Election losses rekindle Sweeney-Murphy feud (Analysis)
The intra-party squabbling between Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney had cooled a bit over the summer and heading into this week’s elections, but after Democrats lost seats in both the Senate and Assembly, it's unlikely the two most powerful elected Democrats in New Jersey will be holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” any time soon.
Many saw the loss of legislative seats as a repudiation of Murphy’s costly progressive agenda. Republicans celebrated their first legislative gains in decades. Despite losing legislative seats, Murphy declared victory. At a news conference Wednesday, Murphy glossed over those losses, and highlighted some key Democratic victories in local elections in declaring victory and proclaiming the Democratic party has never been in a better place.
Reacting to Murphy’s declaration, Sweeney told NJ.com, “Really? It wasn’t a good day.�� You can spin it anyway you want. We lost.” Sweeney noted it was the first net loss in the Senate in a decade and blamed Murphy for it. “When we have an administration that only talks about raising taxes every day, it’s not helpful.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin was not as blunt, and did not respond to Murphy directly, but did issue a statement signaling he will continue to oppose higher taxes. “We (will) continue to govern in a fiscally responsible way on behalf of working middle-class families,” Coughlin said.
While Republicans did make gains, they remain solidly in the minority in both legislative houses, and will have little voice in policy making over the next two years. The main opposition to Murphy continues to come from fellow Democrats. Both Coughlin and Sweeney have done a good job keeping their caucus members in line, and there is no sign that will change. In conversations with multiple Democratic senators before and after the election, most remain solidly behind Sweeney in opposition to higher taxes.
One Democratic lawmaker, who asked his name not be used to avoid retaliation from Murphy, told me, “Thank God for Steve Sweeney.” The lawmaker said while he hasn’t always agreed with Sweeney on everything, he believed Sweeney was the only one strong enough to blunt Murphy’s costly agenda. Both Sweeney and Coughlin have opposed Murphy's attempts to raise taxes on millionaires in the last two budgets.
Sweeney has proposed his own “Path to Progress” that includes multiple pathways he believes will put New Jersey on more solid fiscal footing. The agenda has gotten a cool reception from the governor, especially suggestions of further pension and health benefits reforms for state workers. However, expect Sweeney to intensify pressure to enact his reforms in 2020. He’s told me he intends to schedule hearings on key reforms when the new legislative session begins in January. If the first hearings focus on the part of the plan Murphy hates the most, pension and benefits reforms, it will signal a ramp up of tensions between the governor and senate president. It could also further indicate the likelihood Murphy’s agenda will remain in limbo during the second half of his term.