Is Phil Murphy another Jon Corzine? Not so fast | Moran

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on May 16, 2016

Phil Murphy is about to spend $10 million of his Goldman Sachs money seeking the Democratic nomination for governor as a full-throated liberal.

He's reaching for a top job despite having zero experience in elected office. And he is aligning himself firmly with the public worker unions on a range of issues, from pensions to charter schools.

Sound familiar?

Murphy's first job in this race will be to break the chains that link him to Jon Corzine. Because if voters see him as Act II of that drama, his cause is lost.

My guess is he will pull it off.

Murphy shows none of the personal weaknesses that hobbled Corzine as a governor. In fact, Corzine's weaknesses are Murphy's strengths.

Corzine was famously tongue-tied and socially awkward, while Murphy speaks clearly and connects to people with ease. He's a more natural politician by far.

Agree or not, voters will understand what Murphy is telling them, not leave scratching their heads.

"When people see who I am, they may not love me, but nobody walks away and says he reminds me of Corzine," Murphy said on Monday, a few hours before announcing his campaign.

Another key difference: Murphy left Wall Street 12 years ago, while Corzine jumped right into politics. So Murphy brings broader experience.

He raised $300 million for the Democratic Party working under Howard Dean, then the party chairman. He served as ambassador to Germany under President Obama. He's volunteered for battered women, serves on the board of the NAACP, and chaired a commission on state fiscal policy a decade ago that was among the first to bang alarms.

So, that's the good part. This is a smart guy with the natural talent to be a good governor. And his experience is broader than Corzine's.

Now for the bad part: He doesn't have a credible program to solve the state's big problems, at least not yet.

Take the state's budget crisis, the mother of all its maladies. Murphy can't name any single significant spending cut he would support. And yet he ticks off several positions that would deepen the state's fiscal crisis markedly.

He says he would have voted against the 2011 pension and health reform, and opposes the freeze in cost of living adjustments that are responsible for most of the savings. But he can't say how he would cover the added billions of dollars in cost.

He wants to pump new money into higher education, to bolster research programs and to help middle-class families cover the cost. Crucial goals, but again, he offers no way to cover the cost.

On education, he seems depressingly ready to embrace the regressive teachers' union, the strongest special interest group in the Democratic coalition. He has no opinion on tenure reform, and says local school boards should have the power to block new charter schools, even in Camden and Newark, where thousands of poor families are banging on their doors for more seats.

He opposes the property tax cap and the proposed takeover of Atlantic City, again siding with the public workers unions. And he would increase taxes on incomes over $1 million.

The core challenge for Murphy is this: If he tells the truth, he won't get elected. Because New Jersey is in a fiscal hole that is so deep tax increases and spending cuts are inevitable. The next governor will have to force feed the state its peas and carrots, somehow.

Murphy supports increasing the gas tax to finance transit projects, which shows some courage. But that's the only tough medicine he is prescribing right now, and it's just not enough.

As an outsider candidate, he faces a special burden.

His main competitors are Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, both of whom will stand on their public records.

Murphy doesn't have one. When Ross Perot made his presidential run as an outsider, he ran on a plan to cut the deficit. He had a specific cause.

Murphy doesn't have that either. He talks about supporting the middle-class, and building a new economy with better jobs. But without credible plans to get there, that's just a slogan.

It is early, and Murphy has plenty of time to fill these gaps. His plan to hold regular town hall meetings is a perfect way to do so. Murphy will enrich the debate, and is a welcome addition the race.

Our hope and expectation is that he will step up and makes the tough choices as the months pass.

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