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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

New Jersey’s first lady positions herself to run for Menéndez’s seat

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) speaks to community members in Montclair, N.J., on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. Kim announced plans to run for the Senate a day after Sen. Robert Menendez was charged with accepting bribes.

By Tracey Tully

Walled off and under renovation for nearly six years, the governor’s wing in New Jersey’s 231-year-old State House reopened in April after a gut rehab that was years overdue.

The Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, moved into a hub of elegantly appointed rooms on the first floor. His wife, Tammy Murphy, took over a maze of offices roughly as large, one flight up. Her prominent spot in the State House underscored their close partnership, a bond each has said propels their 30-year marriage and has helped to define the governor’s two terms in Trenton.

Still, that did not stop some Capitol staff members from wryly dubbing it the his-and-her suite and noting that her expansive new work space dwarfed the office she had been using before.

Now, Tammy Murphy is preparing to expand her reach even further, laying the groundwork to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by New Jersey’s embattled senior senator, Robert Menendez, next year. Menendez, facing federal bribery charges, has insisted he will not resign and has not ruled out seeking reelection. But he has been abandoned by nearly every leading Democrat in the state, including Phil Murphy, leaving Menendez an extremely difficult path to victory and creating the likelihood of a rare open seat in the Senate.

Tammy Murphy, 58, has quickly stepped into that looming void. She is assembling a campaign team, alerting prominent political leaders about her interest in running and polling voters, according to interviews with more than two dozen state and national Democratic officials, strategists and people close to the Murphys.

If elected, she would be New Jersey’s first female senator and the only governor’s spouse ever sent directly to the U.S. Senate by voters, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

If she enters the race as expected after this week’s legislative contests, she will join a long roster of unconventional candidates who have run for Congress. By many measures her campaign would be even less traditional than most.

She would run as a Democrat in a blue state, but she regularly voted as a Republican until 2014, even as her husband was finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the ambassador to Germany appointed by President Barack Obama.

She has been a champion for improving New Jersey’s poor maternal and infant mortality rates and played key roles in both of her husband’s campaigns. But she describes herself as a homemaker on tax forms and has never held elected office.

Tammy Murphy, through an aide, declined an interview request.

She will have at least one well-tested Democratic opponent if she enters the primary: Rep. Andy Kim, a third-term congressman, who announced his plans to challenge Menendez more than a month ago.

‘The engine room’

Before Phil Murphy was sworn in for a second term after a narrow reelection victory, Josh Murphy, the couple’s eldest son, took the mic and called his mother “the engine room.”

“Without her,” he said, “the show actually does not go on.”

Few of the Trenton insiders gathered that day in the War Memorial, a national historic site across the street from the State House, would have doubted the quip’s accuracy.

Tammy Murphy is widely known for her willingness to raise campaign contributions for Democrats and as the energetic leader of Nurture NJ, a state initiative focused on improving maternal-related death rates.

In May former Vice President Al Gore appointed her to the board of his Climate Reality Project, and she was instrumental in winning support for new education standards that require climate change be incorporated into lessons across New Jersey’s public school curriculum.

There is also often an actual show. She wore a bunny costume to wish Facebook friends a happy but socially distant Easter during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days. She reads aloud to children during Tammy’s Tremendous Tuesday Tales. On the trade trip, she paused for photos with her husband before they jogged through Seoul, South Korea, and Taipei, Taiwan, in matching T-shirts.

Tammy Murphy worked in New York as an analyst for Goldman Sachs for about three years, until March 1990. She left to work at investment firms in London, but quit to marry Phil Murphy in 1994 and move to Frankfurt, Germany, where he was working at the time.

Four years later, after the birth of their first child, they began to throw down roots in New Jersey, buying a $6 million estate in Red Bank, near the Jersey Shore. The annual property taxes on the home are $179,000, roughly twice the state’s average household income.

For the next 15 years, Tammy Murphy voted regularly in Republican primaries, Monmouth County election records show.

In June 2008, when Obama was running in the state’s Democratic presidential primary against former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tammy Murphy voted in the Republican primary. Obama went on to win the race, and Phil Murphy, then the DNC’s national finance chair, was named ambassador to Germany, a position he held until 2013.

Tammy Murphy continued to vote in Republican primaries by mail in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and in person in 2014, according to a voter profile obtained through a public records request.

During the same years, she was also donating generously to Democrats across the country.

Tammy Murphy said during her husband’s first campaign that she had been raised in a conservative community in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and she acknowledged voting as a Republican until souring on the party over her concerns about the environment, gun violence and access to abortion.

News articles at the time suggested the shift had occurred in the mid-2000s. But election records show that she did not join the Democratic Party until August 2014, three years before Phil Murphy was elected.

Aides to Tammy Murphy declined to answer questions about her voting history and party affiliation.

‘What kind of person comes next?’

Were Tammy Murphy to win the June primary, she would square off next November against a Republican hoping to break the Democrats’ four-decade Senate winning streak.

In addition to Kim, other Democrats are already in the race, and more are considering it. Kyle Jasey, a real estate lender and first-time candidate, announced his campaign before Menendez was indicted. Kim jumped in a day after the senator was charged with accepting bribes in exchange for steering weapons and aid to Egypt and trying to quash criminal cases for allies.

“There is a palpable hunger for a new generation of leadership,” said Kim, 41, a former national security adviser under Obama.

His candidacy, he said, offered voters a “course correction.”

“What does the Democratic Party show the people as it moves on from this scandal?” Kim said about the claims of political corruption dogging Menendez. “What kind of person comes next?”

The line

In New Jersey primary races, it is often political leaders from the state’s densely populated northern counties who have the most say. That is because they control who gets to run on the so-called line — a ballot placement that is often tantamount to victory.

It is these party leaders whom the Murphys have been courting most aggressively, according to three people familiar with the conversations who did want to be identified saying anything that could be considered critical of the governor.

The leaders of two northern counties, Essex and Middlesex, have jobs as lobbyists with business before the state, limiting the likelihood that they might openly oppose a governor with two years left in his term — and control over the next two multibillion-dollar state budgets.

The Democratic chair in Bergen County, the state’s most populous county, was chosen by Phil Murphy in February for a coveted job leading the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. And a Democratic candidate for Hudson County executive recently posted a picture with Tammy Murphy on social media.

Still, there is no guarantee that Murphy would glide to victory even if she garnered the widespread institutional support her supporters and detractors agree she is likely to get as a powerful governor’s wife.

Chris Russell, a political strategist who ran the campaign of the Republican incumbent Kim beat to win a first congressional term in 2019, said it would be unwise to underestimate Kim or his “Clark Kent-type” persona, particularly in the wake of a scandal.

“After what is alleged about Sen. Menendez — about how he’s abused his office — the idea that it’s an inside job to put the governor’s wife into a U.S. Senate seat is not likely to be well received by the base of either party,” Russell said.

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