Democrats in New Jersey Governor’s Race Court Progressive Vote

NEWARK — With the heart of his campaign platform coming under repeated attack from Democratic opponents, Philip D. Murphy tried to claim a potent ally.

Bernie Sanders does like the idea!” he said emphatically, recalling Mr. Sanders’s similar support for a public bank in Vermont, the state he represents in the Senate.

It seemed an odd name to drop since Mr. Murphy, a Democrat running for New Jersey governor, has locked up every county endorsement in the state, earning him at least the facade of representing the party’s establishment.

But citing Mr. Sanders reflects an emerging theme in the state’s Democratic primary race: Each candidate is attempting to outdo the others on progressive credentials.

As the Democratic Party finds itself at a crossroads, without a clear leader in Washington or a consensus on principles and policies, other than opposition to President Trump, the sparse slate of coming elections offers the first opportunities to test potential road maps for the party’s future.

In New Jersey, one of two states with a governor’s race this year (the other is Virginia), the progressive movement, embodied by Mr. Sanders, has loomed large in the race for the June 6 primary. Candidates show an eagerness to defy moderate, traditional national party norms as they court the increasingly vocal progressive wing of the party.

“They are responding to what they see out there,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

He pointed to the large protest movement that mobilized in response to Mr. Trump as a tempting goal for candidates. “There is a natural drive to the left to protect those progressive goals and build on them,” he said.

And in New Jersey, those progressives are showing up in droves. More than 8,000 protesters flooded the streets of Trenton on the day of the women’s march in Washington after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, one of the largest demonstrations in the state in generations.

“What you have here is a movement in search of a leader,” said Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, a left-leaning environmental group. “That’s why I think this race becomes important, because who wins it could become a national leader of the progressive movement.”

The platforms of the main Democratic contenders read like a wish list of the progressive movement.

All support the legalization of marijuana beyond medical purposes. They also endorse raising the minimum wage to $15 from $8.44. Each candidate has endorsed some variation of a millionaire’s tax. They have portrayed their infrastructure plans, at least in part, as having environmental benefits because better rail transit takes cars off the road.

Jim Johnson, an under secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, has laid out a plan for statewide universal prekindergarten, a liberal cause trumpeted by progressive elected officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York.

Ray Lesniak, the state senator, is an aggressive defender of animal rights and environmental issues, including an appeal against the settlement Exxon Mobil struck with Gov. Chris Christie in 2015 for cleaning up marshes and waterways.

And John Wisniewski, a state assemblymen who was Mr. Sanders’ campaign chair in New Jersey, has essentially made a progressive platform his entire campaign: a single-payer health care system and tuition-free college for certain students, among other promises.

He has also been the most frequent critic of Mr. Murphy’s expansive campaign spending, channeling the Sanders campaign pledge: “Paid for by the people, not the billionaires.” Mr. Wisniewski has, in fact, received a significant amount of contributions from small donors.

For his part, Mr. Murphy has been endorsed by Mr. Sanders’s son, Levi, who has also campaigned for Mr. Murphy.

And while he has been wary of fully embracing the progressive slate, stopping short of supporting tuition-free college or calling for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, Mr. Murphy maintains that he’s “proudly progressiv

“We don’t have enough examples of this as a Democratic Party around the country, that you can be both progressive, proudly so, and responsible, fiscally responsible,” he said. “That’s the place we’re trying to get to.”

Indeed, beyond their platforms, statements on the campaign trail feature boasts of “progressive” nearly as much as “Democrats.”

At a town hall-style meeting in Fort Lee in April, Mr. Murphy criticized the pangs of “nostalgia” that he had heard from the Trump campaign during 2016 as referring to a darker, less accepting time in American history, but did say he had one wish from the past.

“I sure as heck wouldn’t mind being progressive again,” he said.

During the final Democratic debate this month, Mr. Johnson declared that the election in New Jersey was “a fight for progressive values.” He quickly turned that into an attack on Mr. Murphy, questioning how Mr. Murphy’s tenure at Goldman Sachs, the investment firm often in the cross hairs of progressives, “should give anyone any assurance that the progressive values you’re talking about today are the progressive values that you acted on” while at the bank.

Mr. Murphy responded: “I don’t want anyone lecturing me about progressive values. I know how I grew up, and I know where I lived my life.”

Jockeying for the progressive vote is also based partly on how the primary race has unfolded. Mr. Murphy was aiming to be the outsider and a relatively progressive alternative to two state party stalwarts, Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, and Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate president. But after both dropped out, and Mr. Murphy emerged as the leading candidate, he quickly became the establishment-aligned contender.

Still, trying to show much they are like Mr. Sanders isn’t necessarily a winning strategy: Hillary Clinton trounced him in the 2016 primary in New Jersey by a ratio of almost 2 to 1, and New Jersey has generally been a reliably centrist and establishment Democratic stronghold.

“I think it’s a tricky gamble in New Jersey, but it’s not something that the Democratic nominee will have a hard time recovering from,” said Michael Soliman, a former campaign manager for Senator Robert Menendez. He noted that in the general election, “the contrast with Republicans after having eight years of Republicans in New Jersey will be stark.”

And in New Jersey, no matter the political posturing, some core issues will always motivate a large swath of the electorate. The best candidates, political operatives say, will find a way to shroud core issues in progressive cloth.

“New Jersey elections have always, always come down to the bread and butter issues, like property taxes, car insurance and schools,” said Modia Butler, a former chief of staff for Senator Cory Booker. “The four candidates all running as progressive Democrats, they’re all sort of sticking to the left. They’ve all taken their cue from how frustrated sort of everyday Americans have been with income inequality. So they’re still dealing with those bread and butter issues, but representing the working family person in this state who is struggling with health care and property taxes.”

It’s a line some candidates are still learning how to walk. As he was accepting the endorsement recently of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents transit workers, Mr. Murphy gave a condensed outline of his plans for transportation and infrastructure.

After he made his remarks and reporters had begun to ask questions, Mr. Murphy remembered something.

“When you’re the densest state in the union, you also have to get the environment right, you can’t get that kind of right,” he said. “And one of the ways you get it right is you have the best commuter rail system in the country.”

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