senior director before finally leaving the firm in 2006. That year, he took over as finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, where he worked alongside Howard Dean, coaxing checks from wealthy donors, including Wall Street bankers and hedge-fund moguls. “We raised almost $300 million in my three years there,” Murphy told The Nation. By 2009, he and his wife made personal contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million to Democratic candidates, committees, and party organizations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In keeping with the long-standing presidential habit of appointing big donors as ambassadors, President Obama tapped Murphy in 2009 to be US ambassador to Germany.

Murphy’s Goldman connections were instrumental in his transition from Wall Street to politics. “He is a close confidant of former treasury secretary and Wall Street veteran Robert Rubin, the éminence grise of the Democratic Party when it comes to financial issues,” reported the German weekly Der Spiegel after Murphy was named ambassador. “It was through his connection to Rubin that Murphy began working as a Democratic Party fundraiser.” Murphy also had ties to Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff at the Treasury. According to WikiLeaks, in 2008, it was Froman who recommended to John Podesta, then overseeing Obama’s transition, that Murphy get a top job in the administration.

Despite his Wall Street background—or perhaps in an effort to overcome it—Murphy agrees with Wisniewski on a wide range of issues, including the need for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a more progressive tax system, stronger environmental protections, and more effective gun control. Murphy has garnered a positive response from many Jersey Democrats for his innovative proposal to create a state-owned public bank, which, he told The Nation, would be explicitly modeled on the century-old Bank of North Dakota. “It’ll be a people’s bank,” he said. “Our model would make student loans at reasonable rates, small-scale infrastructure loans working with community banks, and small-business loans.”

There are some differences as well between the two candidates. Wisniewski, as noted earlier, strongly supports a Medicare-for-all single-payer plan for New Jersey; Murphy suggests that while he favors such a plan in principle, it’s more practical now to defend the Affordable Care Act. And while Wisniewski supports making state colleges and universities free to New Jersey residents earning less than $125,000 a year, echoing Sanders’s 2016 pledge, Murphy’s higher-education plan is focused on loan relief and refinancing.

One area where Wisniewski has been sharply critical of Murphy is on the long-running battle in New Jersey over pensions and health-care benefits for state employees. Back in 2005, while Murphy was a senior director at Goldman Sachs, he was named by then-Governor Richard Codey, a Democrat, to chair a commission, the Benefits Review Task Force, which would propose ways of dealing with the growing pension crisis resulting from persistent state underfunding. That report made a series of recommendations, many of which drew sharp criticism from organized labor. Murphy “approached it in Wall Street fashion: ‘Let’s extend the retirement age, make employees pay more, and cut benefits,’” Wisniewski said. “That’s a straight Wall Street way of approaching a financial problem.” At the time, the biggest unions representing state employees, such as the NJEA and the CWA, attacked the Murphy report. Carla Katz, then president of CWA Local 1034, promised: “We will fight vigorously and loudly against any cuts to our pensions or health benefits proposed by the task force.”

Today, as noted earlier, both the NJEA and the CWA are backing Murphy. Hetty Rosenstein, the CWA-NJ state director, admitted that back in 2005, her union was unhappy with the Murphy-led commission—but she and other union leaders point out, rather illogically, that the measures proposed in that report have largely been enacted since then, especially during Christie’s all-out assault on state employees in 2011. And, Rosenstein added, “Murphy’s perspective in support of collective bargaining, having seen it in the intensely unionized society in Germany—well, that impressed us.” Besides, she said, his support from New Jersey’s county chairs, which all but guarantees Murphy the top ballot line, is probably decisive: “You can’t win a primary off the line.” Does that mean the CWA’s decision to support Murphy is a pragmatic one? “It is partially pragmatic,” she replied.

It’s worth noting that Rosenstein co-led the Bernie Sanders campaign in the state along with Wisniewski last year. Another New Jersey progressive closely allied with organized labor, who would speak only on background, insisted that Wisniewski backed Sanders purely for opportunistic reasons, in order to appeal to the Vermont senator’s base: “Did he take a center-left position to create an opening for his gubernatorial campaign? Probably.” Said another: “He’s no Bernie Sanders.”

Not surprisingly, Wisniewski disputed these claims. By supporting Sanders, he said, he alienated both the Clinton machine— including Murphy, one of Clinton’s principal fund-raisers in New Jersey—and the state’s Democratic establishment, making it far harder for him to gather political support. “It’s laughable that they think they know what makes a progressive in New Jersey, and to compare that to a progressive from Vermont,” he said. “I happen to come from New Jersey—I don’t come from Vermont—but I’ve always supported increasing the minimum wage, making college affordable.” The state’s Democratic Party has moved to the right, he added, and become ever more willing to make deals with Governor Christie. As an example, he cited a recent bill, supported by 43 of 48 Assembly Democrats, raising the gas tax by 23¢ a gallon in order to replenish the state’s transportation fund—while at the same time abolishing New Jersey’s estate tax and making other changes benefiting the wealthy that will cost the state $12 billion over 10 years—what Wisniewski called “tax breaks for the super-wealthy.”

Though much of labor supports Murphy, National Nurses United has come out in favor of Wisniewski. “John understands the struggles of New Jersey families and will stand up for our communities when Wall Street and corporate special interests try to game the system at our expense,” said NNU’s Esteban Ramirez-Orta. And Jeff Weaver, the former national campaign manager for Sanders who now leads Our Revolution, the Sanders spin-off, endorsed him in January. “John Wisniewski stood with us, and he stood with us early,” Weaver told The Nation. “His platform is a progressive platform. And in addition to that, I don’t think we need more Wall Street executives in government, in Trump’s administration or in New Jersey.”

Although Bernie Sanders has yet to weigh in with an endorsement in the race, he did issue a statement in January that read, in part: “I want to thank John Wisniewski for the strong support he gave me during the Democratic presidential primary. He played a great role in that race, and I am confident he would make an excellent governor for New Jersey.”

For his part, Wisniewski said that he’s talked with Sanders, and he’s hopeful he’ll get an endorsement both from him and from Our Revolution, which is polling its supporters in New Jersey about the race, as well as the state’s Working Families Party. Can he run a Sanders-style campaign in New Jersey and win? “Party bosses [think] that by virtue of their ascension to party leadership, they’re in control of what’s best for the Democratic Party,” Wisniewski said. “As Senator Sanders showed, that ain’t necessarily so. There are a lot of people who disagree with that across the nation—and right here in New Jersey.”

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