A Look at Democrats Running for Governor

It’s debate week in the race to replace Gov. Chris Christie. In less than a month, registered voters go to the polls to winnow the field of candidates for governor. In an election season when anything can happen, the head-to-head match-ups could be defining moments ahead of the June 6 primary. Tonight Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron looks at the Democratic field.

The governor’s race has been a little slow to catch the public’s attention this year compared to previous governors’ races.

That’s partly because the news out of Washington has been so dominant. It’s also in part because there are clear front-runners in each party primary, and one of them is a clear front-runner in the general election.

Tonight we’re going to take a look at the Democrats who are running. Tomorrow night we’ll look at the Republicans.

The Democratic front-runner is Phil Murphy of Middletown, Monmouth County. Murphy is 59 years old. He spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs and was U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Obama. He’s known for loaning $10 million to his campaign and for his liberal views. His top issue is probably that he has promised full funding for the state pension system and for the school funding formula.

Murphy has the backing of all 21 Democratic County Chairmen, a tremendous advantage in a New Jersey party primary. He has also been endorsed by most public sector unions, including the NJEA, the PBA and both firefighter unions in the state.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Sayreville in Middlesex County is running for the Democratic nomination. Wisniewski is 54 years old. He’s been in the Assembly for 22 years, where he is chairman of the Transportation Committee. He is known for his role in the Bridgegate scandal — he was co-chair of the legislative committee that investigated the scheme — and for being chairman of the Bernie Sanders campaign in New Jersey last year. His issue is, that unlike Phil Murphy, he has no connection to Wall Street. In fact, his law office in Sayreville is literally on Main Street. With the transit crisis on voters’ minds in North Jersey, Wisniewski can also claim expertise on important transportation issues.

A third Democrat in the race is state Sen. Ray Lesniak of Elizabeth, in Union County. Lesniak just turned 71. Elected to the Assembly in 1977 and to the Senate in 1983, he is the second longest serving current legislator behind only Dick Codey. He is known for his iconoclastic embrace of many issues from animal protection to ending the death penalty to LGBT rights. His top issue in this race is probably his promise to control wasteful spending by creating a state comptroller for education.

Lesniak is the maverick in the field. He has little in the way of a campaign apparatus but gets attention anyway — most recently, by threatening to sue Gov. Christie over the cost of renovating the State House.

The final Democrat is Jim Johnson of Montclair, Essex County. Johnson is 56. He was a U.S. undersecretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, a partner at a prominent New York law firm and chairman of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. He is known for coming out of nowhere this year and becoming the first Democrat to qualify for public matching funds and for finishing second in a poll last week. His issue is ethics — government reform and electoral reform.

All four Democrats call themselves progressives. They’ll face off in debate tomorrow night at Stockton University.

And then we host the second debates here at NJTV — the Democrats this Thursday night at 8, the Republicans the following Thursday night.