Jim Johnson Delves Into His Personal History as Candidate for Governor

NEWARK — The journey that led Jim Johnson to a candidate forum here on a recent weeknight sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began months ago inside a church in Montgomery, Ala.

It was the same church that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended and it was part of a tour of civil rights monuments across the South that Mr. Johnson, 56, embarked on with his eldest daughter. As the son of a church organist, Mr. Johnson feels at home in a church, and he struck up a conversation with one congregation member.

“He said to me, ‘You know, I’m listening to you talk, I’m seeing how you are, you made your money, you’ve got your house, your car, your kids are taken care of, you have the nice clothes, but there’s something burning in your heart,’” Mr. Johnson said. He said the man paused before offering his advice: “‘Do that.’”

“That” became running for the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey. Yet, as a candidate whose nascent political career was spurred by a civil rights trip and who is the only black candidate in the field, Mr. Johnson had to overcome an initial reluctance to delve too deeply into his personal journey.

 “It’s more of a story of sort of something that’s deeply personal than a policy issue,” he said of his trip to the South. “And for me, while it’s core, people often seem to be interested in other issues.”

But now, whether it is becoming more comfortable discussing his personal experiences on race or a recognition that with less than two weeks to go until the June 6 primary election he is facing daunting odds, Mr. Johnson has begun to lower his guard and get more personal.

In the final televised debate recently, Mr. Johnson talked about criminal justice reform and recalled the first time he ever received “the talk.”

“I was about 6 years old,” he said. “The talk was this: I was going to the store and my mom said to me, ‘It’s great you can go to the store by yourself, but remember when you leave, make sure whatever you’re getting, Bazooka bubble gum, goes in the bag and you get a receipt.’ I knew from that point on that criminal justice was not fair for all of us.”

He also described volunteering at a prekindergarten class and seeing the class disadvantages some black and Hispanic students faced. It is one reason, he says, he supports universal pre-K.

And at a fund-raiser this month in West Orange sponsored by a gay rights group, he shared the story of his family, noting that he has been married twice, first to a black woman and now to a white woman.

“The issues of bringing people together are for me existential issues for my family,” he recalled telling the donors. “My children are black. My stepchildren are not. And you have within our family Jews, the descendants of a soldier in Hitler’s army, a descendant of the Mayflower, and the descendants of people who were stolen from Africa and came right off the Middle Passage, and we’re all at the same table after multiple generations within the United States. And we have to confront that not only because of the different ways we see the world with different ways the world sees us. And so we make it work.”

He has also built a campaign that he says he believes puts core values of the civil rights movement — justice and equality — at the heart of his platform. He has called for an extensive ethics overhaul to break up the power broker world of New Jersey politics, with calls to eliminate no-bid contracts, ban contributions from lobbyists and require all political groups to list their contributors. And whatever issue he is promoting — affordable housing, education, criminal justice — he frames as it as a means of providing equal opportunity.

Mr. Johnson tends to speak softly, but sternly, and his reserved, self-described wonkish style doesn’t result in soaring speeches or viral moments meant to captivate voters who have remained largely apathetic about the race.

A poll from Quinnipiac University this month found that about 52 percent of registered Democrats in the state still “didn’t know” who they were planning to support. But Philip D. Murphy, a wealthy former Wall Street banker, who has dug deep into his own pockets to propel his campaign and has received a lengthy list of endorsements, has led in recent polls, with Mr. Johnson a distant second.

While Mr. Johnson surprised some in the state by becoming the first candidate to qualify for public financing, he has been dwarfed by Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Johnson also would have to overcome historical trends — African-Americans represent about 15 percent of New Jersey’s population and the state has never elected a black governor. And the United States has elected only two African-American governors — Deval Patrick of Massachusetts in 2006, and Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1989.

History, however, doesn’t concern Mr. Johnson.

“I’ve lived life very much, some people would say, on the tip of the spear because it’s frequently that I’m the only African-American in certain rooms,” he said.

While he has had to invest much of his time introducing himself to voters, some of those at the N.A.A.C.P. forum here at Essex County College recalled meeting Mr. Johnson in the past.

“He participated in a program we had three years ago on knowing your voting rights and engaging in politics,” said Dawn Manning, of West Orange.

While she has not decided who she will support on Election Day, Ms. Manning, 48, was happy to see Mr. Johnson onstage.

“I was pleasantly surprised, I’ll say, to hear that he was a candidate,’’ she said, “because I thought at that time, he was someone who ought to be serving our state.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment