Former gubernatorial candidate talks N.J. politics, building up communities

By Gianluca D’Elia and Lauren Lavelle 

Former N.J. gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson spoke to students at the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics on Sept. 26. Johnson, a lawyer and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, emphasized the importance of community activism.

New Jersey is known as one of the least politically engaged states in the U.S., but former gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson encouraged an audience of Rider students to break the statistic and “go deep, build strong and stand tall” in a Sept. 26 address to the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at the Mercer Room.

Johnson, a former candidate for governor of New Jersey, came in second to Phil Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, in the Democratic primary in June 2017. He received 109,260 — or 22 percent — of the Democrat vote without support from the party. Meanwhile, 241,353 Democrats voted for Murphy, the party-endorsed candidate, making up 48 percent of the Democrats who voted this past summer.

“New Jersey is in the bottom 10 of all states in terms of civic engagement,” Johnson told students. “We are in the bottom of all states for voter participation. These things need to be turned around because we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines.”

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute, shared a similar sentiment, noting that political engagement in New Jersey is low, and that getting involved is important, especially for college students, whose lives can be directly affected by who is in the Statehouse.

“Virtually, nobody is paying attention to the New Jersey race,” Dworkin said. “It’s not there’s little coverage, it’s that sometimes Donald Trump takes up all the oxygen — there’s only so much column inches in a newspaper devoted to politics, and nine-tenths of it are taken up by what’s happening in Washington. So the coverage of what’s happening in an off-year election where Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with major elections, there should be major attention, and it should be a slow time in Washington, but it’s not, so the coverage and attention is down there.

I think that’s unfortunate because the next New Jersey governor is going to have to make huge decisions on things like student aid, support for colleges, any number of different issues like taxes, job creation, abortion rights, environmental protection — all of these things are affected much more by a governor than a president. So New Jersey’s next governor is going to have a real impact on the lives of students. I encourage them to get engaged.”

Johnson encouraged students to participate in government, telling the audience, “All you have to do is keep track of the news, and you will realize this nation needs fresh blood and your energy and your ideas.”

Johnson, a lawyer and activist who served as a U.S. Treasury official under former President Bill Clinton, co-founded New Jersey Communities Forward, a coalition made up of civil rights organizations, state law enforcement and municipal police, which aims to solve statewide issues of criminal justice and race.

“I believe this nation became great because of strong communities,” Johnson said. “I believe this state has incredibly strong communities that can become even stronger. [N.J. Communities Forward] created a space in which we could actually talk to each other across the barriers that usually divide us. This was important because we developed solutions — New Jersey became one of the first states with camera laws. We created enough space with people of goodwill to figure out how do we move forward.”

Johnson often held meet and greets while he was on the campaign trail, and recalled a time when he was told by a local barber in Camden that adolescents in his neighborhood can rarely be seen smiling because of the trauma they have experienced.

“One of the things we need to do in this state is deal with the trauma so many people have had in this state — loss of homes, trauma of law enforcement, trauma of feeling unsafe in communities,” Johnson said. “Go deep and try to get us from a point where so many of us in the state for years have been screaming back and forth with no progress.”

Johnson said he also hopes that through more civic engagement, more people will choose to stay in New Jersey rather than leaving for other states.

“A big problem for the future of this state is the fact that millennials, when you graduate, are leaving this state. We need to engage with you as the leadership today is thinking about whether you can get a job here or you need to leave and go somewhere else.”

Johnson emphasized that they key to solving the state’s most important issues is unity.

“We live in a political moment right now where the instinct has been not to pull us together, but to pull us apart from each other,” he said. “For me, community is strong enough when it works that it can hold and provide space for disagreements. A community that is great looks out for the weakest among us.”

Dworkin said the community-based initiatives that Johnson is leading in New Jersey reflect a wider public interest in community activism.

“A lot of people are interested in hearing what a reform message is,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of grassroots activism now, especially on the Democrat side, and people are looking to engage and challenge politics as it is. [Johnson] is certainly one of the people leading that fight.”

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