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The rise of Menendez nemesis Tammy Murphy

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Murphy, 58, answered that Wednesday when she announced a high-profile 2024 run for the Senate seat of indicted Democrat Bob Menendez. As if the drama of Menendez refusing to resign amid foreign bribery charges wasn’t enough, Murphy’s entry sets up a yearlong battle for one of the most powerful positions in Washington and a key Democratic seat in the closely divided Senate.

The wealthy former Republican has spent the last six years helping lead New Jersey, benefiting greatly from her profile with a fraction of the scrutiny her husband receives. Now she’s using her perch to leverage the state’s unique and increasingly condemned political boss system that all-but elects candidates before voters have a say. A victory would cement the Murphy name as one of New Jersey’s most enduring after her husband leaves office in 2026 following two terms.

Menendez, who has denied wrongdoing, called her campaign a “blatant maneuver at disenfranchisement,” while her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Andy Kim, is emphasizing that he can raise money just like Murphy but, unlike her, also has a resume in elected office.

Murphy, who was not made available for an interview, pushed back against criticism that she’s in the express lane to replace Menendez.

“I am truly going to earn everyone’s vote and I am going to make sure that this is a broad coalition and that I’m genuinely entrenched in the communities across the state,” she told NJ Spotlight News Thursday.

Menendez has not said if he’ll seek another term. But if he decides to, he’ll struggle to make it out of the primary. Shortly after Murphy announced her candidacy, Democrats in Menendez’s power base of Hudson County said they are backing her, a deadly and personal blow to an incumbent who was raised in the county and effectively ran its political machine for years. Camden County Democrats also backed her, a loss for Kim, who lives nearby in South Jersey. Other key organization leaders in several densely populated counties endorsed her Friday.

“This is how our system works and she’s taking advantage of it. And this may be the way we see our first woman in the U.S. Senate,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

A conservative’s evolution

Tammy Murphy grew up in Virginia Beach, Va. to a family that owned car dealerships. She pursued a career in finance following her graduation from the University of Virginia and first met her husband in the 1980s when they worked at Goldman Sachs, though their romance didn’t start until several years later.

Raised in a Republican family, Murphy continued voting in GOP primaries even during the Obama administration, according to the New York Times, when her husband served as U.S. ambassador to Germany. She even voted in the Republican primary in 2014, as her husband was openly laying the groundwork for his first gubernatorial campaign in 2017.

“While Tammy Murphy was a card-carrying Republican for years, I was working to elect Democrats up and down the ballot and fighting in Washington to deliver for hardworking families in New Jersey,” Menendez said in a statement shortly after Murphy launched her campaign Wednesday.

Her spending mostly shifted to Democrats well before 2014, but records show a donor who did not swear allegiance to one party. In 2002, for example, she gave $1,000 to Republican state Sen. Diane Allen, who ran against Phil Murphy’s lieutenant governor two decades later, in 2021.

That same year — 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks — Tammy Murphy donated $20,000 to the New Jersey Republican State Committee, according to the nonprofit OpenSecrets. But that year she also gave to Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate campaign and to then-incumbent New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli, a Democrat who’s become a critic of Menendez since leaving office.

The Murphys became an unlikely power couple. Phil Murphy was considered a popular second choice when he announced his campaign in 2016 to succeed Chris Christie, but then became the de facto nominee thanks to his finances and the fortuitous retreat of the two gubernatorial frontrunners.

Once elected, he was quick to point out that his wife would serve a key role in his administration, though she has not taken a salary. If she is not at his side for a public event, she is often holding her own or working behind the scenes on policy or raising money. In the pandemic, for example, she started a relief fund that has distributed $56 million to more than 500 organizations.

While Tammy Murphy has developed policy chops as a partner in her husband’s administration, progressives have decried the nepotism aspect of her campaign. She hasn’t held elected office or worked in any other government position, but Walsh pointed out that that isn’t unusual. Several of New Jersey’s past U.S. senators hadn’t held office before, such as Bill Bradley, Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg.

Aside from her husband’s political clout, part of Murphy’s appeal to powerful Democrats is simple: She’s been around and they know her. Kim, a relative newcomer to New Jersey politics, hasn’t had the statewide presence of the first lady.

Peg Schaffer, chair of the Somerset County Democrats, which has endorsed Murphy, called her “impressive.” She compared Murphy to Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, “women who were very supportive and equal partners with their elected husbands who need to be respected in their own right.”

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said that “there’s a comfort and familiarity” with Murphy and she has demonstrated knowledge of local issues.

“There’s nobody else who has expressed interest in running who’s been here and understands it,” he said.

Progressives ask for a ‘fair shot’

But some progressives are skeptical that a state with 9 million people can’t produce a Democrat more qualified for the job who’s not related to its most powerful official.

There’s also a hint of irony to the spouse of the governor replacing a senator who helped install his son, who had little political experience, as a member of Congress.

“We all know about connections. If your mom or dad is a plumber and you have connections in the plumbing industry, you’re going to get a plumbing job,” said Winn Khuong, executive director of the progressive group Action Together New Jersey. “But it shouldn’t happen in public service. That should be open to everybody. Everybody should have a fair shot at it. And New Jersey doesn’t give us a fair shot.”

Murphy highlighted some of her policy accomplishments when kicking off her campaign, most notably her work to reduce racial disparities in maternal mortality. Murphy founded Nurture NJ to reduce infant mortality in New Jersey and its large racial disparity, with Black mothers far more likely to die from childbirth-related complications. That may help her appeal to Black voters, a huge part of the Democratic base, even as a large part of the party’s left flank is going against the establishment to back Kim.

“I’m hopeful that she’ll take this opportunity to partner with community and Black-led institutions around Black maternal health care,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor at the Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Trenton and a progressive activist. “Her involvement in the issue has certainly given a lot of attention to it that hadn’t been there otherwise.”

Murphy also carries some political baggage. For nearly two years, she has run a political nonprofit called Stronger Fairer Forward that promotes her husband’s policies but has refused requests to disclose its donors. She was named in a lawsuit against the State Police for allegedly refusing to allow a trooper to pump breast milk on the couple’s property. Murphy said in a statement that any characterization she wouldn’t be supportive and accommodating of a new mother’s needs “is outrageous and categorically false.”

And the women’s soccer team she and her husband co-own, Gotham FC, was found several years ago to have provided poor living and playing conditions, prompting Murphy to become more hands-on with the club, which won the league championship this month.

Murphy has not faced much scrutiny from one of the biggest scandals of her husband’s tenure, in his first term. A 2017 Phil Murphy campaign volunteer named Katie Brennan had claimed that one of its top staffers sexually assaulted her. She tried telling both the governor and first lady, sending them an email about a “sensitive matter,” but they did not follow up on a promised meeting.

Brennan, who now works for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration, said in an interview that she expected more from Tammy Murphy considering she had publicly revealed at a women’s march that she was the victim of sexual assault in college. Brennan is not the only woman to have made claims of a toxic campaign environment, and Tammy Murphy was active in that campaign. Phil Murphy called her his “de facto campaign finance chair.”

“She never responded, she did nothing. She stood at the women’s march and told her own harrowing story and I am so sorry that it happened to her,” Brennan said. “But when approached and given the opportunity to lead and help others, she didn’t. Over and over again she failed the people of New Jersey.”

If she is elected, Murphy said she intends to continue her work on the environment and maternal health, as well as focus on affordability, abortion protections and taking on the gun lobby.

“I believe with all my heart that democracy is on the line right now,” she said. “It is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and I look forward to proving and showing that I am the right choice at the right time.”


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