Phil Murphy's tough sell: Goldman pedigree, but no Corzine clone

TRENTON, N.J. -- The last time New Jersey elected a multimillionaire Democrat for governor, it was Jon Corzine, a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. veteran who ran on his financial expertise. He was booted after one term.

Now a one-time colleague, Phil Murphy, wants the job. He has 18 months to distinguish himself from his former employer and Corzine, whose handling of the economy led to his defeat by Chris Christie, the first Republican elected to the office in more than a decade.

"Just because we wore the same uniform for some amount of time doesn't mean we're the same person or cut out from the same leadership style," Murphy, 58, said in an interview. "It's like saying, 'OK, we don't need someone else from Hudson County to run for governor. We don't need another state senator to run for governor."'

Murphy and Corzine have blue-collar roots, amassed personal fortunes on Wall Street and adopted the Democratic value of more government spending on the poor and middle class. Corzine's financial career was central to his campaign, though, that was before the 2008 financial crisis. Today, Murphy's bid coincides with a presidential contest that has Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders demonizing Wall Street and frontrunner Hillary Clinton defending her paid speeches to investment companies.

"The liability will be working at Goldman, which is a little unfair but that's the way life is _ he knows that," said Howard Dean, the 2004 presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman who recruited Murphy to lead party fundraising. He deployed a 50-state strategy that sought to build even in Republican strongholds and contributed to the Democrats' 2006 reclamation of the U.S. House of Representatives and the 2008 election of Barack Obama.

Corzine, 69, didn't respond to an email for comment. Orin Kramer, a friend of Corzine and Murphy, said the two "have a different profile."

"They have a lot of employees at Goldman Sachs _ they're actually not all clones of one another," Kramer, 70 and managing partner of the New York-based hedge fund Boston Provident, said in an interview. Kramer and Murphy on May 11 were among the hosts of a private Clinton fundraiser at Kramer's home in Englewood, N.J.

Murphy, the former head of Goldman's Frankfurt office, hasn't held elective office. Appointed the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 2009, he faced crisis the next year, when WikiLeaks published thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. Some appeared to be from Murphy, with frank observations about high-level German officials including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"When people said, 'Murphy should go home because of this' -- even though I had nothing to do with these leaks -- I reached out, wrote them letters, called them and said, 'Listen -- you're upset? So am I. I don't blame you,"' Murphy recalled. "'But I'll tell you one thing: I'm not going anywhere. So let's sit down, have a coffee or a beer, and try to straighten this out."'

Married with four children, Murphy grew up outside Boston in what he calls a happy family, though one that lived paycheck to paycheck. Home now is a riverside estate in Middletown, where his annual property-tax bill is about $200,000, 24 times the state average, which is the highest in the nation.

In a 2014 Christmas newsletter, leaked to a Jersey Journal political columnist, Murphy extolled on his good fortune, with details of world travels, the children's boarding school adventures and the 25th anniversary of the Murphy Bowl, "an extended family and friends touch football extravaganza."

For New Jerseyans, taxes remain the biggest concern, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released April 28. That makes it tough for a candidate like Murphy to present a solution for the state's biggest fiscal problems, which include a government retirement system with an $83 billion unfunded liability and an $8 billion transportation-funding account that will go broke in a month.

To pay for roadwork, Murphy says he would support raising the gasoline tax, which is the lowest of any U.S. state except Alaska. College could be more affordable, he says, if the state had a loan-forgiveness program. Additional housing units, such as those built by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, would add construction jobs and bring down rents, he says, and a growing economy would reduce the property-tax burden.

"New Jersey's future is a STEM-heavy economy, much like you're seeing in Greater Boston, much like you're seeing in Northern California," Murphy said in reference to science, technology, engineering and math fields. "This state is desperately in need of an adult who comes in and doesn't really care about political capital."

Although no other Democrats have declared they're running for governor, the field of possibles includes Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who has the support of a $3.2 million super political-action committee, and Senate President Steve Sweeney, backed by a super PAC that's raised more than $1 million. Murphy has pledged to loan his campaign $10 million of his own money.

Murphy is almost unknown among New Jersey voters, familiar to just 26 percent, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll issued on May 26. Sweeney, the highest-ranking elected Democrat in state politics, had 56 percent name recognition.

Democrats are liking their odds of re-capturing the governor's office. A poll released May 18 had Christie with an all-time low of 29 percent -- the worst rating in six years for any governor in the nine states polled by Quinnipiac -- after an unsuccessful presidential campaign, his endorsement of Donald Trump and two terms marred by record credit-rating downgrades, rising pension expenses and lagging job growth.

Dean, the one-time presidential candidate, said New Jerseyans should review how Murphy delivered during the national Democratic fundraising drive 10 years ago.

"This is the only guy equipped to actually deal with the biggest financial problem of any state in the country except for Illinois," Dean said.