Why the Democratic Takeover in New Jersey Is More Civil War Than Progressive Revolution

By Nick Corasaniti


June 26, 2019

Gov. Philip D. Murphy has been engaged in a battle with Democratic legislative leaders that has stalled many of his signature proposals, including the legalization of marijuana.


On paper, Democrats in New Jersey have rarely commanded so much power: They control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, and a liberal surge last November nearly wiped congressional Republicans off the map. Just one G.O.P. lawmaker remains in the state’s 14-member delegation.

Yet the state finds itself in crisis, paralyzed by an intraparty war between the governor and other top Democrats, and a legislative session that has yielded relatively modest results in a state that is tilting more liberal.

The governor, Philip D. Murphy, and Democratic legislative leaders have had testy relations since the start of Mr. Murphy’s tenure two years ago, fueled in part by clashes in personalities and management styles. Their differences have made it difficult to forge agreements, and now a fight over the governor’s push to tax the wealthy, among other issues, could shut down the state. Rancor over the state budget erupted into all-out war on Wednesday, with accusations of duplicity and tantrums.

This stands in stark contrast to what unfolded in New York, where Democrats, having seized complete power in Albany for the first time in nearly a decade, pushed through a groundbreaking legislative package, from some of the strongest tenant protection laws in the country to a sweeping climate change plan to granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

In New Jersey, many of the biggest accomplishments occurred last year during Mr. Murphy’s first months in office and involved proposals that predated his arrival, including paid sick leave, equal pay for women, automatic voter registration and a package of gun control measures.

So far, this year, Mr. Murphy’s major victory was raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a core campaign promise that New York has also adopted.

“I’m going to continue with a spirit of good will to find common ground,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview, but he added that he would not back down from taking on Democratic allies. “I know who put me here,” he said, “and I’m not going to relent from that.”

Mr. Murphy, who had never held office before being elected in 2017, has at times been reluctant to engage in the glad-handing or strong arming that is sometimes necessary to grease the legislative wheel.

And he has struck a political third rail by taking on one of the state’s most influential Democratic power brokers, a move that has been cheered by progressives but has exacerbated Mr. Murphy’s feud with legislative leaders.

Lawmakers, activists and observers said the political climate in Trenton had become toxic.

“This is the worst it’s ever been,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “And there’s no visible path for it ending.”

Mr. Murphy said he made his decisions “on the side of working families and middle class” voters who elected him and not the special interests that he said tend to hold sway in the State House.

“I think I’ve been straightforward with the electorate about our challenges: that we need adult leadership,” Mr. Murphy said. “If folks don’t like that, they probably don’t think it’s a good environment. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to change on that.”

There are legitimate policy differences between Mr. Murphy, who believes progressive values are “where the state’s heartbeat is now,” and legislative leaders, particularly Stephen M. Sweeney, the powerful Senate president, a product of the Democratic machine and a self-proclaimed moderate.

Mr. Sweeney is adamantly opposed to raising taxes on the wealthy, arguing that they already were hit hard under the new federal tax law that limited key deductions. He favors limiting health care and pension benefits for the state’s large public sector unions and wants to reduce municipal spending.

Mr. Murphy, in contrast, wants to raise taxes and increase spending on education and efforts to tackle the state’s opioid crisis, among other areas.

Mr. Sweeney also seems to have been put off by what he perceives as Mr. Murphy’s highhandedness when it comes to dealing with lawmakers.

Mr. Murphy drew the wrath of Mr. Sweeney and other legislative leaders, including Craig Coughlin, the Assembly speaker, over television ads financed by a political action group allied with the governor that have promoted a tax on the wealthy.

On social media, Senate Democrats have started their own counter campaign critical of the governor.

“Someone has told him that he’s the most powerful governor in the country,” Mr. Sweeney said in an interview. “But that also means the New Jersey speaker is the most powerful speaker in the nation. And it means the Senate presidency is the most powerful senate presidency in the nation. The three of us are partners, and maybe we’re not happy that we’re partners.”

He warned that lawmakers could override Mr. Murphy if he uses his line-item veto power — among the most powerful versions in the country — to reject specific spending proposals in the budget passed by the Legislature.

Mr. Murphy has indicated his lack of support for the budget and an override by members of his own party would be unusual and most likely further poison the dynamic among top Democrats.

The relationship between Mr. Murphy and the Legislature was strained from the start — many longtime members of Trenton’s political class were wary of an outsider governor who did not seem eager to work with them on their priorities.

But it plummeted after a scandal erupted over New Jersey’s generous tax incentive program, which has awarded billions of dollars in tax credits to politically connected companies with few benefits to the state.

After a blistering state audit and revelations by the news media, Mr. Murphy created an investigative panel that quickly focused on tax breaks awarded to several companies linked to George E. Norcross, a Democratic power broker whose presence loomed large in Trenton.

Mr. Norcross, who had enjoyed a cozy relationship with past governors, was clearly angered by the scrutiny and filed suit against Mr. Murphy and his panel, claiming that he had been unfairly accused.

“Why is it that we were the only companies picked out of hundreds?” Mr. Norcross said in a rare interview with NJ Advance Media, in which he disparaged Mr. Murphy as behaving like a king. “It’s because this was a carefully designed plan to attack, smear and destroy a good number of people.”

Mr. Murphy, for his part, seems to relish the fight.

“I didn’t come from anyone’s machine,” Mr. Murphy said. “So the machine stuff has always been less relevant for me than somebody who grew up in the system.”

Mr. Murphy’s pugnacious posture has earned praise from some of the few legislators who are not allies of Mr. Norcross.

“I want to congratulate him on having the onions to do what he’s doing to stand up,” said Richard J. Codey, a former Democratic governor and a current state senator. “Because I know what happens when you stand up to him.”

What has happened is an increasingly nasty campaign by Democratic groups that would seem to be natural supporters of the governor, but instead have been pushing an unflattering portrait of Mr. Murphy as an out-of-touch liberal who has alienated Trenton. One recent email carried the subject line “Why Phil Murphy has no friends.”

In a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, the political bloodletting and the lack of many signature accomplishments this year do not pose a threat for now to Mr. Murphy or the Democrats’ hold on the Capitol.

But it does suggest that Democrats may remain more consumed with personal feuds than in delivering the kind of change many had expected.

“Everybody is a little antsy at this stage,” said Loretta Weinberg, the Senate majority leader who has held office for 27 years. “Do I think it’s normal? I wish it weren’t.”

For Mr. Murphy, the battles among Democrats have made him envious of his neighbors across the Hudson River.

“It does go to show you when you put the Legislature into the hands of true progressives, which they were able to do, you open up yourself to more progress,” Mr. Murphy said. “Which, I think, is a good thing and a good lesson.”

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