- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 16, 2017

BEDMINSTER, N.J. (AP) - A Democratic candidate for governor seized on Republican President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the state and launched what he called a Trump Protection Plan to push back against the president’s agenda.

Jim Johnson, an attorney and former Department of the Treasury official under Democratic President Bill Clinton, held a news conference on Tuesday in Bedminster, where he called Trump’s handling of the office a “nightmare” and depicted the June 6 Democratic primary as a choice between fighting for or abandoning progressive ideals.

Johnson purposely set the event in Bedminster, a town tucked among green hills and horse farms about 4 miles from where Trump owns a golf club he’s expected to use as a summer retreat.

“President Trump has tried to set the full force of the federal government against our core values,” Johnson said. “We either fight or we fold.”

The event comes as Trump, who lost New Jersey to Democrat Hillary Clinton in November, pushes back against allegations of damaging intelligence disclosures to Russian officials and after last week’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating possible connections between Trump campaign officials and Russians. It also comes in a Democratic primary in which Johnson is among three leading rivals to front-runner Phil Murphy.

Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “ridiculous” for Johnson to attack Trump, particularly over the Comey firing since Democrats had called for him to be dismissed. Trump’s approval in New Jersey stands at a 35 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll of about 1,200 voters.

Johnson and the other Democrats, including state Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, are struggling to catch up to Murphy. They have increasingly attacked him over his background as an executive at Goldman Sachs who is largely financing his own campaign.

Wisniewski called out Murphy’s financial holdings in energy companies that have supported a gas drilling procedure called fracking, and Lesniak said during a recent debate that he was encouraged not to run by a county party official because Murphy would pay for “whatever we want.”

Murphy has deflected the criticism, saying he has worked hard for the endorsements he’s earned and his time at Goldman Sachs amounts to a “chapter” in his life that could help him manage New Jersey’s economy. Murphy has been leading in polls, has racked up key local political support and has spent six times as much as his party rivals, having loaned his campaign $15 million.

Johnson said now is not the time to elect someone “who has simply jumped in line with party machines.”

“We need an outsider who doesn’t owe the special interests or the Democratic machine anything,” he said.

Johnson’s campaign has pointedly gone after Murphy, filing an election law complaint alleging Murphy improperly began ramping up his campaign without officially declaring it, as required, and questioning Murphy’s sincerity on progressive issues during a debate.

Murphy has said there is no merit to the complaint and said he has lived progressive values “my entire life.”

Johnson’s Trump Protection Plan includes establishing a council to enforce immigration rights, enacting a Family Bill of Rights that includes housing and foreclosure protections and setting up a chief science officer for the state to protect the environment from Trump’s proposed cuts.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states holding elections for governor this year. New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a friend of Trump‘s, cannot run again after being elected to two terms.

Johnson has raised about $2.3 million, including public matching funds, in the contest and spent $1.7 million.

Bedminster, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of New York, is no stranger to wealth and celebrity. Besides Trump, whose golf club opened in 2004, residents have included billionaire former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, the New York Jets’ owner Woody Johnson and former Republican Gov. Tom Kean.

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