NJ’s Tammy Murphy beats Andy Kim for the 1st time in convention vote for Menendez seat

New Jersey’s first lady Tammy Murphy got her first big county Democratic convention win over Rep. Andy Kim Monday night, with 64% of the votes in Bergen County — giving her the county party’s endorsement and preferred placement on its primary ballot.

Bergen has the second-largest number of registered Democrats of any county in the state and the night was a must-win for Murphy, who was defeated by Kim at conventions in Monmouth, Burlington, Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties. The local party nod gives candidates what’s known as the “county line” —  a favorable ballot position that can make or break a candidate in party primaries. Kim has been outperforming Murphy in polls and convention votes since both candidates kicked off their campaigns to replace indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

Kim, a congressmember serving towns in Burlington, Mercer and Monmouth counties, said he was happy with the 419 votes he received Monday, even though he contended that he had little chance to meet with Bergen committee members.

“The chairman immediately came in and endorsed the first lady within, what, 48 hours of her announcing the race and he never returned my phone calls until about maybe four days ago,” Kim said. “We know he has hosted multiple events for [Tammy Murphy], so no it was never a fair fight. But you know, look, I wanted to come here and say, ‘Look, I’m not scared of the machine.’ And over 400 people also said that they’re not scared of the machine.”

A spokesperson for the county party has denied Kim was blocked from meeting with delegates.

Murphy said she won the convention because she worked hard to hold town halls, meet voters and present herself on Zoom calls.

“I think we’re all in the same process across the state. We’re all competing with the same rules,” Murphy said.

The powerful party boss in Bergen County, Paul Juliano, is a close ally of Gov. Phil Murphy and was appointed last year to a lucrative state job as the head of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Party members say he worked hard behind the scenes to ensure a victory for the first lady.

“We haven’t seen turnout like this in decades,” Juliano said about the 1,157 committee members who cast votes.

Mike Apicella, a committee member from Lodi, said he saw the first lady speak several times in the leadup to the convention — and didn’t hear Kim speak at all.

“Tammy Murphy is focused on key issues, which she explains — women’s rights, reproductive rights, and she’s going there for the right reasons. She is not going to be the status quo,” he said.

Not all of New Jersey’s county-based Democratic committees ask their members to vote on endorsements; instead, they often leave those decisions up to leadership. Bergen has a larger population than any other county where the matter is put to a vote.

In the 19 counties that use the “line,” party-backed candidates for all available elected positions are grouped together in a single column or row, which is expected to be led by President Joe Biden this year. Researchers say that gives endorsed candidates a strong advantage, especially in primaries. Other candidates appear in other lines, often alone or with just a few people running for other positions. Kim is seeking an injunction to bar counties from using the system before the June primary election, with arguments expected in court on March 18.

When Tammy Murphy announced her candidacy, she received personal endorsements from nine county chairs, including most of the counties with the largest number of registered Democrats. Bergen is the only one of the five counties with the largest number of Democrats to hold a binding vote — Essex, Hudson and Camden do not hold votes at conventions at all, and Middlesex’s committee will hold an advisory vote.

Jeanne Stella, a Bergen committee member from Closter, said she wasn’t surprised to see so much support for Juliano. Once he made his endorsement, many members of the committee fell in line, including chairs of municipal committees, she said.

Political activist Larry Hamm and labor rights advocate Patricia Campos-Medina are also running for Senate, but neither was on the Bergen convention ballot. Neither was Bob Menendez, the sitting U.S. senator Murphy and Kim hope to replace. Menendez’s indictment last September was followed by calls for his resignation, but he has refused to step down. Menendez hasn’t said if he’ll seek re-election.

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