Can Jim Johnson Beat NJ’s Democratic Machine?

A well-funded outsider is trying to shake up the Democratic primary for governor. Can he win?

Johnson is one of the candidates in the 2017 New Jersey governor’s race. Johnson's campaign

Jim Johnson, the former undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S.  Treasury, entered the New Jersey governor’s race in late 2016 after a winner was already called.

Since early October, the conventional wisdom from news reporters and pundits held that the Democratic primary—scheduled for June 6—was basically over because former U.S. Ambassador Phil Murphy had nabbed so many endorsements he was poised to become the state’s next governor.

To Johnson, Murphy’s coronation eight months before primary voters weighed in was “troubling” and a symptom of a wider problem with New Jersey’s transactional politics.

“From all sorts of people I heard the complaint that, ‘We don’t have a voice in the process. We are told who our leaders are. We aren’t electing them.’ That, to me, seemed profoundly wrong,” Johnson told Observer NJ. “I was pretty clear at that stage that I was going to run for governor but the idea that, even before the presidential election had been decided, folks were trying to figure out who the next governor would be, to me, was undemocratic and should have been challenged.”

So he mounted a challenge.

After a subdued start in Murphy’s shadow, Johnson’s campaign is now one of this year’s most successful in terms of fundraising. More than $100,000 of his donations have come from former members of his law firm, the New York powerhouse Debevoise and Plimpton, where Johnson until recently was a partner specializing in regulatory and white-collar criminal defense law. He took on big public projects such as monitoring a legal settlement on affordable housing in 2009 that the federal government had reached with Westchester County, New York, leading to tensions with Republican County Executive Rob Astorino. Johnson also led a New Jersey task force that recommended police body cameras in 2015.

John Kiernan, the chair of the ethics committee and co-chair of the litigation department at Debevoise and Plimpton until recently, said Johnson “does not have a flair for or an orientation for the technicolor.”

“His times of greatest accomplishment have been times when he got asked to be a central figure in helping to work through incendiary issues … with deep passions on both sides,” said Kiernan, a donor to Johnson’s campaign. “When everybody else is screaming, he’s aspiring to be the most professional person in the room.”

In the 1990s, Johnson worked at the U.S. Treasury during President Bill Clinton’s administration and oversaw a number of agencies including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Secret Service and U.S. Customs. During his Treasury stint, Johnson and Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital managing director, co-chaired the National Church Arson Task Force, a reaction to a string of fires set at black churches in 1994.

“When I was at the Treasury as an undersecretary, I oversaw over 29,000 people, directly and indirectly,” Johnson said. “I had a budget authority over $4.6 billion. I was dealing with very, very hard issues around, not only just the issues of government performance, but about issues of government security, the safety of our streets, the safety of our borders.”

Johnson to date is one of two candidates in the Democratic primary, along with Assemblyman John Wisniewski, to qualify for public matching funds. And he has received the most of any Democratic or Republican primary candidate in such funds, $1.16 million.

That puts him far behind the $10 million loan Murphy gave his campaign, but it is marginally above the $1.16 million that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno—a Republican—has collected in matching funds for her primary race. State law allows candidates who raise a minimum of $430,000 to receive public matching funds: two dollars for every one dollar raised, capped at $6.4 million for a primary campaign and $13.8 million in a general election.

Candidates getting matching funds are required to participate in two debates. Next month, those debates will give Johnson a chance to face the public alongside Murphy (who is not taking public financing), Wisniewski and state Sen. Ray Lesniak.

Democrat Phil Murphy has long been considered the odds-on favorite to win the governor’s race. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

“They will see how we think,” Johnson said. “They will see how we respond under pressure and they will hear us challenge each other’s ideas. In that context, I think it is a great opportunity for me and I plan to put my best foot forward.”

Johnson in many ways is running as the outsider, attacking New Jersey’s system of county-level Democratic machines more than any particular candidate. It’s a bit of a paradox, because in many other states, Johnson would be seen as a consummate insider. He graduated from Harvard twice (undergrad and law school), served as a high-ranking Washington official under Bob Rubin, and rose to become partner at one of the country’s most prestigious law firms. It’s a high-flying set of jobs and credentials — and the Murphy campaign has emphasized this side of Johnson’s biography as they come under his attacks.

Johnson was chairman of the board at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University for seven years, where he focused on voting rights and campaign finance and criminal justice reform, and early in his career he served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York.

“He really grew the organization and transformed it, made it much more effective I think and also better known,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center and a Johnson campaign donor.

“He was an ideal board chair because he had a clear goal but was also supportive and didn’t micromanage,” said Waldman, who was a Johnson hire at the Brennan Center. The group’s budget started at $5 million and is now three times as big, with some of that growth happening after Johnson’s departure, he said.

According to Johnson, the range of experience will be indispensable if he is elected governor.

“Crises don’t wait until you have finished one to start another,” Johnson said. “I would be a governor that not only focuses on high ethical standards for the people but also rolls up his sleeves and gets into the details of what it takes to make government effective. It can’t be fixed by someone who hasn’t managed large public institutions before. The damage is just too great.”

Johnson’s platform focuses on renewing the state’s economy and upgrading transportation infrastructure, which he says is in a “catastrophic state of disrepair.” He said he also wants to focus on expanding educational opportunities and making the state more affordable so that young people can stay in New Jersey and raise their families in the Garden State.

Compared with some of the other Democrats and Republicans in the race, Johnson’s policy proposals are on the sparer side. A tax proposal he released last week laid out how he would have secured $1.3 billion more in federal funds than Gov. Chris Christie’s administration over seven and a half years. In a state with a $35 billion yearly budget and a $135 billion hole in the pension system, according to Bloomberg data, $1.3 billion over eight fiscal years is not a large amount.

Asked how he could beat Murphy’s forbidding campaign, which has millions in the bank and endorsements from all the county political parties that are crucial in getting out the Democratic vote, Johnson mentioned the presidential election and said enough untapped voters are out there, tired of politics as usual in New Jersey. Two politicians who railed against the establishment — President Trump and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — connected last year with millions of people who do not usually follow politics.

Can those people hear his message? Johnson has made some early efforts at boosting his name-ID with voters — he bought a pricey TV ad that aired during “Saturday Night Live” in early March — but it’s hard to get a reliable read of the race from recent public polling, according to Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray, because surveys of registered voters do not really reflect the subset of voters who turn out for gubernatorial primaries.

“It’s really, really difficult to get those anti-establishment voters who came out for Bernie Sanders to get excited about New Jersey politics,” Murray said. “Historically, a competitive Democratic state primary in New Jersey will turn out anywhere form 250,000 to 500,000 voters. The county line will account for 200,000.”

He continued: “Murphy has locked up every single county line available” and for Johnson, Lesniak, Wisniewski, or any of the other Democrat to be able to win in that environment, “it just means that lighting has to strike in a way it never has before.”

“It would be great if we didn’t have county lines and we could talk about policies,” Murray said.

A Montclair resident and New Jersey native, Johnson, 56, is married to Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. He is the father of two daughters, Bronx school teacher Abigail and Columbia student Amalya, and stepfather to Northup’s two children, Miles and Natalie. He said he wants to govern in a way that allows his kids to stay in-state and thrive.

“It would be great to have their talents returned to a state where they can afford to live,” Johnson said, noting that his daughters are the fifth generation of his family to be raised in the state. “I love my state. I am running to bring about change. I will continue to push forward with that.”

Can Jim Johnson Beat NJ’s Democratic Machine?