So… What about this? A Collaborative Governor in an Alpha-dog State

We really don’t know how Phil Murphy will govern, yet.  It is way too early to put him in a pigeon hole.  Even so, some interesting glimpses of his leadership style and characteristics are starting to appear.  Here are some of them. 

So far it’s not about Phil  

One of the research techniques I use is called content analysis.  This can be a formal process using crazy statistics like Chronbach’s Alpha or Scott’s Pi or it can be a back of the envelope, let’s look for something interesting kind of content analysis.  In a nutshell, you compare different texts and figure out cool ways of explaining why they are different and what those differences mean.  

So… I went back and compared Chris Christie’s inaugural address with Phil Murphy’s and did the back of the envelope kind of content analysis of them both.  There are some perhaps telling differences in the introductory speeches of both men.    

It took Christie 54 words into his inauguration speech to say the word “I”.  Christie said I stand here as your Governor I understand the task before me and I am well aware of your expectations for me and this government.”  Every “I” is about Christie. Throughout the speech, the vast majority of the times that Christie used the word “I” it was in reference to himself or something that he was going to do.  The sentiment of Christie’s use of “I” was basically:  I will do this; I won’t do that; I am the new sheriff in town.      

It took Murphy 118 words to get to the word “I”, and then it was only in the context of saying thank you to Chris Christie.  “I want to thank you for over two decades of public service to New Jersey”.  He then made a self-referencing use of “I” but only to say “I intend” to continue your (Chrsitie’s) good work on the opioid epidemic.   

Murphy’s next use of a self-referencing “I”?  It doesn’t come until Murphy’s 1,478th word.   At that point, Murphy’s said “I commit to you” that moving to New Jersey will seem like a good idea someday.   Unlike Christie the vast majority of Murphy’s use of “I” focused not on Murphy but on how he was going to work with, thank or support someone else. The sentiment around Murphy’s use of “I” was basically “I what to work with you; I want to follow your lead 

I also looked more closely at the use of thanking by counting words in paragraphs where each Governor thanked or praised someone else.  Overall, 28% of Phil Murphy’s speech or 872 out 3,028 words did this.  In contrast, Christie only devoted 18% of his words (462 out of 2,539) to thanking or praising someone else.    

Phil Murphy also used “we” “us” and “you” more than Christie did.  Some of that could be because it was a longer speech, but still.  It seems clear that Murphy (and perhaps speechwriter Derek Roseman) has a telling preference for referring to others more than himself.   

There are other hints of this tendency as well.   

One of Murphy’s most common event types is a panel discussion with experts.  In these events, Murphy acts as kind of moderator or discussion leader.  Christie’s most common type of event was, of course, the town hall where he was in charge, always front, and center.   

Murphy will defer to other experts during events, something Christie rarely did.  The most recent example was at an environmental event where astonished press corps members reported Murphy let Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel answer a question directed at him.  Christie would have never done that in a million years.    

We can also see this difference in leadership style when we look at the executive orders each did out of the gate.   

Looking at the first five Christie executive orders, you can argue that at least four of them focused on stopping some government action until he as governor could look into them.  He froze all proposed regulations for 90 days, created a red tape eleimination group, and mandated that state agencies and local governments follow something (that he presumably created) call “Common Sense Principles”.  Christie’s fifth executive order was to create an independent Governor’s council of economic advisors. That isn’t exactly the same as the first four but it is another example of how Christie immediately wanted to concentrate and centralize everything around his office.   

To be fair Christie’s initial executive orders were not entirely about him, just most of them.  He used two of his first ten to honor two marines (Sergeants Christopher Hrbek & Jeremey Kane, may the rest in peace) who died in Afghanistan.    

But the overall contrast is striking.  Phil Murphy used two of his first five orders (pay equity and access to healthcare) to try to give someone else something, not centralize power or stop government action.  For what it is worth, Murphy’s sixth executive order was medical marijuana which is basically on the same track.  

Murphy (like Christie) used some of his initial inaugural order to check the actions of state government.  But the tone of those orders is radically different.  Murphy used two of his first five executive orders to request a review of specific state agencies not a moratorium on actions of all state agencies In addition, Murphy also directs those reviews to be conducted by someone outside his office, as opposed to Christie’s preference for conducting those actions from within the Governor’s office.    

Murphy’s other executive order?  It actually placed more restrictions on his actions by clarifying ethics rules for the Governor.  He, in essence, used an executive order to take away an executive privilege. I can’t imagine Christie doing that. 

Ok, so based on this limited sample and evidence there is clearly a tendency for Phil Murphy to defer to others, be more collaborative, feel more comfortable with others taking the limelight and an overall sense that maybe he doesn’t always have to be the biggest dog in the room.   

So… how does that fit for New Jersey?  

Way back in 1947 when the New Jersey State constitution was re-done the last time it was recognized as a model for other states to follow.  According to an old (1968) William & Mary Law Review article by Rutgers Professors John Bebout and Joseph Harrison the New Jersey constitution was “greatly admired” nationally and the “most trusted single model” used by the new state of Alaska when they wrote their own state constitution.  I wonder what the good people of Alaska would say today about the fact their governing structure is based on Jersey.    

Professor’s Bebout and Harrison go on to say that, what made the New Jersey Constitution stand out is how simply and clearly, it identifies that “The governor is definitely in charge.”  The idea that the New Jersey Governor is perhaps the most powerful governor in the country is taken as a given for a number of reasons.   

We are one of only a handful of states (Alaska being another one) where the Governor is the only state official elected by everyone in the state.  North Dakota and North Carolina have 11 such offices.  Tiny Vermont has six.  If nothing else this fact means that, the sitting governor isn’t looking around at anyone else who has a statewide political apparatus devoted to them.  That is power. 

The New Jersey governor has the line item veto.  That is not a big deal, 44 states give the Governor some sort of line item veto.  However, in New Jersey the governor has some additional veto powers other governors don’t.   

For example, the New Jersey governor has 45 days to veto a bill.  In Minnesota, it is 3 days and most states only give the governor 10-15 days.  The fact that our governor can hold the threat of a veto for so long means coalitions to fight or override his veto can be bought, sold and traded in the political marketplace. That means the Governor is more likely to get what he or she wants.   

The New Jersey Governor can also send stuff back to the legislature with suggested amendments.  In most states, all the governor gets is an up or down vote.  Finally, the New Jersey Governor can amend, scrap, replace, add to or subtract from the meeting minutes of the commissions overseen by the Governor’s office.  All of these additions mean our governor has more veto power than your governor.  Ha, take that Minnesota! 

So, in essence, we have a state constitution and governing apparatus that funnels a tremendous amount of power through the Governor.  Love or hate Chris Christie you have to admit he was a master at using this centralizing power to his full advantage.  Exhibit A is the fact that he lived with an opposition led legislatures his entire time in office yet never had a veto over-ridden.   

So… here is the question? 

I think we now have a governor who is built to ask questions, listen to the smartest people he can find, develop consensus and play a supportive and guiding role in bringing about long term solutions to big ticket problems.   

We also have a in a political and administrative system that is structurally designed in a top-dog, kill or be killed, look at me, I am in charge and we are going to do what I want and we are going to do it today, kind of way. 

It is far too early to know how this will play itself out.  Former Governor Dick Codey, recently cautioned against thinking Phil Murphy was soft.  “He has some onions,” Codey said.  It is quite possible that Murphy will show us that side of his personality.   

Believe it or not I hope he does.  Not because I have anything against consensus, listening or supporting leadership traits.  Those can work very well in many types of organizations.   But it is also important that a New Jersey Governor not be afraid to use the unique set of powers and levers at his or her disposal to make decisions and make them stick.    

One last little bit of tea-leaf reading serves as a good conclusion.  Right after taking the oath of office Murphy decided to hold a press conference/executive order signing on gender pay equity.  It was supposed to be a press event and signing ceremony, I think.  However, in the excitement of the day just about every single Murphy supporter in Trenton seemed to crash the room.  What was supposed to be ceremony to sign the gender equity pay order turned into a free-for-all of extremely excited and happy people.  Several reporters wrote stories and tweets complaining they had no place to sit and couldn’t hear what was going on.  

I find that story telling because it shows that Phil Murphy really wants to and has the capacity to bring everyone into the room.  But it also suggests that at some point he will need to show that he has the “onions” to kick some people out of that room.

Matt Hale is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University.

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  • john lakeside

    The “I s have it”, God what ridiculous analysis passes as punditry. Counting the I words as some broad indication of personality trait would lead one to the conclusion that Barrack Obama is actually Chris Christie, getting by the overwhelming physical resemblance, I think not.

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