News & Politics

Could This New Jersey Gubernatorial Candidate Show Democrats How to Win Nationwide?

Jim Johnson lays out his vision for the future.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

What does it mean to be a progressive in the Trump era? Since last year’s Democratic primary, the word has been thrown around a lot with little explanation. Hillary Clinton ran on a brand of “pragmatic” progressivism—which looked a lot more like incrementalism—while Bernie Sanders ran as a social democrat on a platform of reducing inequality and improving economic opportunity.

The dynamic promises to repeat itself in 2018, as both Republicans and centrist Democrats come under increasing scrutiny from the left. But as the Democratic primary for New Jersey’s governor race later this year has shown, this fight is already underway.

As the New York Times recently reported, each of the Democratic candidates for governor have battled to brand themselves as the most progressive candidate in the race. Retired Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy is the clear favorite, as a former finance chairman for the DNC and ambassador to Germany under Barack Obama; in recent polling, he’s led the field by a wide margin. (Part of that might have to do with the fact that he’s spent $18.4 million in the race, or four times as much as the 10 other contenders in both parties put together, according to NJ.com.)

Murphy, who faces challenges to his left from former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement Jim Johnson, National Nurses Union-endorsed state legislator John Wisniewski, state senator Ray Lesniak, and retired firefighter Bill Brennan, has attempted to boost his own progressive credentials, most notably by calling for the establishment of a public bank. Wisniewski has floated an ambitious plan that includes a state-run single-payer health plan, and Brennan recently proposed pardoning all non-violent offenders and restoring their right to vote. But Johnson may be Murphy’s strongest challenger. And while he’s down in the polls to his wealthier opponent, his campaign might provide a blueprint for future progressive campaigns.

Johnson, a former prosecutor who also served as chair of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU for seven years, says progressives have to focus on social justice and increasing economic opportunity simultaneously. “A healthy, vibrant community has to address both,” he says. In his own campaign, Johnson is running on ethics reform in the wake of a scandal-plagued Christie administration, justice reform and police accountability, and progressive economic policies like increasing the minimum wage to $15, introducing paid sick and family leave, and strengthening labor protections. 

AlterNet recently spoke with Johnson about the race, running against New Jersey’s political machine and his definition of progressivism. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Paul Blest: Why did you decide to run for governor?

Jim Johnson: I grew up in this state. My family’s been here now for five generations, but opportunity has not fallen on all of us. And so I’m running because, particularly over the last seven years, things have gone from bad to worse, and a lot of it is because of the way New Jersey is governed. What we experienced was that we weren’t necessarily led by Democrats or Republicans, but insiders. And so critical issues have been unaddressed for years, like high taxes and a really terrible rate of foreclosures. Basic government services like transit is no longer something we can take for granted, because our transit system has been terribly neglected for many, many years. And so I decided that given my background—29,000 people reported to me directly and indirectly—I’m well-prepared to step forward. 

PB: One of your opponents in this race has a lot of money. What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced running against someone with such financial resources?

JJ: The important thing in this race is getting the message out to voters. And money gives you certain advantages, but the other challenge is this: when people have been paying attention to the amount of money that’s being spent, which is a tremendous and outrageous sum of money, they become more cynical. They trust the process less, and a candidacy like mine, where the goal is to get more people to check into the system they’ve checked out of, becomes more difficult. People think that it’s already been decided. The party bosses weighed in in the fall, that’s decided. There’s so much money, how can you beat it?

What we’ve shown over the months since I declared last October is that money can’t buy you love. And while it is essential to run a campaign, you can run a campaign that is clean and nimble without spending outrageous sums.

PB: New Jersey has one of the strongest machines in American politics. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced running against New Jersey’s establishment, and how does that relate to candidates who are challenging the people who run their own state and county parties?

JJ: I believe that the best answer to organized money is organized people, and this campaign has shown the power of people coming together. We’ve been fueled by supporters and organizers of the Women’s March and various grassroots efforts that sprung up after the election of Donald Trump. I think that my campaign, given that it’s fueled more by people than by large money or endorsements, is part of what I hope will be a tradition of people not taking defeat for granted, but deciding that if we unify and stand forward for something on principle, we can get something done.

PB: Some of the criticisms that have been aimed against Democrats have been that they don’t really run for anything, just against Republicans. How do you distinguish yourself as someone who’s not just 'not Christie,' but who’s running to make things better than they’ve been in the past?

JJ: Part of my message stems from what I know in my bones to be true—that we can be much better than we are. And the vision that I have is informed by the concepts that Martin Luther King talked about with regards to the power of community. A lot of my policies are built from the idea that we can be a stronger state by strengthening our communities.

One of the problems that the Democrats have had—and we’re in the middle of something of a debate over it—is the argument over whether we should have a strictly economic message. Others are saying we ought to have a message that is based more on individual dignity and rights, what some people have dismissed as identity politics. My perspective is that this is a false choice. A healthy, vibrant community has to address both, and my policies point toward giving people the power to affect their own lives, part of which means having a government where they have power.

PB: You’ve put criminal justice reform and police accountability at the center of your campaign. Do you think that can be a winning message in a place like New Jersey, where the last governor ran as a 'tough-on-crime' prosecutor? 

JJ: It’s part of my message and it resonates in this state, and I know because I’ve worked with police and the communities they serve. I’ve had a lot of success bringing people together to solve problems. I think I have a unique perspective there because I was a prosecutor for six years, and then I spent four years at Treasury, two of which I was head of Treasury enforcement. So I have that credibility with law enforcement, but I’ve also led the Brennan Center for Justice, and I’ve been able to help forge alliances between law enforcement and progressives to push for what should be substantive changes that all of us would look forward to. 

PB: Democrats used to run from the label of liberal or progressive, and in your race, it seems like everyone in the primary is angling to be the progressive option. What do you think that says about the political moment in your state and this country right now? Do you think the Democratic base has moved left in the last couple of years?

JJ: I think that the party has moved away from an important part of its base. In the run-up to last year’s election, I canvassed in Philadelphia for Secretary Clinton, and I spoke to likely Democratic voters, but voters who weren’t going to vote at all and voters who were going to vote for Donald Trump. And when I talked to them I heard some crazy conspiracy theories, but I also heard, “We’ve lost a sense of community,” “We’ve lost a sense that anyone is listening to us,” “We need to have significant change.” There were some that even complained that they missed a time where they felt race relations were closer. And this is a multi-ethnic community. 

I was in Newark, New Jersey the next day, and I was listening to the pastoral prayer at the church where my mother had been the church organist, and in the prayer, those concerns were raised as well. In very different places, the natural constituents of the Democratic Party feel like no one is speaking for them. For some people it boils down to arguments about who gets more stuff, but for me it boils down to what policies we set that have an impact on making inequality better or worse. 

Paul Blest is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vice, Salon, Noisey, New Republic, Indy Week and Deadspin. Follow him on Twitter @pblest.

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