Who is Jim Johnson and why is he running to succeed Christie as N.J. governor?

By Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 30, 2017

 Jim Johnson, a Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor, speaks in Princeton in February.


WOODBRIDGE -- The massacre occurred more than 700 miles from Jim Johnson's hometown of Montclair. But it was part of the reason he entered this year's race for New Jersey governor. 

Public service isn't new to Johnson. He spent much of the 1990s as a U.S. Treasury official under President Bill Clinton. And later, in between his time as an attorney for a prominent New York City corporate law firm, he tackled civil rights, law enforcement, and gun control issues as chairman of multiple panels and organizations.

But he had never even run for elected office. And few people in New Jersey had ever heard of him.

Then, in June 2015, a gunman murdered nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C.

Johnson, who is black, recalled how the victims "looked like some of my family members."

And he began to wonder.

"Do I continue to do this work part-time or do I push forward in a way that's about bringing a broad possibility of change to a very wide group of people?" Johnson recalled in a recent interview at NJ Advance Media's headquarters in Woodbridge.

"The more I sat back and thought of what has been happening in our nation, the more I felt we needed leadership prepared to make hard decisions but also prepared to listen and do the hard work to bring people together and move us to a much higher ground," he added.

Flash forward two years, and Johnson is now one of six candidates running in the June 6 Democratic primary for the party's nomination to succeed Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is prohibited by law from seeking a third term.

And since he declared his candidacy in October, the soft-spoken Johnson, 56, has become an unexpected player in the race. 

His chances are still steep. Phil Murphy, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and a millionaire former banking executive who has lent his campaign at least $10 million, will get a favored spot on the ballot after being endorsed by Democratic county chairs and is widely considered the favorite for the Democratic nod.

A Quinnipiac University poll from March showed Johnson tied for third with 4 percent of the party's primary vote, far behind Murphy's 23 percent.

But 57 percent of voters said they were still undecided. And Johnson became the first candidate to qualify for the state's matching funds program -- in which gubernatorial candidates who raise at least $430,000 receive $2 in public money for every dollar they raise. Hopefuls receive a maximum of $6.4 million in public funds in the primary.

"We're in a time in this nation and in a time in this state where there is very little appetite among the public to be told whom to vote for," Johnson said  

Johnson -- who has received $1.16 million in matching funds so far -- is helped by one significant source. More than $130,000 of his donations have come from members of his former law firm, the New York City powerhouse Debevoise and Plimpton.

Johnson is also the only black contender among the race's 11 major-party candidates and would be New Jersey's first black governor if elected. 

Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said the smart money is still on Murphy, but Johnson has "done much better than expected."

"Part of the reason is because he really is an outsider," Hale said. 

That's a key word in the race, in which multiple candidates are echoing the populist undertone's of last year's presidential race, pitching themselves as the non-establishment candidate who can fight New Jersey's "insider" political culture. 

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said Johnson is doing something unusual for statewide candidates in New Jersey: He's not "currying favor" with the Democratic machine. 

"That makes him unconventional, and to his critics, naive," Dworkin said.

But Johnson stressed that he does have a resume filled with government experience.

"I have worked deep within Washington," he said, "and I've helped people to find their way to do much better at what they do."

He has also filled his team includes political campaign veterans who have worked for former President Barack Obama, current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick -- a longtime friend and one-time colleague whom Johnson considers a mentor and a role model.

Johnson grew up in Montclair as one of three children to a father who was a Marine veteran and small businessman and a mother who was a legal secretary and music teacher. Johnson still lives in the Essex County township, about five minutes from his mother.

In the mid-1980s, Johnson received both undergrad and law degrees from Harvard University. Later, he worked as as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Johnson moved to Washington to work for the U.S. Treasury department after Clinton took office in 1993.

When a number of black churches were set on fire in the mid-1990s, Clinton picked Johnson and Patrick to look into the issue by co-chairing the National Church Arson Task Force. 

Patrick remembers Johnson as always having "a cool head."

"He projected confidence without cockiness or swagger," the ex-Massachusetts governor told NJ Advance Media. "He had a very even way of leading in the midst of pretty emotional situations." 

In 1998, Johnson, then 37, was named the Treasury department's undersecretary for enforcement. There, he oversaw the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Secret Service; and U.S. Customs. That included managing 29,000 people and a budget of $6.4 billion.

After Clinton left office, Johnson moved back to Montclair and joined Debevoise & Plimpton. He became a partner in 2004, holding that job until he resigned in March. 

Johnson said he wore "a lot of hats" at the firm, from working on civil rights cases to representing large corporations with "massive problems."

In one case, Johnson was "lead enforcement counsel" for Toyota when the federal government investigated the car giant for allegedly hiding safety defects from the public. The company was hit with a $1.2 billion criminal penalty. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Toyota's actions "shameful" and a "blatant disregard for the law."

Johnson said he worked with Toyota to "cooperate with the government."

"There's no question: I was a partner in one of the world's most productive corporate law firms," he said. "And I used that platform not only to represent large corporate clients but also to work toward reform."

From 2004 to 2011, Johnson also served chairman of the board at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. 

Over the last 10 years, Johnson chaired an advisory committee on policing in New Jersey in the wake of racial-profiling accusations against the State Police, served as the federal monitor of a legal settlement on affordable housing that the federal government reached with New York's Westchester County, and headed a task force that led to the implementation of police body cameras in New Jersey.

Johnson's first marriage ended in divorce. He and Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. worked together in the U.S. attorney's office years ago and were married in 2014. 

Johnson is the biological father of two daughters: Abby, 24 a school teacher in the Bronx, and Amalya, 19, a student at Columbia University. He is the step-father of Northup's two children: Natalie, 25, and Miles, 23.

Johnson vows to lower New Jersey's notoriously high property taxes with a plan that includes proposing a constitutional amendment to make sure businesses are taxed higher than residential homes and banning the practice of letting developers donate to a city's affordable housing trust fund instead of building affordable units on their site.

He is also seeking to reform ethics in the state through the elimination of no-bid contracts and imposing restrictions on lobbyists down to the local level.


EDITOR'S NOTE: The first state-sponsored debates for Democrats and Republicans running for New Jersey governor will be held May 9. Leading up to that, NJ Advance Media is profiling the four Democrats and two Republicans who have qualified for those debates, leading off with this simple question: "Why are you running?"

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