TRENTON – It all had the feel of the kid who shows up at track practice with brand new sneakers when
the other kids start kicking dirt on them to let the kid know that he’s going to get them dirty anyway, might as well be now, reminding him, too, that no squad member should feel better than anyone else.
Appearing in time for his first budget as governor, Phil Murphy showed up in brand new sneakers and the legislature went over and kicked dirt on them.
Is that the extent of it?
Can they all just get out there on the track now and run together?
Just as much as the Democratic establishment last year needed a presence at the top of the ticket whom 21 bosses in 21 counties could agree fit the bill as a consensus choice, this year they need someone to kick around again. After years of tormenting the legislature, Governor Chris Christie became that easy target for Trenton-schooled lawmakers who require a scapegoat as a way of escaping accountability.
Christie made it easy.
He was out of town most of the time running for President.
Now, apparently, Murphy is making it easy.
After running around in 2017 talking about how they would be able to better serve their constituents because of the personal relationship they have with the governor-elect (“He texts, he calls.”), legislators with each passing month this year began grumbling more avidly about how Murphy didn’t text, call and finesse those presumably carefully cultivated relationships.
Look, no one ever believed they were actually close to Murphy; this is New Jersey politics, let’s face it, but those who pretended to have an imminent “friend” in the Governor’s Office to snow a bunch of droopy-eyed reporters clearly didn’t think anyone ever paid attention to former Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann’s infamous entreaty: “They’re not your friends. They’re just the people you meet in politics.”
Murphy was very new. Certainly he was very new compared to that old divide in the labor movement that dogged the Democratic Party and pitted Building Trades against public sector unions led by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). More about that in a moment. Not many legislators knew him before he became a candidate for office and sold himself as everybody’s best friend. It’s not that those legislators got snowed. They knew the line about relationships in high places was bogus, but didn’t care, as long as the party lines held together and formed sufficient organizational reinforcement for all of them to get reelected.
Murphy would probably be another Corzine, but it didn’t matter.
They needed a body up there at the top of the ticket.
And against a splintered cast of Democratic Primary challengers and then Kim Guadagno, dead on arrival as an eight-year Christie functionary, Murphy fulfilled that function.
Once they all got back into office, Democrats reasserted the priorities of those more foundational political relationships; namely those all-important ties to their legislative leaders, the people who make the decisions about who gets to serve on which committee and author which bill and strut around the statehouse with the most relevance. Sure, Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) was brand new, as new as Murphy to his office, but he was simply the latest re-configurement of the same essential political artifice that created discarded machine parts/former speakers Sheila Oliver and Vinny Prieto. And after Oliver and Prieto both went off the South Jersey reservation (Oliver with charter schools and Prieto on North Jersey casinos), Coughlin had arrived to more sedately guard the gates of the establishment, albeit with a Middlesex County zip code.
As for Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Christie’s departure made him the most powerful person in Trenton – and Sweeney was angry. Ticked as hell. Still nursing hurt from when a pre-Christie Sweeney tried to overhaul the state’s pensions and benefits system, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) ran the most expensive legislative contest in U.S. history against him in 2017, and Murphy – a key NJEA ally – hadn’t done anything about it as he ran for Governor. Had grinned his way to the finish line. In that long war between the teacher’s union and Building Trades, the late-arriving Murphy more stoutly occupied turf with the teachers. He had to, to appeal to that primary wing of his party seething over the damage done to their pensions packages in the Christie era – with Sweeney’s help.
The teacher’s aligned with Murphy, depriving Sweeney of his own shot at the governorship.
Then they tried to finish the job by moving over $5 million against him in his own district to back an ultimately failed Republican challenger.
Now Sweeney sat once again on the throne of senate power, with Christie finally gone, and in possession of all the knowledge he had and tools at his disposal, relationships Murphy lacked, and a loyal caucus whose members were going to him and saying, “Steve, WTF?” He would not simply sit there and allow the new guy with new sneakers run in and run circles around him.
Not with the NJEA behind the new governor.
For their part, upper chamber lawmakers had a choice – stay close to Sweeney and please him, the fellow responsible for maintaining order in the caucus, with a great reputation for herding cats (say what you want about his politics, the hooks George Norcross III has in him or anything else, Sweeney knows how to run the caucus. He sits there and pays attention to each person and gives him or her a little something to keep them happy), or dismiss the seasoned Sweeney and throw in with his rival, the man who outdueled him for the governorship, Murphy, a man who says he’s your friend. Consider this too – this little factoid dribbled back into the conversation in Trenton last week: Murphy hadn’t thrown money around the way Corzine had. So Corzine was a stiff and Murphy had a personality, but Corzine had written checks to individuals in the party with abandon, singlehandedly pumping Democratic coffers to new levels of robustness and literally buying loyalty with manna from Goldman Sachs heaven. But Murphy – another Goldman Sachs guy – opted for public financing when he ran for governor, apparently to avoid the tag of being Corzine redux, and infuriating some incumbent lawmakers in the process who figured all they had to do with this new guy was snap their fingers and he’d be forthcoming with another check.
I want money.
That was the cold assessment of more than a few veterans.
Others didn’t care. Friends. Not friends. Money or not, just solidify the line.
Murphy did, and promptly, once in office, and eager to protect those teachers’ pensions thrown into jeopardy when Christie served as governor, made good on his promise of raising $1.6 billion in new taxes, offering the plan of a millionaire’s tax coupled with a reversion of the state sales tax to pre-Christie tampering levels.
The murmurs started early.
Mention the word “taxes” in New Jersey to a veteran politico and the person will spit back the name Jim Florio, the governor whose tax hike crucified a generation of future presidents and flipped control of the legislature to the GOP.
So here came budget crunch time and Sweeney and his team of crack operatives itching to recognized as such, and Building Trades allies intent on continuing to bigfoot public sector labor the way they had when Christie was governor, and new guy Murphy – a teacher’s pet, no less – with a team of B and C level talent – this is the way Trenton received them – it was bound to erupt. Those earliest critics of the Murphy Administration would invariably say something along the lines of, “Well, at least Pete’s there,” referring to Pete Cammarano, a longtime Trenton insider. In the most overused term in politics since Obama dragged “folks” to new levels of banality, someone would always add, “Pete’s the adult in the room.” That was a Chistie-ism. The former Republican Governor used it any time the legislature came up, as though they were a bunch of kids in a sandbox and he was there to sternly administer discipline with zero regard for how they choked it down. “Better to be respected than loved,” Christie said at endless town hall events as he made his own national tough love case. Slapped around with that for years, now the legislators themselves and their man in Havana, Cammanrano, were suddenly “the adults in the room,” required to keep an eye on Murphy and his incoming out-of-control kiddie patrol.
And, of course, he wants to raise your taxes.
It wasn’t going to happen.
Not on Sweeney’s watch.
And, dammit, Coughlin’s watch.
We’re not going to allow neophytes and kids and teachers to come in here and muck up the state.
According to multiple sources, Cammarano proved less than herculean in trying to overcompensate with tough guy tactics for the absolutely not-ready-for-prime-time rest of Murphy World. Others sized up the work product less charitably, blaming him for failing to sell the budget. Brought in for the inside game, he didn’t deliver – at least to this point. But others blame everyone else around him. The stories are almost a blur already. Stories about staffers standing there with crossed arms and bored looks on their faces. Stories about someone on the staff chewing someone out. Stories about kids in the front office lecturing state senators. Stories about arrogance and overreach. And supposedly Murphy didn’t sufficiently soothe those types who thought he would be their friend.
So they bucked him last week on the budget – by a hair, but enough to let him know: things need to change. And they bucked him, too, on the corporate business tax, awarding Sweeney (and Coughlin) back to back wins and making Murphy look unprepared. There were the late flurries of Murphy emails and calls to members: “I need your support,” and just as fast the curt replies of loyalty to Sweeney and Coughlin.
Longtime Sweeney ally state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33) – a longtime opponent of the NJEA – abstained on the budget, perhaps in acknowledgment of his acute reliance on municipal aid. Stack couldn’t afford to make an enemy out of the Governor, particularly not when his longtime North Hudson County rival, state Senator Nick Sacco (D-32), was voting with Codey against CBT and against Sweeney’s budget. If Stack – already punched in the mouth with a loss in his bid for the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) chairmanship – gave Sacco the edge in municipal aid, he could get take another few costly lumps from a vengeful chief executive. Couldn’t risk it. Having blown up the county and lost, Stack craved peace. Sacco and Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) made clear their alliance with the Governor, Sacco in the starkest of terms with his votes last Thursday. Stack had to heel.
The late Thursday and early Friday talks ran to the Governor’s Veto options and then veto override counter-offensive options.
“Murphy needs to line item veto stuff valued by Sweeney and Coughlin,” a North Jersey source, veteran of the process, told InsiderNJ. “He needs to send a message on Monday, you f-ck with me, I’ll f-ck with you.”
That’s the way Christie had done it.
He scared people.
Sweeney and his caucus understood Christie.
Buck him and the former U.S. Attorney could throw you in jail.
Or at least tomahawk an immediate ambition.
“That’s the only thing that works,” the source explained. “He [Murphy] needs to show members that if Sweeney and Coughlin mess with him, that’s what they can expect. The Governor needs to find some pet Sweeney project in Gloucester and some beloved Coughlin project in Middlesex, and kill them, and then wrap the budget. Makes a statement.
“That’s the way he’s going to get any respect, otherwise they’ll keep pushing him around,” the source added.
Others had a less than eye for an eye outlook, and even expressed a positive perspective.
Murphy and Coughlin resisted with their own budget.
Murphy conditionally vetoes the budget.
They can start over.
Cut the millionaire’s tax in half.
Cut the CBT tax in half.
Keep them both.
2019 budget in the books.
No one talked about Sweeney and Coughlin overriding the Governor’s conditional veto. First of all, the
legislative leaders didn’t have the votes. They barely got the budget and CBT done the first time. Sweeney mustered just 21 votes for both in the senate, and had to enlist the aid of two Republicans – state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16) and senator Kristin Corrado (R-40) (Corrado here signaled her willingness to help Sweeney while taking fellow Assemblyman Jay Webber to task in CD11 as Dems attempt to get helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill across the finish line against Webber) – to get the $35.6 billion budget to the required 21 votes. He’d have a hard time dredging 27. Sure, Ocean County Republican Committee Chairman George Gilmore had been known to cut Ocean loose in a pinch on the strength of a deal, but Republicans would rather Democrats hang themselves with a tax sooner than lend their sweat equity to a plan that presumably inevitably raises taxes.
“The GOP should be out there 24-7 with ads telling people over and over again: this is what happens when you put Democrats in power: they fight over how to raise your taxes,” one source cackled.
Plus, some Republicans believed big pharma executive Bob Hugin, the party nominee, had a real shot against a Senate Ethics Committee-admonished U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) this year. Why saddle GOP Bob with a party that cryptically deal-makes with tax-obsessed Democrats? Better to watch Dems twist in their own juices in time for this year’s general election and make a real game of it, especially as a counterweight to the Dems’ salivating efforts to make Donald J. Trump the overriding 2018 campaign issue.
Having thumped their chests, legislative leadership wouldn’t want to override
the Governor, either, sources insisted. “It would just look too bad at that point, Democrats fighting Democrats to shut down government,” one said. “Would just play too heavily into Republicans’ hands.” So most foresaw the striking of a deal this coming week, with late arguments for making use of an 11th hour Supreme Court ruling green lighting an internet sales tax.
To those who wailed about the tax impact and invoked Florio with all the vehemence of Cassandra, Murphy throughout argued that he had won.
“By two touchdowns,” he continually said cheerily.
There was something there.
His $1.6 billion in new tax vow on the trail last year was supposed to sink battleground Democrats like Vin Gopal, running for a senate seat against Jennifer Beck in LD11; and Andrew Zwicker in LD16. In fact, Gopal won with little trouble, and Zwicker dragged his running mate in with him. Bateman? Again, Bateman voted for Sweeney’s budget last week. The district’s turning blue fast, the fact that Zwicker and Roy Freiman could win with Murphy and that message at the top proves it, and Bateman found a way to land more dollars for Manville ($10 million) schools, precisely the underfunded trouble spot where his retied running mate, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) launched his doomed (but intellectually honest) candidacy for governor.
But that was then.
That was with the #MeToo movement in gear and appalled by Trump.
What would happen in 2019 if Democrats showed little more than a profound appetite for taxes?
But it wasn’t just raising taxes, Murphy repeatedly insisted.
He was reinvesting, in education, in NJ transit, in infrastructure, all those Christe-harmed areas the middle class needs to sustain a good quality of life and build opportunity for future generations, he said.
He didn’t sell it enough, sources croaked.
But there was too much dead air between the time he introduced the budget and the budget deadline.
He needed to be out there on the hustings.
He needed to have done a press conference a week, or one every two weeks, not crammed in the end.
And he needed to tell his staff to ditch the egos.
Better yet, he needed to ditch his staff, some sources groused.
Not enough gravitas.
Look at Coughlin.
He brought in former Assemblyman Skip Cimino, who’s running circles around Murphy’s guys, and so it droned on and on.
There was an early storyline.
He could count.
Predecessor Prieto couldn’t.
But Coughlin could.
That was a takeaway the power structure wanted out there.
Coughlin was playing ball.
He was keeping his caucus together.
Look at Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) voting for the budget.
Sumter was literally the goddaughter of John Currie, the Democratic State Party chairman who was
supposed to be Murphy’s prime political ally. That relationship, that friendship, evidently didn’t mean enough for Sumter to dig in against Coughlin. Well, that’s easily explainable, someone could argue. Sumter was going to be Murphy’s lieutenant governor, when Currie couldn’t get it for her, she put on the warpaint. Ok, fine. But what about Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35), similarly a Currie disciple going back to the days when he was a rising star athlete in Paterson and looked up to see Currie in the Hawthorne Chevrolet billboards and dreamed of playing for one of Currie’s local sports teams. Wimberly went with Coughlin’s budget, in committee, and on the floor.
Coughlin was competent, was the general assessment.
The so-called North Jersey quad looked dead on arrival as a Trenton voting bloc.
Essex was never going to be there, of course; Essex harvested the votes to make Coughlin speaker in defiance of the other three fourths of the quad (Hudson, Passaic and Bergen). Essex went down the line in support of the alternative budget, and the others – with the exception of Hudson – likewise scattered for the safety of their legislative mother hens. Hudson was interesting. Stack kept his people away from backing the alternative to the budget, as did Sacco. Again, Stack probably did in part with an eye on Sacco. In LD33, Assemblyman Raj Mukherji and Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro didn’t vote on the legislative budget alternative. Freshly minted Sacco guy Assemblyman Pedro Mejia voted against it, and Assemblywoman Anjelica Jimenez didn’t vote. Assemblywoman Angela McKnight stayed home. Among Hudson Assembly people, only Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti (D-31) backed it. All Passaic and Bergen assembly people voted aye on the budget alternative. In short, the parochial Stack-Sacco rivalry did a better job of resisting forces antagonistic to Murphy than did the Governor’s so-called staunch alliance in Bergen and Passaic.
Other top of the head takeaways from Thursday?
First there was that weird vote by Dick Codey for the corporate business tax (CBT). The CBT is Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) baby, the alternative he tacked on to his own budget that negates Gov. Phil Murphy’s millionaire’s tax. Codey’s supposed to be Murphy’s most reliable ally. Why would he be backing the CBT? “An accident,” Codey told InsiderNJ. “the machine.” Codey went to Sweeney and told the senate prez he made a mistake, and Sweeney in turn enlisted state Senator Shirley Turner (D-15), originally an abstention, to change her vote to a yes.
It was a small thing, but it reflected, in a moment, the lack of depth Murphy maintains early over the legislature, a fact a fast flurry of late friendly text messages couldn’t diminish. Even pal Codey – the ultimate no error player – apparently unwittingly jiggered a loose ball into Team Murphy’s own net.
His allies liked the leverage of office here. He could sign the budget and fight another day, veto, CV, etc. He has all the options. In their rush to embarrass him, they gave him all the cards, a source insisted, and referred to the consistent public support for – at the very least – a millionaire’s tax.
Still, Murphy would have to work for it some more.
The political game.
The inside game.
The outside county organizational game.
The relationships game.
The staffing game.
The press game.
The neophyte Governor would have to get his sneakers dirty, and they already were, by the looks of them, scuffed more than they were a week ago, his flash press conferences generating mostly good reviews and the media’s superfluous, politically motivated shot at his son engendering some sympathy, as the statehouse spun into the next turn of a very sharp-elbowed New Jersey-style self- defeating but unabashedly ego-driven and deeply personal political contest.
“One party rule is killing New Jersey,” a devious Republican told InsiderNJ, anticipating the reelection slogan his Donald Trump-encumbered GOP intends to use against an NJ Democratic Party bifurcated by arch rivals Murphy and Sweeney.
- Andrew Zwicker
- Angela McKnight
- Angelica Jimenez
- Annette Chaparro
- Barack Obama
- Benjie Wimberly
- Bob Hugin
- Bob Menendez
- Brian Stack
- Chris Christie
- Craig Coughlin
- Dale Florio
- Dick Codey
- Donald Trump
- Essex County Democrats
- George Gilmore
- George Norcross
- Gerry McCann
- Hudson County
- Hudson County Democrats
- Jack Ciattarelli
- Jay Webber
- Jen Beck
- Jersey City
- Jim Florio
- John Currie
- Kip Bateman
- Kristin Corrado
- Mikie Sherrill
- Monmouth County
- Morris County
- Nick Chiaravalloti
- Nick Sacco
- NJ Democrats
- Ocean County GOP
- Passaic County
- Pedro Mejia
- Pete Cammarano
- Phil Murphy
- Raj Mukherji
- Roy Freiman
- Shavonda Sumter
- Sheila Oliver
- Shirley Turner
- Skip Cimino
- Somerset County GOP
- Steve Fulop
- Steve Sweeney
- Vin Gopal
- Vincent Prieto
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