Despite Similarities, Candidate for New Jersey Governor Says He’s No Corzine

EDISON, N.J. — A year before the election to replace Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the race for the Democratic nomination has become more of a coronation than a contest, with one name emerging as the likely candidate: Philip D. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy is not the boyish mayor of Jersey City with the potent urban base and compelling Marine biography. That would be Steven M. Fulop. Nor is he the wily South Jersey legislator and moderate union official with the backing of the state’s most feared power broker. That would be Stephen M. Sweeney.

Mr. Murphy, 59, is a former Goldman Sachs executive and United States ambassador to Germany who has never been elected to public office, credentials that bring to mind the one-term Democratic incumbent Mr. Christie defeated in 2009: Jon S. Corzine.

On the surface, the parallels are inescapable. Both rocketed to the top of Wall Street, enabling them to spend millions of dollars of their own fortunes to run as novices for statewide office. And both played checkbook politics, showering thousands of dollars upon crucial Democratic organizations and candidates.

But they are hardly carbon copies. While Mr. Corzine ran for United States Senate as part of a quest for redemption after being ousted at Goldman Sachs, Mr. Murphy retired on his own accord 13 years ago, and has since been involved in local charities, public policy and national politics. And while Mr. Corzine was a socially awkward mumbler who agonized over decisions, Mr. Murphy, who considered pursuing a career in musical theater, oozes affability, remembers the tiniest details about people he has met and quickly owns up to his missteps.

“I was very disappointed with what happened with Jon,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee when Mr. Murphy helped to raise $300 million as finance chairman from 2006 to 2009. “Phil’s very different. He is relentless and pleasant at the same time, and he doesn’t have a vengeful bone in his body.”

Though New Jersey voters are still focused on Tuesday’s election, Mr. Murphy declared his bid in May — more than a year before the primary. But the timing was no accident; for the previous three years, Mr. Murphy had immersed himself in state issues at countless barbecues, diners and meetings.

After hiring some of the state’s top Democratic consultants, he inundated residents with mailers, pop-up ads and automated calls focused on issues like “tackling the state’s lead crisis.” And as part of what he called a “hyper-retail campaign” that has already spent $1.6 million, he convened more than a dozen town-hall-style events, and hired canvassers to knock on more than 225,000 doors.

“The more at-bats I get, the better,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview last week after speaking to more than 200 Democratic loyalists here. “The more rooms I can be in like tonight, where people have an up-close, personal sense of who I am, the better.”

At this point in the race, New Jersey Democrats had been expecting a hard-fought primary as a prelude to what even Republicans concede is most likely to be a change in power in 2017, given the toll the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal has taken on Mr. Christie’s political fortunes.

Political analysts viewed Mr. Murphy as the underdog in the race. After all, powerful county leaders and public sector unions were expected to support either Mr. Fulop or Mr. Sweeney. Senator Raymond J. Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski loomed as well.

But Mr. Fulop unexpectedly bowed out in late September, and endorsed Mr. Murphy. As party leaders coalesced around Mr. Murphy, Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Lesniak opted out, leaving him what at the moment seems like a good shot at the governor’s office.

Some people do not think that is a good thing. Brigid C. Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University, said that Mr. Murphy’s money spooked the other candidates. “It doesn’t bode well for voters or political parties,” she said, because “New Jerseyans are denied a choice.”

A native of Newton, Mass., Mr. Murphy grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic household that revered the Kennedys. His father, who did not graduate from high school, managed a liquor store; his mother worked as an office secretary.

At Harvard, Mr. Murphy was an announcer at football games. He also served as the president of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals club, part of a group that included the current and former Massachusetts governors Charlie Baker and Deval Patrick, the conservative political advocate Grover Norquist and the comedian and New Yorker contributor Andy Borowitz, among others.

After attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Mr. Murphy spent much of the 1990s overseas with Goldman Sachs. In Frankfurt, he led the firm’s Central Europe operations. In Hong Kong, he spearheaded efforts to privatize Chinese state-owned enterprises, including a landmark $4.2 billion deal for China Telecom.

Peter Rose, a senior adviser at Blackstone who worked with Mr. Murphy in Hong Kong, said Mr. Murphy was known for being “pathologically punctual.” But he often invited junior analysts and other staff members on outings to build morale, and embraced contrarian views by saying, “Tell me if I’m wrong.”

In Hong Kong, he undertook his only previous campaign for elected office, running for a seat on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Though he fell just short, he surpassed other expatriate candidates and “made a lot of friends,” according to local news media accounts.

“He was always a builder and a guy who got things done,” Mr. Rose said.

After retiring in 2003 as a head of Goldman’s investment management division, Mr. Murphy joined several boards, including the N.A.A.C.P., took on roles in various charitable and community organizations, and became an owner of Sky Blue FC, a New Jersey women’s professional soccer team. He and his wife, Tammy, a former Goldman Sachs analyst, live in Middletown, and have four children, the oldest of whom is now a sophomore at Tufts.

In 2005, former Gov. Richard J. Codey, a Democrat, tapped Mr. Murphy to lead an examination of New Jersey’s ailing pension system. Labor and business leaders on the panel commended him for pushing for meaningful reforms.

“To his credit, and I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life, he handled it very well, and he was professional in terms of managing things and dealing with people,” Richard D. Quinn, a retired compensation and benefits executive, said. “There was no hint during the meetings of any politics.”

Mr. Murphy’s rockiest public experience to date came during his stint as the United States ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013, when WikiLeaks revealed that he had called Chancellor Angela Merkel “insecure” and “rarely creative.” But rather than disavowing his comments, he tackled the controversy head-on by giving extensive interviews to the German press, while working privately to repair relations.

“I believe that in crisis you come together,” he said in an interview after the event in Edison.

Not long after returning to New Jersey in 2013, Mr. Murphy started the nonprofit think tank New Start New Jersey, and established a program, with Rutgers University, offering free career services for older unemployed residents. But emails released by WikiLeaks from the account of John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, suggest that Mr. Murphy viewed the think tank not just as an incubator for ideas but also as a platform to enhance his “visibility, credentials, etc.” for a possible 2017 run for governor.

On the Republican side, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who has criticized Mr. Murphy over the think tank, has declared his candidacy, though the current favorite for the party’s nomination is Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Still, with Mr. Christie’s job approval ratings at a low of 21 percent, Ms. Guadagno would be saddled in a general election with having been his two-term lieutenant.

If elected, Mr. Murphy says he will push for infrastructure projects and innovation through research and development to spur the economy. He has also proposed that New Jersey create a public bank, like North Dakota’s, to help small businesses and college students obtain more affordable loans.

He is not shy about praising Republicans. At the event in Edison, he called former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey a mentor on national security issues. He described Mr. Baker, who was his classmate at Needham High School and at Harvard, “a really good guy.”

“He’s a classic Bill Weld, Tom Kean Republican,” Mr. Murphy continued.

Mr. Murphy’s wife has also donated to Republicans, including $3,000 to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and $1,000 to Mr. Corzine’s 2000 Senate opponent, Robert D. Franks, a former United States representative from New Jersey who died in 2010.

Still, Peter G. Sheridan Jr., executive director of the state’s Republican Party, is already caricaturing Mr. Murphy as “a bad sequel to the story of Jon Corzine,” adding that “the last thing we need is out-of-touch Wall Street values leading our state back into fiscal oblivion.”

Mr. Murphy says the comparison is understandable, but invalid. It is, he said, like saying “A-Rod and Jeter were both Yankees.”

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