Deprived of a real contest in the New Jersey Democratic Primary, establishment party barstool crumb-bums have turned in dejected, half-hearted misery toward the pro-forma sounds of gladiatorial combat far from the main circus tent, where former Assistant Treasury Secretary Jim Johnson and Assemblyman John Wisniewski chop, slash, and earnestly and urgently try to prove themselves either A. worthy of a second look somewhere up the road of Democratic Party politics; or B. nobly dead on arrival.
Internal polling mimics the public polling, and those numbers place former Ambassador to Germany (and former Goldman Sachs executive) Phil Murphy far out in front of Wisniewski and Johnson, who labor tediously to the rest of the civilized world for the time bulk of this campaign cycle but internally frantically only to mutually muster single digit territory.
Earlier this month, the Johnson Campaign exulted over the news that they were leading Wisniewski by two percentage points: seven to five percent. The press release was akin to San Diego Charger tight end Al Pupunu’s endzone dance in Superbowl XXIX.
With the slender, grinning Murphy standing at a podium between the two of them at NJTV’s debate two weeks ago, both men tried to stand out as that most withering Murphy critic, taking turns tackling their ultimately amiably elusive foe and finally proving the sustained intensity of their own floor-mat grapple for second place.
Then there’s the race for disbursements under the public campaign financing program. Johnson has done better there, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC): $1,564,420 to $941,607, but their campaigns have mostly mimicked each other with press releases amplifying those anti-Goldman Sachs tones of the debate.
The coding of the negative message-releases goes something like this: Murphy-Murphy-Murphy-TRUMP-Murphy-Christie-Murphy-Murphy.
Last week, Wisniewski Campaign Manager Kevin O’Keefe slapped resoundingly at the front-runner.
“It’s only fitting that former Vice President Al Gore feels compelled in his endorsement of Phil Murphy to mention how Phil was an original supporter of the former Vice President’s start-up venture,” he said. It’s clear that Al Gore was bought and paid for just like the 21 party chairs. Murphy’s dirty energy portfolio is his defining stance towards the environment. Phil chooses profits over energy policy. Shame on the League of Conservation Voters and Al Gore. They must both explain how they can turn a blind eye to Phil’s dirty energy portfolio – which is the only environmental policy that matters.”
In the aftermath of the debate, Johnson seethed.
“From using dark-money organizations to kickstart his campaign to flat out lying to voters about his retirement from Goldman Sachs at last night’s debate, Phil Murphy has shown, time and again, that he does not believe the rules apply to him,” he said. “Murphy has made ‘no apology’ for his career at Goldman Sachs, yet he runs away from his time there at every chance he gets. He claims he left before the financial crisis and cannot be held accountable for Goldman Sachs’ egregious behavior — but he was a Senior Director through 2006, years after the firm had begun selling faulty mortgages to hardworking Americans,” said Johnson. “Throughout his campaign, Murphy has been deceiving voters about who he is and what he stands for. I’m calling on him today to come clean about his retirement from Goldman Sachs, and own up to the role he played in creating the financial crisis.”
The question now is not so much whether one of these off-the-line challengers can beat Murphy, but whether Johnson – a newcomer to running for office – can beat Wisniewski, who’s retiring after 20 years in the legislature; and establish himself as a player for any and all seats going forward. If Johnson so much as squeaks by the better known Wiz, he will have put himself in conversations for LD34 in the event of a Sheila Oliver or Nia Gill retirement, the already crowded CD11 field for 2018, and even U.S. Senate talks.
Sources say he has a shot – and even a good shot based on the home stretch money advantage and some organizational spike opportunities, namely in Atlantic City where he’s bracketed with a no-joke ticket of Small and Coursey. His name: “Johnson” seems blandly ready-made for lawn sign service, and then there’s the fact that he’s from Essex – even insiders have expressed to InsiderNJ their feelings of regret at not being able to vote for a guy they’ve known for years as an authentic Montclair neighbor and friend.
Wisniewski no doubt has his backers, among them Rachel Maddow loyalists who liked his courageous work in uncovering the Bridgegate scandal.
Johnson the quixotic comer versus Wisniewski the sunset-quixotic veteran.
It’s a real contest.
It’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere else – with the exception really of Atlantic City – on a political lunar landscape otherwise known as the New Jersey Democratic Primary.