NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Gubernatorial candidates John Wisniewski and Phil Murphy spent some time at Rutgers University's main campus with the hopes of building support from student voters ahead of the 2017 elections.
On November 30, Murphy held a "town hall" meeting at the Student Activities Center, with the event being heavily attended by Rutgers student and local party officials.
One week later, on December 7, a student group called RU Progressives hosted an event featuring Wisnieski, a longtime State Assemblyman from Sayreville.
Both men are seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for Governor in the June 2017 primary.
Before Wisniewski threw his hat in the ring on November 16, Murphy was the only officially declared Democrat in the race, and had already locked up the support of most of the state's leading Democrats.
His two unofficial opponents in the early days of the race, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Senate President Steve Sweeney, each dropped out in September and endorsed Murphy.
Bill Brennan, a former firefighter who hails from Wayne and filed the criminal misconduct complaint against Chris Christie over the "Bridgegate" scandal, is also seeking the Democratic Party nomination, as well as West Orange priest Bob Hoatson and Montclair's Jim Johnson, a former U.S Undersecretary of the Treasury for Enforcement.
Several Democrat officials and operatives were at the Murphy town hall, including Middlesex County Freeholders Kenneth Armood and Charles Kenny, as well as Bergen County political consultant David Parano.
Inside the Student Activities Center's Raritan River Lounge, Murphy protrayed his campaign as part of the Democrat effort to resist President-elect Donald Trump's controversial policy proposals.
With Republicans on the verge of taking control of Congress and the White House, Murphy argued, Democrats would be counting on upcoming statewide and local victories across the country, including the NJ and Virginia 2017 gubernatorial races.
"We have to put one foot in front of the other to get back the country that we love so much, and the state that we love so much," Murphy told a packed room.
“Twenty-two days ago the world and our country changed," Murphy added. "The stakes got a lot higher."
Like Trump, Murphy labeled himself as an "outsider" due to the fact that he held no prior positions in elected office.
Murphy was a banker at the controversial financial firm Goldman Sachs before he was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as the US Ambassador to Germany.
"We've started as outsiders and we are outsiders," Murphy told reporters after the event.
Murphy promised to increase funding for public education, and expressed his support for the addition of a student voting member to the Rutgers Board of Governors.
He vowed to oppose any efforts by Trump to create a registry of Muslims living in America, likening the proposal to how Jewish people were treated in Nazi Germany. Murphy said that if such a database was created, he would want his own name included.
Murphy also said he supported granting state ID's to undocumented immigrants and allowing undocumented students to qualify for state financial aid.
If elected, he would protect "sanctuary cities" and not "round people up," he said.
Cities across the country, including New Brunswick, Newark and Perth Amboy, have vowed to protect undocumented immigrants, amid threats from Trump during the campaign that sanctuary cities would lose federal funding.
"I give [Newark Mayor] Ras Baraka an enormous amount of credit... this is a moment of character, this is a character test. I don’t know where the money will come from." Murphy said. "The question is: Are we on the right side of history?"
Murphy also voiced his support for New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill, as well as former mayor John Lynch. As we reported previously, Lynch spent two years in prison on corruption charges, and in 2014 was named by NJ Spotlight as the fifth most corrupt NJ politician of all time.
The Murphy town hall was co-hosted by a slew of local organizations, including Rutgers Democrats, the Rutgers NAACP, the College Democrats of New Jersey, the Middlesex County Democrats LGBT Caucus and Rutgers for Phil Murphy, formerly known as Rutgers for Hillary.
One of the key differences students noted between the events was that at Murphy's gathering, students were told to write down questions and submit them to the campaign staff, who ultimately decided which ones deserved to be asked.
Wisniewski, however, asked students to simply raise their hands and be called on by him.
Wisniewski has served on the State Assembly since 1996 and is known for co-chairing the investigative committee that led to stunning revelations about the Bridgegate scandal, where incumbent Governor Chris Christie's administration purposefully caused repeated traffic jams in Fort Lee.
Wisniewski also endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described "Democratic Socialist," earlier this year during Sanders' run for President, and was chair of Sanders' New Jersey Campaign Committee.
"I see a system that's stacked up against ordinary people," Wisniewski began. "Time and time again we see a system that doesn't work for ordinary New Jersey residents."
Wisniewski depicted his political career as a tale of an underdog, including his work on Bridgegate committee, during which he says he was initially discouraged from doing by his Democratic colleagues.
Wisniewski also took jabs at Murphy's portrayal of himself as an outsider candidate.
"People can call themselves whatever they want, but the record speaks for itself," Wisniewski said, "I have not gone around courting county chairs for their endorsement, I do not have the political bosses anointing me. I think that defines who the political insider is."
Wisniewski, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, was critical of the 23-cent gas tax increase which would be use to finance the Transportation Trust Fund, saying the move was self-defeating because it was accompanied by cuts in the estate tax.
He suggested that the state take money away from what he called wasteful spending, and put that money towards reducing the cost of higher education at state universities lik Rutgers.
Wisniewski added that he would support undocumented immigrants and "sanctuary cities," including those who are pursuing higher education under NJ's DREAM Act.
"We’re in uncharted territory with the Trump administration," Wisniewski told the packed classroom in Van Dyck Hall. "What we need to do is make sure New Jersey [becomes] a sanctuary so people can live in this state and thrive and succeed. We’re all immigrants.”
Wisniewski also vowed to push for a $15 an hour minimum wage if elected.
Wisniewski told New Brunswick Today that he might support a modified version of the state's controversial red light camera enforcement program, which ticketed motorists who were still in an intersection when the traffic signal turned red.
The program went offline in December 2014, after no legislator moved forward to renew the project after its' five-year pilot program expired.
Wisniewski was one of four legislators who sponsored the bill creating the program, though two others, former Assemblyman and Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas and former State Senator Joseph Coniglio, were later imprisoned on corruption charges.
Wisniewski admitted that that the program was "self-funding" in that the money raised from the program was simply going back into funding it, something he would oppose in a new version of the bill.
Wisniewski added that he would sign a bill to re-instate the program if it did away with the "self-funding" mechanism and didn't ticket motorists who turned right on red.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to face the winner of the Republican Party's primary, and at least one other independent candidate: Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, a pastor at the Reformed Church in Highland Park, who is running on the Green Party ticket.
Three candidates have declared their candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial ticket: Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, former Nutley Commissioner and vocal Trump supporter Steve Rogers, and businessman Joseph Rudy Rullo.
Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno is also rumored to be planning a run for the state's highest office, as have Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr.