New Jersey’s Next Governor: A Rich Donor With Progressive Roots

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Philip Dunton Murphy bounded onto the stage here in early November amid rapturous cheers, though they were not all for him. His good friend, Jon Bon Jovi, had just blitzed through a three-song set, mixed with a brief endorsement of Mr. Murphy spoken over the chords of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.”

For Mr. Murphy, it was a note-perfect moment: irrefutable testimony of his New Jersey bona fides and of his progressive, working-class roots from a native son revered as a balladeer of the New Jersey working stiff.

But over more than 500 days of relentless campaigning, such moments did not always come easily or naturally for Mr. Murphy, whose setting for much of his professional life has been rarefied corporate boardrooms and ornate European salons rather than rowdy campaign scenes.

 

As he prepares to take office in January as New Jersey’s next governor, Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, is propped up by a fragile coalition unsure of a man who is largely unknown to most residents. His task is to convince a wary Democratic electorate that he is more than what his resume proclaims — a wealthy, longtime establishment political donor whose insider connections helped him land an ambassadorship — and that his brand of pragmatic-yet-progressive politics is both sincere and able to yield results.

With his election, Mr. Murphy becomes the first Democrat to occupy the governor’s office in eight years, further cementing New Jersey’s shift to a decidedly blue state and giving a man who spent years on the periphery as an influential financial contributor his first chance at the political spotlight. He takes over a state where many are disillusioned and angry at the way the outgoing Republican governor, Chris Christie, has left New Jersey, riddled with debt, schools bereft of funding, exorbitant property taxes and a dismal public transit system.

Politically inexperienced (his only other foray into elected office was a failed attempt at a seat on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange) and irrepressibly social (his tenure as the American ambassador to Germany was chronicled as much by the local tabloids as by Foreign Policy magazine), Mr. Murphy was able to take himself from banking executive to the doorstep of Drumthwacket, as the governor’s mansion is called, thanks in part to a family finely attuned to Democratic politics.

Mr. Murphy, 60, grew up in a modest Irish home in Newton, Mass., raised on Catholic values of social justice that were reinforced with trips to church every Sunday. Part of a family of four, he occasionally had to share a bedroom, and he got his first job washing dishes when he was 13. His family revered the Kennedys — any speech by John F. Kennedy or Robert F. Kennedy was cause to huddle around the television.

Though he never ran for student government in grade school or high school, politics were a constant in his early life, from dinner table discussions to time spent with his grandfather — “Honest John” — the chairman of the Newton Board of Assessors.

“I think there’s a continual thread of progressive Democratic principles that the family always stood by,” his sister, Dorothy Murphy Egan, 70, recalled. “I think that’s the absolute truth.”

Mr. Murphy’s father never graduated from high school, and throughout his childhood his mother stressed the need for a good education. Despite his family’s love of politics, Mr. Murphy felt a stronger pull toward the stage during college. At Harvard, he quickly rose to become president of the Hasty Pudding Club, a famed theatrical club where he shared sketches and dance numbers with two future politicians, Charlie Baker, the current Republican governor of Massachusetts, and Deval Patrick, a former Democratic governor.

His love for showmanship would blend into his professional life — from performing karaoke with Goldman Sachs colleagues to singing “Touch Me’’ by The Doors at a recent campaign rally — but rather than pursue a career in theater, Mr. Murphy opted for the more lucrative world of finance, where he amassed a personal fortune during a more than 20-year career at Goldman Sachs.

It was during his time at Goldman that he met his wife, Tammy. They had known each other through shared social circles for years. But after a whirlwind first date in London, they were engaged just 18 days later. They now have four children, three boys and one girl, and live in a $9.5 million home in Red Bank, near the Jersey Shore.

After stints as head of Goldman Sachs Germany and Goldman Sachs Asia that were considered largely successful, Mr. Murphy moved with his wife to New Jersey in 2000. They immediately took an interest in the local political scene, nurturing and financially supporting candidates who aligned with their center-left positions, leading them to a rising political star in Essex County: Cory Booker.

“It was sometime in 2002 where he really just came to my aid,” Mr. Booker said in an interview. Mr. Booker had just lost his upstart bid to unseat the mayor of Newark, Sharpe James, a powerful incumbent hampered by controversy, and the defeat, combined with a documentary that was made about the rough-and-tumble race, led him to question whether politics was for him. He spent time at the Murphys’ home, licking his wounds while they tried to buoy his spirits.

“He was one of those guys who just really encouraged me at that time to just not give up,” Mr. Booker said.

In those years, with Mr. Murphy having to devote time and energy to his responsibilities at Goldman, he largely kept to the political sidelines. It was not until Gov. Richard Codey, a Democrat, tapped him in 2005 to tackle the state’s growing property tax crisis that Mr. Murphy felt the first pangs to run for office himself.

He spent six months on the project as chairman of a state commission, eventually delivering a scathing report on the state’s finances and pension system and lofty goals for addressing the problems

But after garnering a few headlines, the report largely sat on the shelf. Mr. Codey was succeeded as governor by another Democrat, Jon S. Corzine, and pursuing Mr. Murphy’s recommendations would have been challenging for a new leader. Mr. Murphy was disillusioned.

“I think that was a moment that really hurt him, because I think he felt like he had expended a lot of personal capital trying to help to come up with some solutions, and I think he felt like he had come up with some solutions,” Ms. Murphy recalled. “He hasn’t said this, but I would go back to that moment and say that I think that was the real moment where he basically said, ‘You know what? You have to have skin in the game.’”

He quickly moved through the ranks of the Democratic Party, from a deep-pocketed donor to finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, where he faced an existential crisis: trying to heal the rift in 2008 between supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton following a bruising primary campaign, one that left many Clinton donors wounded ahead of a challenging general election battle against John McCain.

“There was one dinner in Miami, and it was quite contentious,” recalled Tom McMahon, the former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. “The Hillary donors felt like we, the D.N.C., had put our thumb on the scale for Barack Obama. Phil interjected himself, recalibrated and answered the two or three points that this donor was hammering me on.”

Mr. Murphy managed to loosen the donor’s wallet. “He may have gotten a check that week,” Mr. McMahon said.

Though Mr. Murphy may have harbored aspirations for public office, they went unnoticed by his Democratic Party colleagues.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that Phil would one day run for office, I would have been surprised,” Mr. McMahon said. “I’ve been around a lot of individuals who identify as politicians. Phil has not fit that role as the stereotype of the people who are constantly trying to be self-seekers.”

Instead, Mr. Murphy’s performance as the party’s finance chair turned into an appointment by President Obama as the German ambassador, where he weathered a modest scandal triggered by leaks of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks in which Mr. Murphy offered unflattering descriptions of German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

After four years in Germany, Mr. Murphy returned home to New Jersey in 2013, at a time when Mr. Christie was one of the most popular governors in the country.

But he and his wife saw an opening — an increasingly stagnant state economy — that they might seize on to build an outside shot at a campaign.

And indeed, from the very beginning, before any candidate had officially announced, Mr. Murphy was considered a long-shot, who would struggle to find a path to the nomination against better-known and established Democrats, like Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, and Stephen M. Sweeney, the State Senate president. But after some deft political maneuvering that yielded key endorsements and large checks written to county Democratic committees, the Murphy campaign was able to force Mr. Fulop out of the race, and, by uniting Democrats in northern New Jersey, left Mr. Sweeney, who is based in the southern part of the state, no clear path to victory.

From that moment, the election became Mr. Murphy’s to lose. He then had to energize an electorate dejected and exhausted by President Trump’s stunning victory last November and a Democratic Party still struggling to find direction.

His speeches rarely contained any detailed discussions of policy. Instead, they were largely proclamations and promises designed to rally a base hungry for a victory that would provide solace amid so much rancor over the policies and words emanating from the White House.

Eager to please, he ran a campaign marked by an extended list of promises — to organized labor, to progressive party activists, to environmentalists, to immigrants, to disenchanted Democrats, to the poor, to commuters.

And as governor, Mr. Murphy may find that his desire to be well-liked and attuned to the needs of his many disparate constituencies runs counter to the difficult decisions he will need to make as chief executive in a state that has largely been left out of the economic recovery.

But even while he struggled to energize voters, Mr. Murphy heads to Trenton with a characteristic that friends, colleagues and relatives tend to cite first in describing him — boundless energy.

For now, Mr. Murphy seems to relish his opportunity to step onto a big stage.

“I saw him down for St. Patrick’s Day in Belmar, and he was thoroughly enjoying himself,” said James E. McGreevey, a former Democratic governor. “You don’t have six hundred people drinking Harp at Goldman Sachs every week.”

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