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‘Would a call from Tammy help?’ Pressure grows in race to oust Menendez.

In World
January 14, 2024

The College Democrats of New Jersey were preparing to make an endorsement in one of the country’s most closely watched U.S. Senate primaries when calls began to come in from someone in touch with the campaign of Tammy Murphy, the presumptive front-runner and the wife of the state’s governor.

The caller, a female college student who works as a youth coordinator for the Democratic State Committee, wanted to know what Murphy’s campaign could do to block the group from endorsing Murphy’s main rival, Rep. Andy Kim.

“Would a call from Tammy help?” the woman said she asked, while indicating she was relaying a message from the Murphy campaign.

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Then, in a series of calls over the next two hours, the pressure from the caller, Keely Magee, escalated to warnings — about funding and future job prospects for leaders of the College Democrats, according to several people involved in the discussions and a recording of one call.

In an interview, Magee said the Murphy campaign had not asked her to pressure the group on its behalf. But she acknowledged being aware that members of Murphy’s campaign staff “wanted to do something to prevent the endorsement” and said she was receiving text messages from a Murphy campaign consultant, Dave Parano.

On the recorded call, Magee described Parano as a co-worker who had “talked directly” to the campaign manager and was “very, very close with the Murphys.” Parano did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The effort to stop the endorsement failed. On Wednesday, both the College Democrats of America and the New Jersey chapter issued full-throated endorsements of Kim, a South Jersey Democrat running against Murphy for the chance to oust Sen. Bob Menendez.

The episode offered a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the high-stakes political battle playing out as New Jersey’s first lady, a first-time candidate, struggles to gain grassroots traction in her bid to unseat Menendez, who faces federal bribery charges.

With support from her husband, Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a second-term Democrat, Tammy Murphy has been endorsed by many of the state’s most powerful Democrats and has raised a record amount of contributions in her campaign’s first six weeks. Yet several polls suggest that she continues to trail Kim by a wide margin.

Alex Altman, a spokesperson for Murphy’s campaign, said Magee’s comments were “totally and completely inappropriate, and they in no way represent this campaign or what we stand for.”

“They were made by a young person with no connection to our campaign, one who seemed eager to help, albeit in a misguided manner,” Altman added.

Magee, a 21-year-old Rutgers University junior, has worked part time as a paid youth coordinator for the Democratic State Committee for several years.

Magee said her main objective had been to persuade members of the College Democrats’ executive board to halt an online endorsement vote that was underway and remain neutral instead. She said she believed that statewide Democratic organizations should not pick sides before a primary and was worried that a group she was responsible for guiding might face repercussions for doing so.

“It wasn’t coming from a place of threatening at all,” she said.

But students on the other end of the calls said they had felt threatened, so much so that they recorded the final call to have proof of the exchange if they were penalized later. The students then gave Kim’s campaign access to the recording, which was also shared with The New York Times.

“I felt a mix of shock and fear,” said Nate Howard, 20, a Princeton University junior who is vice president of the New Jersey chapter of the College Democrats and participated in the call with Magee that was recorded. “Shock because: Why are these people threatening us? Are we really that important?”

According to the recording, Magee warned the students that an early endorsement of Kim could harm their future job prospects, deprive their organization of as much as $2,000 in funding and hurt their odds of being selected as delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

“If Tammy Murphy does somehow win being senator, I’d be careful about ever getting a job in that office or anything like that,” Magee said. “At least for the first few years of her term until her staff turns over.”

Howard said Murphy called him Friday to apologize. Magee said Parano, a political field consultant who also does work for the state committee, had also apologized to her for involving her in the process in the first place.

Murphy’s campaign said that all of the students involved in this “unfortunate situation” should be afforded the “grace, allowance and forgiveness that we all deserve at that age.”

In the 2020 election, 67% of New Jersey voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast ballots, the highest rate in the country.

A spokesperson for the Kim campaign said it was excited to receive the college groups’ endorsements but had no comment about the recording.

Howard said the experience had underscored what he believes is wrong with politics.

“For things to get better,” Howard said, “I believe that it will require courageous people to tell the truth about the inappropriate and frankly gross behaviors of the status quo.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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