NEWARK – NJTV emerged the winner of the debate on Thursday night, as the news network transformed the bubbled catwalk at One Gateway Center into an incubator for that neglected, tormented and forlorn bore snore otherwise known as the contested Democratic Primary for Governor.
Moderator Michael Aron and his crew actually accomplished something few thought possible: fashion a competition from the remnants of a politically discontented season, arguably caused by the suffocating $18 million investment (including a loan to himself of $15 million) by former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.
Aron gave all three long-shot gubernatorial contenders a chance to ask front-runner Murphy a question, an exercise that proved more than passingly nettlesome for the retired Goldman Sachs executive. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), and former assistant Treasury Secretary Jim Johnson all harped on Murphy’s background as a banker as he tries in ads to package himself as a blue collar guy who grew up still nursing an injustice from his days as a 13-year old dishwasher.
Wisniewski tried to get Murphy to account for what he described as Murphy’s double talk: opposing fracking, while advocating for it in a speech he made overseas, and owning stock with companies committed to undoing the progressive measures he publicly supports in his progressive run for governor.
“There’s no good answer,” Murphy said.
Lesniak teed off, citing Murphy’s leadership position at Goldman Sachs prior to Goldman issuing and underwriting mortgages and securities backed by residential loans and borrowed by consumers with poor credit ratings, leading to billions of dollars in losses and an economic smack down. Murphy pointed out that he retired in Goldman at the beginning of the century, long before the 2008 collapse, but Lesniak argued that Murphy was part of the leadership structure that was responsible.
“How can you run for governor like that? You have to take responsibility for the foreclosures.”
“No one is harder on Wall Street,” Murphy responded, and that prompted expletives on the other side of the glass from a Wiz supporter.
Johnson also hounded the front-runner, calling his answer to Wisniewski’s initial Wall Street query “stunning” in what he cited as its admission of confusion, harping on that 23-year chapter in Murphy’s career otherwise known as Goldman Sachs, and objecting to the front-runner’s continuing argument that he’s an outsider.
“You’re in bed with the insiders,” said Johnson, polling in second place with seven-percent, according to Quinnipiac University, just ahead of the five-percent polling Wisniewski, who expounded on the same theme.
“He gave $1.5 million to the county chairs and mysteriously every single one of them has given him the line,” the assemblyman told Aron.
“I am proud of the endorsements,” said Murphy. “We have worked very hard to get those endorsements.”
That prompted jeers from the Wisniewski-Johnson-Lesniak segments of the audience, soundproofed out of range of the candidates on the other side of a glass partition.
Boos rained on Murphy.
Charles Williams, a longtime Democratic Party insider and Murphy backer, turned around in his chair in the front row and administered a chastising stare down. Over the din of Wiz push back, a Murphy backer hollered at the Assemblyman’s face on the other side of the glass, “You were the state chair and you did nothing!”
It was like that all night. A seesaw of boos and jeers alternated between the Murphy forces and the Wisniewski-Johnson-Lesniak forces.
It was animated, a prevailing mood of good humored rancor dominating nearly every exchange among the four gubernatorial contenders.
“These are not bosses, these are our fellow citizens crying out for leadership,” Murphy said in reference to the 21 county committees that back his candidacy for governor.
“There are a lot of good Democrats, but there are also a lot of strong party bosses telling people what to do,” Wisniewski shot back.
Then Lesniak chipped in, “My Democratic Party is based on principles, not party bosses.”
Aron opened the debate by acknowledging the state’s pension crisis, including a projected $50 billion unfunded liability. The candidates all want a millionaire’s tax, a tax on legalized marijuana, and a closed corporate loophole to raise money to make the necessary payments.
When Murphy cited his plan to close the corporate tax loophole, Lesniak pounced, noting that he wrote the bill.
“I’ll be the governor who will sign it,” Murphy shot back with a friendly grin.
The debate lasted an hour and half and followed a special VIP reception.
Mark Magyar was in the room, and so was Maggie Moran and Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty.
LD11 state senate candidate Vin Gopal appeared at the social function, as did the NJTV crew, Michael Hill and David Cruz among them.
Lesniak made the rounds.
Wisniewski and his wife toured the room. So did Johnson and his entourage.
“I’m a young man, really, John?” Johnson cracked at Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie, who had described the candidate thus the night before in an interview with Aron. Currie draped an arm around him.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) was in the room amid ongoing behind the scenes discussions concerning a possible Murphy LG pick.
Sumter’s in the running. So is Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34).
Tammy Murphy, wife of the candidate, hobnobbed, and so did Tim O’Donovan, chief of staff to Wisniewski.
A lot of people in the crowd contrasted Thursday night’s debate with Stockton’s from two nights earlier and reveled in a more explosive forum, chaired by the always implacable Aron whose steady and insistent voice crafted a collision craved by those who to this point had mostly experienced a kind of overriding stagnation.