BurlCo Primary 7th Heaven: Slate Mates Conaway and Murphy Clash

MOUNT LAUREL – Unpretentious, cerebral, face crinkling into a smile still genuinely friendly without overdoing it after all these years, Assemblyman Herb Conaway – transitioning from Saturday afternoon fundraising to interview mode – strode across a parking lot in BurlCo amid crisscrossing Spaghetti Western shadows. The would-be saloon doors actually opened into a suburban Starbucks, and on the same week that Joe Biden reprimanded Bibi Netanyahu over civilian casualties in Gaza, the assemblyman jumped right into Middle East foreign policy.

“We need a humanitarian cause, for sure,” said Conaway. “I’ve been a supporter of Israel since my teenage years, and the United States must be a guarantor of the safety and security of Israel, These are human beings hard pressed on an island of democracy surrounded by autocratic states. It’s critical for a number of reasons that we be engaged there, with an ally that is a democratic state in a region where there’s not a lot of democracy going on. In addition, Israel is a touchstone that impacts a lot of things going on in the world, a small piece of land mass which contains a lot of interest in that area. Now Hamas attacked Israel – a heinous and unprovoked attack – and they [the Israelis] have a right to defend themselves. I support the attrition of Hamas and their destructive activity. Now, additionally, Iran is a focal point of destructive activity.

“The Obama administration looked to engagement, while Trump removed engagement. On the ground now, we have a war situation where there are far too many civilian casualties in an urbanized landscaped where there are two million people crammed into a space about the size of Burlington County. It’s difficult to throw a rock and not hit a human being. This is not the same thing as battling where you don’t have a heavy concentration of human populations. So, the challenges are very steep as Israel wants to rightly deal with Hamas. As you make your calculations, part of the planning is what is the impact on civilian noncombatants. I would question whether enough of that planning has been done.

“We need a humanitarian cause to put an end to the starving there. Nobody wants to see noncombatant dislocation and terrible casualties where these angels were killed – wrongly killed – because they cared about human life. Our leadership needs to think about how this war is going to be conducted. Again, I believe Hamas should be attrited. But there’s got to be some thought on the Hamas side with a ceasefire at this point that they are no longer willing to see death. My hope is if all hostages are released, you’ll get a prolonged cessation to the hostilities. I do believe at this point that Netanyahu is doing more harm than good, as a result of being captive of his own alleged misdeeds and the coalition that has brought him to power. I hope he’s doing a calculation to the harm he’s now doing to his country.”

Across town, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, affable, approachable, game – no relation to Governor Phil Murphy, she pointed out with a down-to-earth grin – stood on the big back porch of the William Faulkner-era home of Alice Paul (1885-1977), women’s right’s activist and a hometown hero here. Murphy referenced a horrific statistic: just seven women of 300 total individuals have served as New Jersey congresspeople.

“The main issue is that with all due respect, men are saying the right things but I’m not sure they really believe in them, and the good old boys’ network is still alive and well,” she said, against the backdrop of the United States Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. “We saw it this year in the elections. My opponent was telling people he had all the chairs, and that we had no recourse.

“It’s about time,” she added, in reference to the end of the organization line (more on that in a minute). “It’s about getting women’s voices heard. If we don’t get more women in federal government, if, for example, Mikie Sherrill becomes governor and Bonnie Watson Coleman retires, what’s in Congress? All men. We want to be part of the solution. When we talk about women’s right to vote and reproductive equality, men say, ‘I believe in it’ and that’s it.

“But why do you believe it?”

Paulsdale, the grand old house, looks like a movie set just waiting for prop pitchers of lemonade and backyard horseshoes, but not precisely postcard-picture worthy at this moment in time, with a heavy haze hanging in the dreary Jersey atmosphere, the trees April-dank a day after an earthquake injected another hard dose of modern anxiety. Still the women here at the Alice Paul Institute, advocacy manager Molly Gonzales among them, mean business.

“She believed the 19th amendment was the beginning not the end of women’s liberation,” Gonzales told the Saturday afternoon crowd here, referring to the late Alice Paul, born in this very house, who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. The Murphy campaign told InsiderNJ, “millions have worked to have it passed since then. Ms. Paul was also a critical part of the fight for women’s right to vote, secured by the narrowest of margins on August 18, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.”

The main reason they’re galvanized?

From The HuffPost:

The 2020 Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel released a memo …stating that the ERA resolution expired after its 1982 deadline and that any state ratification that happened after 1982 was null. “We conclude that the ERA Resolution has expired and is no longer pending before the States,” the memo says. “Even if one or more state legislatures were to ratify the 1972 proposal, that action would not complete the ratification of the amendment, and the ERA’s adoption could not be certified under 1 U.S.C.” Under instruction from the Trump administration’s Justice Department, the National Archives and Records Administration declined to publish the ERA to the Constitution despite it achieving the necessary steps. The Trump administration effectively killed the ERA and told advocates to start the entire process from scratch after decades of work.

Finally, the politically energized mood equally permeates the inner sanctums of both political pros Conaway and Murphy, indefatigable 7th Legislative District slate mates turned rivals in this CD-3 Democratic Primary. They want to represent what is essentially a pragmatic, albeit Democratic-leaning district, which contains a military base and a history of hard-fought general elections. Conaway – a 27-year veteran of the Assembly, and Murphy, in office since 1998, radiate a willingness to get right down to it, without hesitation.

“I think in the end we’re going to find a revulsion of Congress’ attacks on democracy as acolytes of Donald Trump,” said Conaway. “We want a competent Congress that leans into democracy as a first principle, and I hope to be able to be part of a majority that defies the close-to-Hitler stuff that comes out of Trump’s mouth.

“I’m optimistic,” the assemblyman added.

For now, he has a primary in front of him.

Murphy may be the underdog in this scrappy but politically sophisticated contest, for a few different reasons, and it shows a little when she goes after Conaway on women’s issues, even though he has a pretty progressive, pro women’s rights record as chair of the assembly health committee.

“He says ‘I believe in reproductive rights’ period,” said the assemblywoman, referring to her opponent. “That is not what we need. We need actual change and change doesn’t come from you saying we believe in something. He voted yes but didn’t sponsor. He didn’t advance these bills unless that’s where he’s had to go. This is not about me versus him, but the ideals we have to expand.”

It wasn’t really supposed to be this way, these two allied public servants from the same legislative district

Kim (Photo by Fred Snowflack).

fighting each other. But when U.S. Rep. Andy Kim last year thumbed his nose at a disgraced Bob Menendez and at an establishment momentarily frozen in the face of Menendez’s alleged corruption meltdown, and actually announced his U.S. Senate candidacy, the gutsy congressman signaled his willingness to leave the Third District for statewide office.

Murphy and Conaway promptly jumped into the breach. The latter actually already ran for Congress, 20 years ago, back before redistricting made the Third a more bankable Democratic stronghold. Conaway sustained a loss to incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, prior to the late John Adler – riding a crest of Obama love – finally cracking the code when Saxton retired. Republicans took back the Third in the Obama years. Then along came Kim, who re-rubberized the district into the Democratic column on the strength of voter resistance to Donald Trump, solidified by 2021 gerrymandering that threw out incumbent Tom Malinowski (CD-7) in favor of fortifying Kim.

Post redistricting, insiders sized up Kim as a safe, 40-year incumbent. “Andy will be there as long as he wants,” said the sages of State Street. Then the congressman made the audacious move of defying not only Menendez, but the Governor and First Lady, as he proceeded to capitalize on voter disgust over Murphy overreach by humiliating Tammy Murphy in a series of county party conventions that clearly illustrated Democratic Primary voter irritability with the establishment. Murphy finally hobbled out of the race.

An elder statesman who looks the part, record to match, wonky by nature, with arguably the most mind blowing educational and professional background in the state legislature – a medical doctor and a lawyer, and a retired Air Force captain – Conaway easily defeated Murphy for the backing of three county party organizations, only to watch a judge – ruling in favor of the anti-county-party-stampeding Kim – wipe those victories out of existence like a Jackson Pollock-aspiring, juvenile delinquent wielding an out-of-control spray paint can. Denied the line in her duel with Conaway, Murphy relished news of the end of the county line.

The assemblyman was understandably a little more nuanced in his reaction.

“When I heard the news, my thought was what most people are thinking, which is ‘why are the rules changing now?’” Conaway told InsiderNJ. “It’s a watershed moment and the rules are changing.

“You feel a little put upon,” he added with a laugh. “But our campaign is a good one, and our message is a good one. What it comes down to is we have the ability to get the job done.”

Disintegration of the party lines in the three counties (Burlington, Monmouth, Mercer) containing sections of the 3rd now means the candidates (and there are other competitors besides Murphy and Conaway in the Dem. Primary) must rely to a greater degree on name ID and fundraising.

“I feel renewed,” Murphy admitted. “We’re addressing fundraising. Whatever happens June 4th is on me now.”

 

Murphy name ID may not be exactly what she wants, or anyway, it’s complicated. “First of all, I’m not related to Phil Murphy,” the assemblywoman cracked. “No relation. I’ve knocked on a few doors and people say, ‘I know your husband.’” For the record, she’s married to Mike Muller, veteran Democratic Party strategist.

NJ Governor Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy are scheduled to speak at Senator Cory Booker's 2020 presidential campaign kickoff rally.
NJ Governor Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy (Photo by Max Pizarro).

Governor Murphy always prided himself on progressive politics, but his power play with the First Lady to grab a family U.S. Senate seat may have diminished his Democratic Primary street cred. In any event, Carol Murphy – a paralegal by trade – wants voters to remember her inextinguishable fight, despite those opinions of the party organizations that went for Conaway before a judge blew up their ballot influence. “I didn’t give up just because a man put his thumb on the scale,” said the assemblywoman. “When I win, I will be the first woman from South Jersey and from Monmouth County to represent people in D.C. … We’re going to drive more and more people out. We will see the Democratic Party gain some influence and some voters more and we will bring some respect back for our legislators.”

Conaway looked ready for the challenge.

“You get used to a process,” he confessed, referring to his work to secure the lines. “I think there is some fertile ground there to do a necessary education process. I adhere to a set of principles, and that is what people looked for when they look for the Democratic Party line. We’re going to do an education process and we will emphasize the actual slogan more than ever. We’re running a campaign, a grassroots campaign, where thre principle is still the same. The reason we won these conventions is I went door to door and had coffee klatches and meet and greets. That’s how I was taught to do politics going back to being a county committee member in my 20s.

“And that doesn’t stop,” Conaway said with conviction.

He knows his opponent will try to tap that Roe v. Wade-revoked outraged community of primary voters. But he’s just as outraged, he says, and speaks avidly about his work to make vaccinations more accessible to families, expanded access to healthcare, and legislation to improve access to reproductive health. He calls the Supreme Court’s revocation of Roe v. Wade “absolutely wrong,” and cites his subsequent introduction of legislation aimed at appropriately funding abortion care. “You don’t need to be a woman to be an advocate for women,” Conaway said. “The ERA gets passed because a lot of men understand this, and care about this because your values demand it. Equity and fair play drive you to work on these issues. I would not accuse people who aren’t African American, for example, of not being able to craft policy for African American people. My opponent is unfortunately resting on that, but I am going to avoid this whole idea of identity politics. I’ve always avoided it, and I’ve been successful representing the district by avoiding it and focusing on people.

“You can’t go wrong with the scientific method,” said the medical doctor, moments before he dashed off again to hit the fundraising phones.

Murphy – slightly ahead of her opponent at year’s end (2023) with nearly $50K in the bank to the assemblyman’s $40K, saw that advantage erode in the intervening months as her rival beefed up his account to almost $360K – also appears more than ready to make her case for dollars. “I’ve been talking to AIPAC,” she said. “I stand with Israel. There is a huge diff between Hamas and Palestinians. I stand with Biden, and we need to continue supporting our Israeli friends.”

Highway 295 split in half those segments of the district aggressively worked by the pair of Democrats, each in defiance of the other at the moment and pursing people power, with Trump looming as the common enemy, as Murphy looked to carve a path in a new primary, and Conaway sought to prove – with years of his own old school campaigning under his belt – the good graces of a wobbly establishment amounted to more than sedate sand castles of dignity washed west into the Delaware River by a single judge’s decision.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: All Photos by Carina Pizarro unless otherwise indicated.

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