Why you should care

Because Garden State governors have a history of becoming national figures.

How Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole.How Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more of this OZY original series.

Phil Murphy always wanted to be an actor. By the time he got to Harvard, he was doing musical theater with the famed Hasty Pudding Theatricals, but he eventually realized he wasn’t good enough to make it a career. Nearly 40 years later, he’s turned to a different kind of performance art: politics. You can see it when Murphy stands before a rapt audience in a spacious suburban living room, deploying an actor’s big gestures and arched eyebrow, his keen comedic timing juicing every joke. (When he is handed a cup of water: “This appears to be scotch, Ben.”)

The Democrat with the aggressively toothy grin is the clear favorite — though so was Hillary Clinton, he reminds the crowd — to be New Jersey’s next governor after the November 7 election. If he wins, you can expect to see Murphy on the national stage. Closing his half-hour speech, Murphy proclaims that as governor he will weigh in on Washington debates, from health care to immigration to Donald Trump’s waffling response to white nationalists. “We need a governor with a steel backbone … who will stand up for all of us in this state and say: With all due respect, Mr. President, you will not do that in the great state of New Jersey.”

In his first ever run for office, Murphy, 60, has relied on these performances — spokesman Derek Roseman refers to town hall meetings as “Murphy in the Round” — his personal wealth and the political winds blowing against Trump and outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie. When Murphy brings up “enormous anxiety” about the president in the Westfield living room, members of his audience sigh audibly and shake their heads.

He’s not a guy who, sort of like Christie, slams his hand on the desk and says what he wants.

Howard Dean, former Democratic National Committee chairman

He’s asked about GOP criticism that he will raise taxes — and whether he will bring a single-payer health system to the state. Murphy plans to extract $1.3 billion in new tax money from corporations, newly legalized marijuana and incomes over $1 million. State-funded universal health insurance, he admits, is too costly, though he supports the idea on a national level.

His opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, likes to emphasize Murphy’s decades working for investment bank giant Goldman Sachs. “Phil Murphy’s promise to raise taxes is simply out of touch,” Guadagno tells OZY via a spokesman. “He may be able to afford to pay more, but middle-class families cannot.” A former Goldman banker is not the ideal standard-bearer for Bernie Sanders’ supporters and the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, and his investment portfolio has profited from gun manufacturers and big polluters. Republicans hope a plutocratic image will weaken Democratic base turnout.

But Murphy is far more than a rich guy who pals around with rocker Jon Bon Jovi (a family friend). He grew up working class outside Boston, with a father who did odd jobs and never finished high school and a mother who worked as a secretary. Scholarships, loans and part-time jobs got Murphy through Harvard, then business school at the University of Pennsylvania. He started as an intern at Goldman, eventually leading divisions in Central Europe and Asia, before retiring early in 2003.

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In Obama’s first return to the campaign trail, the former president is stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they prepare for next month’s elections.

Source Bastiaan Slabbers/Getty

That’s when he got involved in the money side of politics, eventually becoming Democratic National Committee finance chairman. Then–DNC chairman Howard Dean says he tapped Murphy because he “knows a lot about money,” and his Goldman career made him comfortable around big donors. Dean predicts Murphy’s energy and lack of ego will help him tackle New Jersey’s fiscal hardships. “He’s not a guy who, sort of like Christie, slams his hand on the desk and says what he wants,” Dean says. “When he disagrees with you, he keeps asking questions. And when you don’t answer, he eventually figures out he’s right.”

Piloting one of the financial engines behind Barack Obama’s presidential election in 2008 helped land Murphy the ambassadorship to Germany. While there, he had to deal with the fallout from Wikileaks’ publication of diplomatic cables, including some where Murphy had criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top German officials. In 2013 he returned to New Jersey and engaged in the local political scene, handing out donation checks to key Democrats and launching a progressive policy organization to get in the public eye. When election season began, Murphy kept big-name Democrats out of the primary field by loaning his campaign $10 million — but also relentlessly courting grassroots leaders, says Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University.

Murphy has an extensive liberal wish list for the state, including free community college, restoring funding cuts to Planned Parenthood, expanding commuter rail, tightening gun laws and turning New Jersey into “the California of the East Coast” on climate change and green energy. Hanging over all of it is the state’s pension crisis, which has caused Wall Street to downgrade New Jersey’s bond rating repeatedly and will require thorny negotiations with public employee unions — who are backing Murphy’s bid.

If he can pull off even a fraction of it, Murphy would boast quite a résumé: a governor with liberal policy accomplishments and foreign policy experience — “as Democrats are kind of flailing around looking for a suitable and attractive candidate for 2020,” Harrison says. Murphy has said he will not run for president from the governor’s mansion, à la Christie. “I’ve ruled it out 100 percent,” he said in May. But the former thespian could well emerge as a significant foil to a reality-TV president.

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