Former Ambassador Phil Murphy held his first town hall event last week in Hackensack. In the coming weeks, three more events are scheduled as Murphy seemingly continues positioning himself to run for governor in 2017.
While Murphy has been quick to blast sitting Republican Governor Chris Christie, it seems that his decision to hold these small, public events where he can interface with would-be voters is taking a page out of Christie’s playbook. Christie has held over 100 town halls during his tenure as governor.
When Christie first set his sites on Drumthwacket, he was the U.S. Attorney from New Jersey, hardly a household name. Murphy, as a former businessman and U.S. ambassador to Germany is facing those same name-recognition issues. In the initial stages of his run, Murphy focused on building a brand for himself. He started New Way for New Jersey, a partisan nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering New Jersey’s middle class. He purchased huge ad buys, plastering his face all over television, political websites and facebook. Now, with these town halls Murphy is bringing that platform directly to the people.
For both Christie and Murphy, it seems that gubernatorial strategy is founded on accessibility and engagement with the public. Both men have used these events as a way to get themselves into the state’s bloodstream. And, because it worked for Christie, it is likely that Murphy is aiming to replicate that success for voters from the other side of the aisle.
Last week in Hackensack, Murphy used his town hall to espouse his Democratic and progressive ideas, to answer questions from the public and shake hands, introduce himself to voters and attempt to make a personal connection. None of the other likely Democratic candidates are meeting with likely voters on the same level as Murphy. His growing list of competition on the Democratic side now includes Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. While the competition is likely to be fierce and favor Democrats due to Christie’s low approval ratings, Murphy’s town halls are helping him discover what it is democratic voters want to hear while his competitors still focus on wooing New Jersey’s influential political class to their side or pushing policy initiatives that will beef up resumes ahead of making later attempts to connect with would-be voters.
At the event in Hackensack last week, every chair had a questionnaire on it asking voters to check three issues they felt were the most important. Issues included: economy, employment, taxes, college affordability, education, gun safety and infrastructure. By gaining this acute awareness of what the public wants, Murphy may be able to fine-tune his platform as he pursues the governorship.
One area where Murphy struggles more than his competition is a lack of connectedness with New Jersey politics. While he has been a major Democratic fundraiser, he has never held elected office in New Jersey. That means that he will likely be in a less favorable position than some of his rivals to broker deals regarding the shape legislative leadership could take if he was elected.
Murphy has also been using television in an attempt to connect and simultaneously distance himself from Christie. On Tuesday, New Way for New Jersey launched a commercial criticizing Christie for his stances on gun control issues.
On March 31, Murphy will hold his second town hall at SOPAC in South Orange at 7 p.m. The following week on April 5, he will host another at the Tice Senior Center in Woodcliff Lake at 7 p.m. He has scheduled a third town hall in Irvington on April 19th.