Four politicians walk out on a stage. All of them appear moneyed and well-groomed, pearly blue ties knotted neatly at their throats. Their pedigrees are just as shiny as their wardrobes: One was a 23-year veteran of Goldman Sachs; one, a state legislator who donated $270,000 to his own campaign to help him qualify for the debate; one who'd been in state politics nearly two decades; and one who served as under secretary of the Treasury for enforcement under President Bill Clinton.
All of them are Democrats. All consider themselves the outsider candidate in the race for governor of New Jersey. This night, the last televised debate between them before the Democratic primary, is defined by those labels: insider, outsider.
Just a few minutes into the debate, the Department of the Treasury alum, Jim Johnson, takes a swing at former investment banker Phil Murphy. "The insiders play the games for themselves, and you're in bed with the insiders," Johnson declares. He is relentless, incessantly ribbing his opponent for what Johnson calls "Wall Street gimmicks," arguing that Murphy's deep pockets and career in banking preclude him from making meaningful strides toward financial equality.
It's an apt final narrative with which to frame a race to replace Chris Christie, who famously quipped during the 2016 presidential election that he "wakes up every day as an outsider."
Here, on the gubernatorial debate stage, four politicians ask voters to believe that, despite money and contacts and appearances, they don't represent the political establishment.
Tucked along the drowsy streets of Newark's business district is the Deluxe Diner, a recent addition to the relatively sparse culinary landscape of the neighborhood. The Deluxe seems particularly empty for a Saturday afternoon, and the glossy laminate finish of its floors only highlights how few patrons have ambled around the dining room. Aside from the faint sizzle of patties and the dulcet melody of a cheery oldies station, it's quiet.
Jim Johnson, whose campaign headquarters lies just a handful of blocks away, is a frequent flier here, and the waitresses greet him with genuine smiles. (The few diners who are here remain unmoved by his presence.)
As he carefully hangs up his checkered wool blazer, Johnson notes how difficult it is to find a reliably good lunch place in the area. That's why the Deluxe has been such a godsend, he says: It has provided him and his staff, in recent weeks, with a little place to escape. Sliding into the deep blue vinyl-upholstered booth, Johnson asks I don't print what he's eating (it has cheese) or drinking (it's carbonated) in the event his wife Nancy, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, finds out how unhealthy his diet has been in recent weeks.
It's pushing June, but the cityscape beyond the diner's storefront is a smudge of gray and cold drizzle. Coffee shops stand shuttered behind metal grates; lunch-goers tug nylon rainslickers a little tighter to their bodies; a cluster of homeless men huddle beneath garbage bags below the Edison Place bridge. Along the storefronts on Broad Street, six-foot-tall cardboard signs tell passersby that EVERYTHING MUST GO! and that T-shirts are EIGHTY PERCENT OFF! Standing on the street, I watch as a middle-aged black man peddles two-for-five-dollar Nivea bath products inside a Starbucks.
The whole scene serves as a glaring reminder of the black and brown inequality that remains so entrenched in New Jersey. Roughly half of Newark's residents are African American, compared to about 15 percent for the state as a whole (though Newark's figures are shifting as the city continues to gentrify); the county in which Newark lies, Essex, ranks 28th in the entire United States in income inequality. Three other counties in New Jersey—Hudson, Mercer, and Bergen—fell in the top 10 percent for most financially unequal in the country.
Newark is, in effect, the place where New Jersey's top voting issues—cripplingly incompetent mass transit that paralyzes economic mobility, toxic sludge from some 14,000 statewide contaminated waste sites, obscenely high property taxes—converge in a vicious feedback loop of poverty.
Johnson says it's social justice-focused economic revitalization that underwrites his campaign. While reporters have tap-danced around asking him the extent to which his experience as a black man informs his platform, he makes no effort to hide, or apologize for, the extent to which his childhood fostered his empathy for racial justice-based policy; he tells me that it's "a lens" through which politicians should craft solutions to local problems. If he were to clinch the Democratic nomination and go on to win the race in November, he'd be the state's first black governor. (In one of the more memorable moments of the most recent primary debate, Johnson asked the moderator 45 minutes in why, in a Democratic debate, the candidates had not yet explicitly discussed income inequality.)
He has roots four generations deep in New Jersey, and this kitschy diner where we sit and talk lies right in the heart of that history: One of his great-grandfathers was part of the team that built the Holland Tunnel, and one grandfather was an assistant minister at a church one mile away. His mother was a secretary at a law firm three blocks from here. With nearly four dozen cousins, Johnson grew up in a nearby neighborhood that was "80 percent African American," he says. When he was 12, he came home to find a sheriff's note on the garage door warning that the family would be evicted—the event was "a pretty rude awakening, when you think everything is going along smoothly."
The latter half of his life has been comparatively comfortable. After earning his B.A. and law degree from Harvard University, Johnson worked in New York's U.S. attorney's office, leaving in 1996 to serve as the Department of the Treasury's under secretary of enforcement in the Clinton administration. There, he helmed a $4.6 billion budget that controlled, among other agencies, the Secret Service and Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives (and, yes, he supported Hillary in 2016). After leaving his post about three years later, he went on to work for Debevoise & Plimpton—a New York law firm that has represented financial titans like JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., and Citibank. While entering the private practice, he also helmed New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
Between practicing law for decades and working under the greatest snake charmer in a generation, Johnson has learned a thing or two about how to make voters feel heard.
He appears practiced, equipped with a litany of anecdotes and one-liners I've heard him rattle off on public radio and in primary debates, steady and direct and probing. Things like: He's lived life very much, some people would say, on the tip of the spear because he's frequently the only African American in the room. And: You want to identify issues before they become problems, and problems before they become crises. In all likelihood, Jim Johnson knows what you're going to ask before you've even finished your sentence, and he'll rarely avert his gaze from yours. He'll sit with his arms crossed on the table, leaning into your questions; he'll then lean back with a small smile when he's ready to answer them.
"When you flood the system with money you squeeze out voices, you squeeze out choice."
That's probably because, if you're mentioning it to him, he's dealt with it already: Gun violence? He worked to close the gun-show loophole alongside Eric Holder after Columbine. Affordable housing? He helped negotiate a settlement between Westchester, New York, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development after the former violated a consent decree.
Consequently, it's not talking rote policy that seems to thrill him. "Those answers are here," he says, pointing to his temple, "but what gets people excited is here," gesturing to the air between us. "It's what they experience."
Johnson feels, he says, innately comfortable around people "with all sorts of backgrounds, and they're comfortable with me." He credits that to the years of his life spent navigating these sometimes diametrically opposed worlds. "There are few people who can say that they both sang in storefront churches here in Newark and walked off of Air Force One behind the president of the U.S., where the only thing between my eyes and the horizon was the white of President Clinton's hair."
He is, in other words, as far from an outsider—in both the parlances of New Jersey and to the ways of our government—as they come.
To be sure, the narrative of the political outsider is a trite and frequently overwrought one, becoming bastardized almost beyond recognition. While criticizing candidates’ political connections is a tactic as old as time, the idea of the ethical outsider has morphed in recent decades: The term has moved from signifying a candidate's professional experience outside of, and lack of interest in, the political realm, to becoming a more vague promise about a candidate's moral compass—that his or her interests haven't been corrupted by the American political machine. It's how candidates like Donald Trump, reckless with flashy titles, cushy executive positions, and deep pockets for the politicians of their liking have managed to believably rebrand themselves as a person among people.
Outsiderism is, in effect, a siren call for voters who have felt taken advantage of by the so-called political establishment. And, in many ways, the Jersey race is emblematic of cleavages within the national Democratic Party itself, with factions of left-wingers criticizing the more moderate center for its reticence to embrace what they see as truly progressive policies, leaders, and values.
In New Jersey, Johnson is hardly the only candidate running that play. Over the course of the Democrats' campaigns, nearly every one of the top-polling candidates have aggressively asserted that he, not his opponents, is the "outside" candidate. Consider Phil Murphy, who has spent about $18 million on his candidacy: "I'm a complete outsider. I've never held political office anywhere, including New Jersey." Or Raymond Lesniak, former chairman of the state's Democratic committee: "I've gone from insider to outsider."
Or Johnson, for that matter. In May, he told the New York Times that "there aren't Democrats and Republicans. There are insiders, and everybody else. And I'm running for everybody else." When I ask him in the diner point-blank if he's running as an outside candidate, he says, "in short, yes."
After a brief pause, he admits that, "in most places, someone who has my background, who had actually served in a high government position, wouldn't be considered an outsider. But I didn't make contributions to any of the party machines, the county committees, when I was deciding to run. I have taken positions that are at odds with the current system, that favors the insiders, and I have introduced an ethics plan that would really shake up the way [local politics] is done. In those tick marks, I'm an outsider."
It's an unsubtle jab at Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs employee and U.S. ambassador to Germany tapped by President Barack Obama whose dominance in the gubernatorial race is seen by the majority of onlookers as a foregone conclusion: Murphy is currently leading the polls with 26 percent of the votes; Johnson has 7. Among Murphy's endorsements: All 21 county-level Democratic committees in the state; Al Gore; Joe Biden. (Johnson has written off Biden's campaign involvement as a last-ditch effort to shore up votes. "You don't send one of your top people in unless you're concerned," he says.)
The accusations have run deeper: In March, Johnson filed a complaint against Murphy's campaign via the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, arguing that Murphy had violated election law in the state by forming a de facto exploratory committee some two years before officially announcing his candidacy last May. Among his other gripes with Murphy and the party nominating process at large: That each of the state's 21 county committees had rushed to endorse Murphy nearly the moment he announced his candidacy, that Murphy's $18-plus million campaign had drowned out the voices of less wealthy candidates, that county-line endorsements, which will ensure that Murphy's name will appear at the top of every Democratic primary ballot, have made the ballots look like they're "constructed so that there's a thumb on the scale for a particular candidate."
The race has been "very upside-down," Johnson says.
"I felt and do feel that there should be transparency, I do feel that when you flood the system with money you squeeze out voices, you squeeze out choice. It yields cynicism about the process, which is huge in New Jersey," he says. "I've had party committee members from around the state say to me, 'I was told who I was going to vote for before I got to the convention, it was already a lock.' That's not the way we're going to fix our hard problems." (The Murphy campaign didn't reply to a request for comment.)
For those who have painted Murphy as a corrupt cog in the machine, a win for Johnson would mean helping to right a string of wrongs that have peppered the last 12 months and rendered anti-establishment leftists breathless: Tom Perez clinching the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee instead of Keith Ellison; Bernie Sanders losing the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton; Kimberly Ellis ceding the California Democratic Party chairmanship to Eric Bauman.
Local democratic committees don't quite see the race in those terms. Chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee Michael Suleiman says he's "never met Johnson, and he's never reached out to me. I haven't met him from Adam." Atlantic County's March convention was, he said, "a small-'d' democratic process, open and fair with a secret ballot. And if any other candidate had won, we would have supported him…. If he'd asked to come and speak to our guys, I would have made it happen, frankly." Then, Suleiman says with a laugh: "Democracy might be frustrating for those who don't win."
Leaders from Somerset and Monmouth County's Democratic committees also say Johnson declined to participate in their conventions and didn't reach out to committee members in the weeks leading up to their conventions. (In an email statement, Johnson's communications director, Aleigha Cavalier, says Johnson "decided not to attend county conventions due to their undemocratic structure," adding that some "were not open to the public," and others "only put out public notices about their conventions, but made no effort to formally notify us.")
Matt Anderson, who leads the Monmouth County Democrats, ends an email to Pacific Standard by blowing Murphy a kiss: "Our committee members are passionate Democrats—they are not county employees or part of any patronage system. They are genuinely excited about the candidacy of Phil Murphy."
And then, in a beautifully apt closing, he explains why: "He's a genuine outsider [who] will take on the entrenched Trenton establishment."
Despite—or perhaps because of—the HBO-worthy drama of the race, voters have shown an astounding level of apathy for the candidates. A Quinnipiac University poll published two weeks ago shows over half of voters still don't know who they'll vote for; the primary is just five days away. And, in the history of jokes made about New Jersey, one, credited to Ben Franklin, has proved the most prescient explanation: "It's a beer barrel, tapped at both ends, with all the [good] beer running into Philadelphia and New York."
Paul Frymer, a political scientist at Princeton University, explains why: There's no significant, locally focused news media market in the state. "Half the state watches New York news media and the other half watches Philadelphia," Frymer writes in an email. "There's not a dominant newspaper either.... So, if the electorate is at all like me, it isn't well informed about this race."
Ross Baker, head of the political science department at Rutgers University, also traces the problem of poor voter awareness of state elections to its media landscape, which he calls "a news media desert that springs to life only when scandals erupt, like Bridgegate."
"The once-great Jersey newspapers have been reduced to a stump and FM radio stations basically do traffic, sports, and weather," he told Pacific Standard in an email. "It's not surprising, then, that it's tough to get known, like [it's been for] Johnson. So what you do, if you're a rich guy, is spread money around to the county chairmen—that's what [John] Corzine did and Phil Murphy is doing now—and they win by turning out the organization."
Outwardly, at least, Johnson is unfazed by the odds working against him; he maintains that voters are politically savvy and self-aware enough to largely ignore establishment rhetoric. "Come voting day, they'll kick the tires. They'll see who can walk the talk," Johnson says with a Cheshire grin. "When I win, it'll be precedent-setting."
Back on Broad Street, he weaves anonymously through the throngs of pedestrians that have begun trickling through the city now that the sun has started to poke out. Moving intently, with a slight smile and hands in his pockets, he points out places he used to go as a child, places with memories, like a department store where his mother used to buy Easter gifts that has since been converted into a glass atrium adjacent to a Whole Foods.
He is comfortable, at ease. Nobody bothers him.
Lead Photo: Courtesy of Jim Johnson; Illustration by Taylor Le/Pacific Standard