On a hot June day in Newark, just under twenty individuals huddled around a conference speaker. Unconstructed cubicles, boxes filled with office supplies, and Keurig coffees cups littered the stuffy office space. While the Deputy Campaign Manager fiddled with speaker’s cables to contact the Campaign Manager, each person introduced themselves and their past political experience. Alongside the other two interns, I remember being in a state of awe as names and phrases like “Democratic National Committee,” “former mayor of…,” and “Frank Lautenberg” casually flew around the room. Finally, the Campaign Manager was able to reach us after much difficulty. Everyone in the room craned their necks over the clutter to catch a glimpse of the colorless block. After a few brief words of encouragement, the Campaign Manager ended the call with, “I believe in Phil, I believe in what he stands for, and I believe in what we are fighting for. Thank you all for taking this chance.” And with a sharp crackle, the conference call was over and Phil Murphy’s bid for the governorship of New Jersey had begun. The atmosphere in that crammed office space was filled with an odd mixture of excitement and uncertainty.
Phil Murphy, a highly active philanthropist and former Goldman Sachs executive, wished to pursue a progressive agenda that – despite the legislative efforts of Democrats in the state legislature – was constantly vetoed by former Governor Chris Christie. Phil was a political outsider and challenging two (undeclared) Democratic claims for the governorship – State Senator and political power broker Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. Two career politicians with deep ties to New Jersey’s political machine certainly complicated Phil’s bid. Furthermore, Jon Corzine, the last New Jersey governor hailing from Goldman Sachs, oversaw a state government shutdown and clashed with public sector unions. However, New Jersey’s Democratic establishment was bullied by the brutish tactics of Christie and there were simply too many issues impacting the state of affairs in New Jersey. Plagued by eight years of stagnation and mismanagement under Christie, the state of New Jersey needed a governor who truly valued his constituency’s livelihood and future. Due to a poor HUD application – overseen by Christie – for federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds, New Jersey “missed out” on $300 million in potential aid. Ranked in the bottom fifth of all states for affordable housing availability, foreclosure rates, veteran homelessness, and assisted care living (to name a few), New Jersey was ripe for an unconventional figure to revitalize the effectiveness of government and the democratic spirit of the state.
Working over the course of two summers for the campaign as a policy and outreach analyst, the names of Sweeney and Fulop faded from discussion and were replaced by a bevy of Democratic challengers hailing from all over the state. Phil’s strong financial backing proved to be enough to deter the entrance of characters like Sweeney and Fulop, while the experienced political operatives of Phil’s campaign quickly formed relationships with civil bodies throughout the state. The number of interns increased from eight to forty, while the staffers from that mid-June day remained the same. From this experience, I was exposed to the proper practices and strategies of political campaigning. Also, this extended period of time on the campaign revealed the organic, yet chaotic expansion of campaign operations and personnel. The final day of the campaign, Election Day, embodies the nature of campaign life, while the results of the election elicited the same feelings of excitement and uncertainty within me.
Fast forwarding a year and a half later after that conference call in Newark, I find myself supervising a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) staging area somewhere in Middlesex County. No longer in the crammed into the Newark office space, I was surrounded by volunteers and a handful of staffers I had met within the day. Mentally and physically exhausted from driving canvassers, staffers, and literature materials across the county since 5:30 am, I monotonously processed the canvasser checks as the volunteers anxiously waited for their copies. At around 9:00 pm, a staffer announced that Phil officially secured the governorship. The few staffers present hugged each other, excitedly texted their significant others, and called Ubers to attend the campaign party, while myself and the staging area chief continued to process volunteers. By 9:45 pm, I said my final goodbye to the staging area chief and got in my car. Exhausted by the day, I trekked home filled with excitement, but a nagging feeling of anxiety constantly bothered me on the ride home. I now realize that I failed to understand the true political reality of that moment. I invested myself entirely in the campaign and in the belief that Phil would make New Jersey a better place; however, with its conclusion, I failed to realize that the struggle to improve people’s lives and the political state of America is always ongoing. Action, constant action, is key to the success of one’s political ideals. If you have a just message, it will connect with your fellow citizens.
I think these experiences are an exciting and necessary look for many into the inner workings of campaigns, particularly those which are not nationally scoped. It was eye-opening for me, certainly, to read about the type of people that you had the opportunity to work with, and about the relationships they were creating with local civic groups. It proves that those ties do not appear out of thin air, as many might suspect, and someone had to work hard to secure the confidence of those people. Another intriguing element is your position at GOTV staging area. It instantly begs the mind to wonder how may hundreds, or thousands of individuals like yourself were invested in the success of a campaign, out at the voting stations urging citizens to get in and vote. In many ways, your experiences invigorate my faith in the successful function of American politics. The necessary web of bureaucratic infrastructure, the innumerable amount of people working on not only Murphy’s campaign, but also his challengers. The ability of you and your colleagues to successfully win the confidence of the New Jersey populace. These are all indicators that while things may seem bleak on a national scale, local politics continues to thrive and operate with incredible success. Ultimately, as I’m sure you know, local governments are the foundation on which the national government stands on. It has no efficacy if local governments cannot execute and operate to their fullest capabilities. To conclude, your lens into the functioning of a campaign is an important visualization of how governments form and function.