Analysis: Why Phil Murphy Has No Friends
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
After eight years of Republican Chris Christie, Democrats recaptured the governor's office and complete control of state government. Already holding significant majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, the gubernatorial win should have ushered in a unified state government.
However, with Phil Murphy as chief executive, state government is actually more divided than when Christie had the job.
There have been plenty of intra-party squabbles since Murphy took office and his feud with Senate President Steve Sweeney is hardly a secret, but Democrats are now on the verge of a full-scale revolt. Democratic power broker George Norcross’ unprecedented public attack on Murphy demonstrated just how bad the blood is.
Norcross is a childhood friend and longtime supporter of Sweeney. Usually preferring to work behind the scenes, Norcross emerged from the shadows to brand Murphy as “Stupid," dishonest," "reckless," and "incompetent,” during an interview with the Star-Ledger. A Murphy-ordered investigation into tax credits given for job creation in Camden targets multiple business interests connected to Norcross.
As rumors of the Sweeney-Murphy feud began swirling soon after Murphy's inauguration, I asked Sweeney about it. He downplayed the feud, but did express concerns about Murphy's progressive agenda.
"New Jersey is not a progressive state. We're a moderate state. We're not California," Sweeney told me. Patrick Murray, the respected pollster and head of the Monmouth Polling Institute concurred. Murray notes while the state has been leaning more Democratic in recent election cycles, his polling data shows New Jersey remains largely independent and moderate.
Murphy seems to pursue his progressive agenda without any thought of the political ramifications to both himself or his party. It has left him vulnerable to criticism, dropped his poll numbers, and further isolated him from fellow Democrats. His pursuit of New Jersey as a "sanctuary state" has critics saying he puts unauthorized immigrants ahead of law-abiding citizens and wants to harbor criminals. They say he wants to give driver licenses to unauthorized immigrants (which he does) while cutting aid to local schools (in truth, there are winners and losers in his plan). These criticisms are not entirely fact-based, but they make good sound bites and resonate with all but the most progressive voters.
Murphy further demonstrated his political tone-deafness when he suggested raiding $33 million from a fund dedicated to help fallen fire fighters and their families. In the face of multiple investigations into the Schools Development Authority, he refused to fire his appointed CEO of the organization. During the Al Alvarez-Katie Brennan rape scandal, Murphy stayed largely silent and would not even say who hired Alvarez.
Through all of the discord of Murphy’s 17 months as governor, not a single Democrat in the legislature has emerged as his champion. Quite the opposite, in fact. Former State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Ray Lesniak was considered one of the most progressive voices in the Democratic caucus, and even he is taking shots at Murphy. In an email, Lesniak was sharply critical of Murphy's probe of state tax incentives.
"He wrong," Lesniak wrote. "He's using fake math." For the good of the state, Lesniak urged Murphy to end his political fighting with fellow Democrats, "Unfortunately, I think the governor has crossed the Rubicon in terms of his relationship with political figures."
Former Govs. John Corzine, Jim McGreevey, and Jim Florio (all Democrats) also criticized Murphy’s views of tax incentives, as reported by Gannett's statehouse bureau.
To date, much of Murphy's agenda has been stalled, most simply because he has few allies in the legislature. Even after announcing a landmark agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana, a major campaign promise, he could not muster enough support among rank and file Democrats to pass it. Publicly, Sweeney said he was trying to rally enough votes, but in truth, he doesn't seem to have been working that hard.
It's not that Sweeney doesn't believe in legal weed, it's just that he isn't about to expend the political capital needed to give Murphy the win. Now it looks like voters will have the final say.
Sweeney is playing the long game, betting he will be here long after Murphy is gone and not wanting to jeopardize both his future and the future of the Democratic party by enacting an agenda that is too liberal, progressive and expensive for most New Jersey residents. That's the main reason behind Sweeney's "Path to Progress" agenda. Sweeney has been traveling New Jersey 'Town Hall'-style to promote his affordability ideas — many of which run counter to Murphy's agenda.
One longtime political operative was recently quoted by InsiderNJ saying "no one wants to be here," meaning in the middle of the Murphy-Sweeney feud. That sentiment has been echoed to me dozens of times by lawmakers, lobbyists, staff members, and others in an around state government. Norcross has vowed to make Murphy a one-term governor and hinted at rallying Democrats to primary Murphy in 2021. Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen, but much like New Jersey residents crushed by decades of over taxation, the Democratic party seems to be formulating an exit strategy to get out from under Phil Murphy.