After Early Victories, N.J. Governor Is Undermined by Lawmakers From His Own Party

By Nick Corasaniti


Dec. 30, 2018

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, achieved some early victories during first year, but progress has stalled as he has fought with legislators and has been shadowed by a sexual assault scandal involving a former top administration official.


During his first year in office, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey has boasted of an open-door policy for legislators whose support he needs.

But it’s not easy getting to the governor’s door. A building renovation forced Mr. Murphy from the State House into temporary offices five minutes from the legislative chambers.

The distance between the executive and the legislative chambers is an apt symbol of Mr. Murphy’s tenure.

Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, was swept into office last year by a broad, energized coalition of progressive voters in a race that attracted national interest from a party base seeking good news following the election of President Trump. Mr. Murphy was a sharp turn to the left from his Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, and his ambitious agenda, like legalizing recreational marijuana and raising the minimum wage, resonated beyond Trenton.

But after several victories, Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who had never held elected office, has been bogged down by battles with the Legislature. New Jersey’s Assembly and Senate are controlled by Democrats, but the governor has few allies among lawmakers and has often been viewed as disengaged from the give-and-take that typically greases legislative gears.

“Clearly, there has been a learning curve,” said Senator Paul A. Sarlo, a Democrat who is the deputy majority leader in the State Senate.

In his first 100 days, Mr. Murphy signed into law measures on gun control, equal pay and tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. He also increased funding for Planned Parenthood and expanded voter rights.

“We have governed exactly as we said we would and we are exactly who we said we would be,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview.

But the governor’s progress has stalled on issues such as legalizing marijuana and increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he was unable to pass his complete package of tax hikes in the budget.

A scandal over how senior aides handled accusations of sexual assault against a former top administration official has cast a shadow on his tenure. Also, many constituents blame Mr. Murphy for failing to reverse the dismal performance of New Jersey Transit, the state’s commuter rail system.

Mr. Murphy was hours from overseeing a state government shutdown over a budget standoff with the legislature, led mainly by Stephen M. Sweeney, the powerful Senate president.

Yet Mr. Murphy’s relationship with Mr. Sweeney might have been doomed well before Mr. Murphy took office.

During his re-election campaign last year, Mr. Sweeney was often attacked in negative ads paid for in part by the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teacher’s union who was backing Mr. Sweeney’s Republican opponent. Mr. Sweeney wanted Mr. Murphy to intervene with the union to stop the attacks. Mr. Murphy did not do so publicly.

Mr. Sweeney and his allies took Mr. Murphy’s stance as a tacit endorsement of the union’s effort to unseat him. After Mr. Sweeney won by nearly 18 points, many wondered how the two would repair their relationship.

For months, they didn’t.

The governor and his wife reached out multiple times to Mr. Sweeney after the election to set up a dinner, but plans never materialized.

Aside from a 10-minute meeting in Atlantic City after the November 2017 election, the first one-on-one meeting between the two did not occur until May 7 of this year, according to Mr. Sweeney. Meetings between the two are still rare.

“It’s beyond not normal,” Mr. Sweeney said.

The bad blood between Mr. Murphy and Mr. Sweeney plunged the budget process into chaos.

Mr. Murphy saw Mr. Sweeney’s decision not to support a so-called millionaire’s tax as a betrayal. Mr. Sweeney had publicly supported the proposal last year.

Mr. Murphy only began a public lobbying blitz for his proposal less than two weeks before the budget deadline and held few discussions with legislative leaders to push his agenda. He also relied on commercials that some legislators interpreted as attacks.

“There was a lot of lack of communication,” said Loretta Weinberg, the State Senate majority leader, noting that most of the governor’s top aides had little Trenton experience. “By and large, with the exception of the chief of staff, and I guess one of the deputy chiefs, it was an all brand-new front office.”

Mr. Murphy settled for a watered-down millionaire’s tax, and lawmakers rejected his proposal to increase the sales tax. The budget battle also ensured that Mr. Sweeney would remain a constant foil.

Disagreements with Mr. Sweeney over details involving marijuana legalization and raising the minimum wage have bogged down two key pieces of Mr. Murphy’s progressive agenda.

“We should be talking once or twice a week at least,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We’re not bad Democrats if we agree on a minimum wage but we don’t agree exactly on the same minimum wage. That doesn’t make him right or me wrong. It just means we need to figure it out.”

Mr. Murphy said he would not shy away from challenging fellow Democrats.

“If we don’t agree on something, we’re going to stand our ground,” Mr. Murphy said.

Mr. Murphy and Mr. Sweeney could be headed toward another budget showdown. The governor said it’s possible he would seek another tax on the wealthy in the upcoming budget.

“Nothing’s happened that says it’s a less good idea if that’s what we have to do to in order to deliver for the middle class,” Mr. Murphy said.

Mr. Sweeney has been adamant about not raising taxes until the state reforms health care and its underfunded pension system.

“Until we fix our fiscal house, these are the tough decisions,” Mr. Sweeney said. “The easy things have been done.”

New Jersey Transit has been a constant problem for Mr. Murphy.

The system began the year in poor shape and got worse. Service was cut back twice and the Atlantic City rail line ceased operating for the last four months of the year.

Even with a pared-back schedule, dozens of trains were canceled on some days.

Mr. Murphy blamed his Republican predecessor, Mr. Christie, for the transit agency’s sorry state. He said Mr. Christie had neglected New Jersey Transit and failed to make much progress toward a year-end federal deadline for installing an automatic braking system on the trains and tracks.

Mr. Murphy and his appointee as executive director of New Jersey Transit, Kevin Corbett, launched an all-out race to meet that deadline. To get there, the agency had to take many of its locomotives and passenger coaches out of service, infuriating customers who pay as much as $499 a month.

Riders, frustrated by cancellations attributed to “equipment availability” or a “manpower shortage,” blamed Mr. Murphy, not Mr. Christie.

Mr. Murphy recently announced that New Jersey Transit had completed the installation of the braking system, known as Positive Train Control, and promised improved service — although he could not say when. The project, he said, still needs federal approval.

“I just can’t give a date because I’d be lying to you,” he said. 

The governor also said he was trying to find a long-term funding solution for the transit agency, which for many years has relied on money from the capital budget.

“I don’t have a good, complete answer,” Mr. Murphy said.

In early October, The Wall Street Journal reported that a top Murphy administration official, Albert J. Alvarez, had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman, Katie Brennan, during last year’s campaign.

Ms. Brennan, who also works for the administration, said she made repeated attempts to tell senior administration officials about the assault, including Mr. Murphy.

But she said she became frustrated that Mr. Alvarez continued to hold a high-paying job despite repeated promises from top aides that they were investigating and addressing the incident.

The accusation rocked Trenton, which led to the formation of a bipartisan investigative committee. In several hours of testimony at a hearing in early December, Ms. Brennan described what happened to her and how people close to Mr. Murphy did not deliver on promises made to her. In a hearing a few weeks later, members of the governor’s inner circle testified that they did not fire Mr. Alvarez despite knowing about the accusation for months.

Mr. Alvarez eventually resigned in October after he was contacted by a reporter from The Journal.

Mr. Murphy has said that he was not aware of the accusations until he was contacted by the same reporter from The Journal. While no evidence or testimony has emerged to contradict that claim, the investigation risks tarnishing his image.

“The concerning thing for Murphy right now, especially as we keep hearing about these legislative hearings regarding Katie Brennan, is that his reputation is still malleable right now,” said Ashley Koning, the director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

Despite the setbacks, Mr. Murphy said he would continue to pursue the legislative priorities he has set out for the state.

“I think the elections in November told us that there was validation, that that’s how folks wanted us to govern as a pro-growth progressive,” Mr. Murphy said. “I hope that my fellow Democrats will join me there.”

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