How Andy Kim Took on New Jersey’s Political Machine

Last September, when Bob Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey, was indicted—along with his wife, Nadine—in a garish bribery scheme involving gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz, one of the first elected officials to call for his resignation was Andy Kim, a congressman who represents the state’s Third District. The next day, Kim announced that

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Last September, when Bob Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey, was indicted—along with his wife, Nadine—in a garish bribery scheme involving gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz, one of the first elected officials to call for his resignation was Andy Kim, a congressman who represents the state’s Third District. The next day, Kim announced that he was running to replace Menendez in the U.S. Senate, anticipating a head-to-head challenge in the Democratic primary. But then, several weeks later, Tammy Murphy, the wife of Governor Phil Murphy and the most powerful woman in the state, announced her own candidacy for Senate. Elected officials, Party bureaucrats, and labor unions endorsed her right away. “When the First Lady came into the race,” Kim told me, “I had several senior Democratic leaders in the state call me and encourage me to drop out.”

Murphy has never held elected office, and was a registered Republican until about a decade ago. In most places, this would make Murphy, not Kim, who’s in his third term, the underdog. New Jersey is different. On primary day, June 4th, Democratic voters in most of the state will see ballots with a prominent column—a gatekeeping artifact, called the “the county line”—topped by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Below those names will be a single candidate for Senate. This coveted spot is bestowed by county Democratic committees—to which Murphy, owing in large part to her husband, is deeply connected. Other candidates are harder to vote for, sloughed off to ballot Siberia, in columns far to the right. The county line has shaped New Jersey politics for decades, and it was clear to Kim that it would operate in Murphy’s favor.

New Jersey is the only state in the nation with this type of bracketed ballot design. According to Julia Sass Rubin, a public-policy professor at Rutgers, a candidate who gets the line enjoys a double-digit advantage over the competition; the line is also a barrier to entry for new politicians and those perceived as outsiders. It breeds patronage: party leaders have used their power over the line to extract jobs, government contracts, and donations. Kim came out against the county line shortly before he declared his Senate run; last month, he filed a federal lawsuit claiming that it is unconstitutional.

On the first Monday in March, I followed Kim to a convention held by the Democratic Committee of Bergen County. The purpose of the meeting was to decide which candidates would get the committee’s blessing in the primary. The venue was an electricians’-union hall, a big brick box tucked into a dense braid of highways in the northern city of Paramus. Delegates representing local precincts would cast votes for either Kim or Murphy, and the winner would “get the line.” Most of the delegates themselves held elected office and wanted to get the line, too.

Kim wore a blue suit and dress sneakers. His glasses kept sliding down his nose, and his constant efforts to restore them gave him a geeky aspect. With two and a half months until the primary, Kim was ahead in the polls: forty-eight per cent of Jersey Democrats expressed a “favorable” opinion of him, compared with twenty-four per cent for Murphy. But polling was less important than getting the line in populous, heavily Democratic counties. Bergen was a big one.

More than eleven hundred delegates filled out their ballots in a giant, windowless room with peach-colored walls and a checkered linoleum floor. As we waited for the results, Kim approached Murphy and stuck out his hand for a comradely shake. He then retreated to a quiet seat in the back, next to his wife, Kammy Lai. At around eight-thirty, the chair of Bergen County’s committee, an ally of the Murphys, announced the final tally: Murphy, 738; Kim, 419. Murphy got the line.

Two weeks later, after more conventions in other counties, a hearing was held in Kim’s county-line lawsuit. At the court house, he saw a “massive rally on the steps,” he told me. “That was not my campaign that set that up. These are advocates and activists and citizens that feel very strongly about this moment.” Kim testified for more than an hour. “The whole point of democracy is to give people a choice,” he said to a packed courtroom. Murphy did not express an opinion about the line, but the attorney general of New Jersey, a confidant and direct appointee of her husband, submitted a remarkable letter to the judge, stating that the line was legally indefensible.

On Sunday, March 24th, a day before the filing deadline in the race, Murphy shocked everyone by suspending her campaign. In a three-minute video posted to X, she said, over soft piano music, “It is clear to me that continuing in this race will involve waging a very divisive and negative campaign. . . . I will not in good conscience waste resources tearing down a fellow-Democrat.” She did not mention Kim by name.

Within a few weeks, Kim had gone from primary underdog to presumptive senator. (It’s unlikely that a Republican will win.) He had framed his campaign as a fight against “a culture of cronyism and a culture of corruption,” he told me, and it seemed to be working. News outlets proclaimed, “The Machine Crumbles” and “an insurgent upends a Democratic machine.” With Murphy off the line, Kim took her spot. Perhaps the machine hadn’t actually crumbled; it just had a new pick.

En route to the convention in Paramus, Kim’s staff had arranged for me to meet him at Thumbody, a self-described “Filipino and Black-owned coffee shop” in the lobby of a beige office park. He arrived with his wife, Lai, who is a lawyer in the financial sector, and two campaign staffers, ordered a hot chocolate (he doesn’t drink coffee), and joined me at a table near a glass wall. He smiled and gamely launched into an “I’m a normal guy” spiel.

Kim, who is forty-one, was raised in South Jersey, by immigrants from South Korea. He has one sibling, Monica, a MacArthur award-winning historian of the Korean War. Like many politicians his age, Kim traces his career to 9/11. At the time, he was a student at Deep Springs College, a nontraditional program on a California cattle ranch; his favorite book was Plato’s Republic. The attacks, he said, drew him toward “my community and public service and government.” He transferred to the University of Chicago, where he worked with a homeless-rights group—meeting Barack Obama, who was then a state senator—and joined protests against the Iraq War. At Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar, he studied political theory alongside Pete Buttigieg, and met Lai, a philosophy student who’d grown up in Hong Kong and Vancouver. (“I was really impressed,” Kim told me. “I was always a wannabe philosopher.”) Afterward, he got a job in the U.S. State Department, and was sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2src13, he was recruited by the White House to be an Iraq specialist on the National Security Council. “It was supposed to be a quiet portfolio,” he told me, because U.S. troops were being pulled out. Then ISIS expanded its presence in Syria and Iraq. “That was a surreal experience,” he recalled. “I’m in the Situation Room with a President who also opposed the Iraq War, and now we’re talking through whether or not we’re going to start another war.” Kim told me that he was so in awe of his station that he kept a second pair of dress shoes under his desk, reserved for visits to the Oval Office. The work, though, was unremitting and made him “a shell of a human being,” he said. He took a break, hoping to return to the White House after Hillary Clinton’s Inauguration.

Instead, Donald Trump was elected. Kim moved back to South Jersey with his growing family—he and Lai have two sons, Austin and August—and decided to join an effort to flip the House in 2src18. (He describes his political career as accidental, which is about as believable as when Biden says the same.) The state’s Third Congressional District, parts of which had voted for Trump by a wide margin, was then represented by Tom MacArthur, a two-term Republican best known for a proposal to gut the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats had mostly written off the district; Kim was the Party’s only candidate to enter the race. The Republicans attacked his Jersey bona fides and sent out a mailer that read, “Something is REAL FISHY about ANDY KIM,” using a stylized typeface reminiscent of kung-fu titles and Chinese-restaurant menus. The MacArthur campaign also accused Kim of exaggerating his résumé, based on a fact check published by the Washington Post (“We give him two Pinocchios”). Kim won by just 1.3 per cent.

His office in Washington is more cluttered than any other congressional office I’ve seen. When I visited in late February, a Wawa commuter mug, that symbol of Jersey grocery-store plenty, had pride of place on a shelf at the front of the room. There was also a map of the world, a soccer ball, an acoustic guitar, a violin, a backgammon set from Turkey, and a decorative gold eagle with a wing snapped off—a cautionary memento from January 6th. The morning after the Capitol insurrection, Kim went to the Rotunda to bag garbage. Images of him kneeling on the floor, in a suit and a surgical mask, picking up empty water bottles and scraps of paper, went viral and came to encapsulate everything Trumpism was not. “I revere these buildings,” he told me. “I’m getting a little teary-eyed just talking about it.”

Read More