In the race to replace Gov. Chris Christie, a Democrat who’s a newcomer to electoral politics, but not an outsider. Jim Johnson held a powerful post in the Clinton administration’s Treasury Department overseeing enforcement and in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York. He headed up New Jersey’s Advisory Committee on Police Standards and helped shape reforms including the use of body cameras. Johnson’s current challenge: he’s running against a former ambassador with a head start of several months and $10 million.
Johnson: Thank you.
Williams: Why do you want to be governor?
Johnson: Well I come from four generations of public service in New Jersey. My great-grandfather had actually helped construct the Holland Tunnel, my dad was a Marine and we grew up being mission driven and my mission is to serve. And in my 55 years, I actually have never seen this state so far off track. So, when I looked at this race I thought “How can I best use my talents and how can I participate in a moment of tremendous change in the state?”
Williams: What do you mean by off track?
Johnson: Off track, well if you look at our fiscal situation, no other state has had as many credit downgrades as New Jersey. If you look at transit, no other state has had the safety record — or poor safety record — as New Jersey within the last year. When you look across the board of big issues in government trust no state has a story like Bridgegate and this to me is a time to step in to use the skills that I’ve acquired — both in business and in government — and as you said I’ve overseen 29,000 people and a budget of $4 billion to tackle these hard problems with the people of the state.
Williams: What would be your biggest priority?
Johnson: Well there are three areas of focus for me — one is rebuilding the economy, two is restoring the community and three is reviving trust in government and that is critical in our achieving our success on the first two.
Williams: When you refer to trust in government do you mean Bridgegate? What was revealed during the Bridgegate trial and investigations?
Johnson: Even there — I’m sorry to step over you — even there, there are three things. One is clearly Bridgegate and this culture of transactional dealing not to the public’s benefit but for individuals, insiders’ benefit, but two there’s basic confidence. When you look at the train crash that happened now six weeks ago, my wife — this is actually personal — my wife was in that station just an hour before the crash. No person should get on the New Jersey Transit train and think that the most ordinary trip of their life could actually be a threat to their life.
Williams: Let me go to politics as opposed to policy. The leading candidate so far — he announced before you did — is Phil Murphy. He basically cleared the Democratic field, he’s got $10 million and more importantly he’s got the backing of most county chairman in a state that is run by political power-brokers. How are you going to get through that?
Johnson: I think that what we’ve seen over the last year is that the people of the state — like the people of the country — are tired of the insiders’ game. They don’t want a government that is beholden to insiders or respect the game that’s played to get to a particular office. I represent a fresh face and a fresh choice. One of the things that you didn’t mention was that I chaired for the Brennan Center for Justice where we have advocated for campaign finance reform. Money in politics is a tremendous problem. I will be working through the public finance system.
Williams: Can you do that at the state level or is that a federal issue?
Johnson: Well, the state has a practice that many people running for office, in fact most actually used to raise funds to run for office.
Williams: Assemblyman John Wisniewski was co-chair of the investigations committee that looked into Bridgegate in the first place — before it went to trial. How do you see him as an opponent of yours? He has also announced.
Johnson: I believe in the democratic process that requires vigorous debate and I welcome everyone who would participate in a vigorous debate — so the voters in June actually will have seen the candidate, have kicked around hard questions and have a choice because at the end of the day it should be the voters that should choose on primary day, not insiders that have chosen seven, 10 or more months before the election.
Williams: What did you learn from the current presidential election?
Johnson: There will be many books written about the current presidential election. For me, I’d like to take it much more personally. My daughter teaches in a school. She’s a first year teacher, teaching school with many, many children of immigrant families. One of the things that was most disturbing to me was the idea that my daughter would be sitting with kids who were made fearful by the very fact of an election. We can do things to address that fear and I think we should do that as well. One is bringing people together, which is part of my focus, is actually building community. But two, lawyers in particular can provide pro bono services — as I have over the years — and we can do that in a much larger way to these families in tremendous need right now.
Williams: Would you fight to preserve Newark and other sanctuary cities for immigrants?
Johnson: My main focus would be to make sure that the immigrants who will be challenged by this system — what we need to understand with what the federal strategy’s going to be — we will have brought in strong legal representation, not people that are in a position of taking advantage of them because of their vulnerability. So, I applaud the Newark mayor’s efforts and message to protect the vulnerable, but I think that, particularly as a lawyer, I ought to be calling on my colleagues to do more. I think this is a moment where we all need to step forward.
Williams: One more question and it’s about the economy, creating jobs. As a practical matter governments can’t create jobs. They can create a climate for jobs but they can’t create jobs. How would you create a climate that would put people to work here?
Johnson: The climate is vital. If you look at the job environment like an ecosystem, an ecosystem needs air, sun and water. Here we need a better infrastructure, we need better training but we also need advocacy. New Jersey has students and young people that are among the best trained in the country. We have some of the smartest people in the country and we need an advocate both in Washington — because the game in Washington is going to be very, very different and I am comfortable fighting for what I believe in Washington — and secondly around the world. Fighting to gain access to markets for New Jersey businesses. I don’t think the job has adequately been done to do that and that is part of what I’d be prepared to do.
Williams: Jim Johnson, thank you for being here.
Johnson: Thank you, happy to be here.