An Epic (and Handy!) Insider NJ Guide to the Week Ahead (Including 2020 Budget Drama)

Insider NJ editor Max Pizarro gives an inside look at the political drama surrounding the NJ budget for 2020.

A chair that Woodrow Wilson supposedly sat in ended up in a dingy corner of the statehouse during renovations, where history blends into mythology.

If he sat there, it wasn’t for long.

He couldn’t sit, let alone stand, in the same state as the bosses whose backs he used as a springboard out of the swamp, to the presidency.

Now, a politically dysfunctional state furnished a predictable pattern, as Governor Phil Murphy allies rallied on his behalf outside, while machine Democrats bucked him inside.

The same group of lawmakers that for years championed a millionaire’s tax now opposed one.

“Look, I voted for this thing probably eight times,” Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) told InsiderNJ in April. “I’m not opposed to bringing in $450 million, but not into a black hole that doesn’t address ultimately the underlying problem, which is centered on property taxes.”

The boss didn’t want to give one to Murphy.

The boss’s empire was also the target of an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Norcross, Sweeney and Christie.

The lawmakers who backed the interests of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3)/South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III were there in the legislature precisely because they possessed a pliable quality that – in a pinch – submits to tyranny.

They originally backed Murphy – essentially an unknown – not because of anything he said or did, but because they were told to back him, to protect their own 2017 reelection bids. If all 21 counties united behind the same candidate at the top of the ticket, they could present a united front against that always simmering and sometimes yammering thicket of voices out there uncontrolled by the machine.

The great unwashed, yes – and the great unbought.

That was then.

Now they had a different perspective, with the same underlying self-preserving motive.

Now they didn’t back him because they were told, in this environment with a governor’s task force examining the administering of Economic Development Authority tax incentives to Camden, to oppose him.

A millionaire’s tax may have been consistent with FDR’s Democratic Party. (And by the way, who the hell was FDR?) But it wasn’t consistent with what George wanted. And George wanted Murphy humiliated. And many (if not almost all) of the Democrats in the legislature were there because of what George wanted. George had wanted Murphy. A little too much back slapping for his taste, but so be it. It was the expedient choice after Sweeney crapped out. And anyway, the objective had really been to prevent Steve Fulop from getting to Drumthwacket more than enabling an alternative. Fulop had run outright on an anti-Norcross message. If Sweeney couldn’t be had, George wanted Murphy. So they wanted Murphy. Now George thought Murphy was a boob, so now they indulged the same point of view.

It was easier to be led than to lead.

It was better to see someone squirm than to bleed.

Even if he got dinged in this latest episode, George was going to be here.

If Murphy ever felt sufficiently uncomfortable he could retire to his bungalow in Italy, never to be heard from again.

Why throw in with a guy like that?

You could think the two of you were in a foxhole together and the next minute he’d be gone, and you would still be here in New Jersey, dependent on the public connections that feed your family.

Better to saddle up with George.

They could understand George.

Republicans throw you in jail.

Democrats give you bad government.


The establishment could live with that dichotomy.

But now Democrats were trying to do both: commit bad government and throw people in jail.

It was confusing and discomforting to some of the old timers.

Moreover, there had been such little turnover in the Democratic Party in the legislature – and what turnover occurred represented simply the supplanting of names in the same stable of the same sub bosses in the Norcross orbit. Current officeholders – more than a few of them, including even the governor’s lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who as speaker posted the bill – had voted in favor of those infamous 2013 tax incentives. Their bosses put in power by George to put them in the legislature had similarly stocked the boards with friendlies.

It was massive infestation.

If this current leadership crisis in the Democratic Party represented a fight to the death – and most everyone now described it as such – Murphy would have to put Norcross in the ground with the EDA scandal or suffer the boomerangs of fate in return.

For short of a massive overhaul the structures in place had Norcross’ fingerprints all over them.

Consider this.

Senator Bob Smith.

Earlier this month, Piscataway Democratic Committee Chairman Ted Light wrote a letter to committee members denouncing the big kahuna of the Central Jersey Progressive Democratic slate as a “party boss.”

That’s the same Ted Light who sits on the state Local Finance Board, under the auspices of the state Department of Community Affairs, overseeing the state’s role in local budgeting.

Light’s an ally of state Senator Bob Smith (D-17), who’s a strong ally of Sweeney, who chairs the committee formed by Sweeney to examine the Economic Development Authority.

Then there’s Idida Rodriguez, business partner of Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones.

She also sits on the Local Finance Board.

Jones is the same guy who allows his name to float as the Norcross-backed opponent of sitting New Jersey Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie, Murphy’s choice for the job.

Jones wants the chairmanship with the support of that same wing of the party that wants Currie out so that the George wing of the party – not the governor – controls legislative and congressional redistricting.

It’s the same wing of the party that doesn’t want a millionaire’s tax, which was why the lawmaker installed in the legislature by Jones from his own hometown, East Orange, issued a statement of support for a 2020 budget without a millionaire’s tax.


“This year’s budget presents a much different scenario than any year over the past decade,” Timberlake said. “Revenues have far exceeded the expectations of both the Murphy Administration and Office of Legislative Services, which is why for the first time since 2008 excess money is being deposited into the rainy day fund. I am not abandoning my support for a millionaire’s tax and never will. However, I have an obligation as a responsible legislator to vote on a responsible budget for New Jersey. I will support a responsible State budget even if it does not include a millionaire’s tax, while still being a staunch advocate for the millionaire’s tax until it gets done.”

It was easier, too, when nearly everyone in the statehouse continued to make process, not justice, the arbiter of the good.

And Murphy, a Johnny come lately to the process, simply lacked sea legs.

Whatever political acumen he had seemed gleaned from black and white photos of Irish guys in the 1950s getting behind the nascent congressional candidacy of a war hero named John F. Kennedy. Those images saturated the mind of the young Murphy who proceeded to undertake a lifetime of Goldman Sachs ascendancy, then – racked with guilt? – rediscover his underdog Democratic Party roots in time to run for governor of a barrel tapped at both ends otherwise known as New Jersey.

To the oldest old school pols of New Jersey, those associations might have been okay for yuks on the campaign trail but now it was time to govern; or at least time to give the appearance of governing, while enabling the structures of power to undermine the public. That had been Governor Chris Christie’s gift. But Murphy… Murphy proved a true outsider, with little curiosity for the weeds, even if he had a program to legalize weed, and a corresponding staff of overawed and overambitious kids who hadn’t put the time in, and lacked mechanical know-how.

“What neighborhood did he grow up in?” a veteran hand asked InsiderNJ, referring to Murphy.

Specifically, the hand wanted to know why the Murphy administration telegraphed the criminal referral from the EDA task force on the way into the teeth of budget season.

“You don’t tell the bully when you’re coming,” the veteran fretted.

Dropping the EDA story on Norcross and his family when they did, the Murphy gang sealed doom for the millionaire’s tax.

Murphy wanted a millionaire’s tax.

He ran ads exhorting support for it.

His allies – Sue Altman and Working Families, Hetty Rosenstein and the Communications Workers of

Murphy allies’ rally.

America, and the New Jersey Education Association – all backed him.

The result was a tightening by the legislature against it.

Holding a criminal referral over a partner in the law firm run by Norcross’ brother assured he wouldn’t get it.

And his tactics left old school politics watchers embittered.

If Murphy were Moshe Dayan in the Six-Day War, he would have let Egypt know that he was going to take out their Air Force. Anyway, that’s how the veteran saw the situation. They should have launched a preemptive sneak attack without press release fanfare.

There were those more kind to the governor’s political intelligence.

They argued that the Murphy forces had to fight back. The governor had taken too heavy a pummeling in the Katie Brennan case, and over the state Schools Development Authority (SDA) scandal.

He was looking weak.

He needed to reassert himself.

So he needed his people to throw the bomb at Norcross to show the state who was boss.

Had to do it.

If they had the story, they needed to drop it.

There was some buzz about more headlines embarrassing the establishment in time for a budget vote.

They didn’t appear.

All the EDA story did in the short term was enflame the Norcross-bots in time for them to harass the governor’s budget preferences.

So here was New Jersey, heading into a week when no one believed the Democratic-controlled legislature was going to give a win to the Democratic governor.

I want to like the guy, was a common and complacent refrain about Murphy, but he don’t know what he’s doing.

It was like that old book from the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Murphy was the cross-country motorcyclist who loves the wind in his hair, the poetry of constant motion.

But the second the motorcycle breaks down, he’s on the shoulder of the road, trying to thumb a ride.

He doesn’t know anything about the machine.

Sweeney does, see.

If the machine breaks down, Sweeney will be on the pavement with a tool kit making sure the motorcycle gets back on the road.

That’s the difference, or so runs conventional wisdom in the halls of Trenton.


The trouble is, and this was a confession that emerged from only the most self-scrutinizing conversations, the mechanic gives up the freedom of believing that he himself is not controlled by the machine.

He lacks the romantic daring and imagination to consider himself free enough to believe that he does not have to submit.

This was where Murphy offered something truly original to New Jersey.

Murphy believes he is not controlled, so he behaves as one who is uncontrollable.

If the essence of the country is freedom, he appeals to the romantic impulse in the electorate that refuses structure.

But within the old dynamic of New Jersey politics a contradiction emerges.

The state can get someone – in the parlance of Sweeney’s most diehard allies – who “gets shit done,” in exchange for being dependent; or someone whose independence ensures that he doesn’t get shit done, but who endures as someone consistent with the deepest chords of the country. The EDA story – a Norcross ally and unregistered lobbyist allegedly writing legislation to benefit the boss’ businesses under the guise of helping Camden – underscores Ambrose Bierce’s old adage of politics as the conduct of public affairs for private advantage. Murphy’s allies would rather have someone who, like the founding fathers, comes to the job sufficiently disinterested in the personal power game in order to put the interests of the people – not political machines – first.

The two worlds had started out pretending they could coexist.

Maybe they could have lived together.

But when it became personal, it went off the rails.

On Sunday, lawmakers prepared to caucus on Monday, where they prepared to hand Murphy a $38.6 billion budget on Thursday ($100 to $200 million in new adds with no increase to the top line) that would not contain his coveted millionaire’s tax. They were also prepared to override any of the governor’s vetoes, with Republicans’ help, if it came to that. Sweeney was said to have been positively gleeful as he ran around the halls of power last Monday, following the governor’s cave in on the dark money bill. He knew that if Murphy folded then, he would fold on the budget. He knew he had won yet another round in the parlor romp of process.

Murphy’s allies got that memo, too.

By mid-week they were spinning hard.

“This can actually be a win for Phil,” one said, lamely, in an attempt to build the perfunctory fortifications to withstand Sweeney’s inevitable stampeding of the budget barricade.

InsiderNJ found a Republican veteran watching the developing madness.

Are you laughing your ass off over Democrats killing one another or mourning the demise of the state? InsiderNJ asked.

“Well, both,” he said, simultaneously delighted and downcast.

But two other old-timers, who would probably describe themselves as sympathetic to Murphy, who live in a state of semi-dread over the power wielding by Norcross, said the governor’s case for the millionaire’s tax was never meant to succeed in this budget cycle.

“Nonsense,” one of them snapped, with conviction.

They swore they knew Murphy couldn’t get the millionaire’s tax, and even out of the depths of their contempt for the governor’s neophyte political team, and distress over the gimmick of a $125 give-back to taxpayers in the governor’s plan – they said they suspected the governor knew.

He wasn’t playing for a win here, they argued.

Murphy chose to make his case for the millionaire’s tax knowing the machine would fail him, knowing his base, in time for 2021, would back him.

Those on the inside would thwart him.

And because they would thwart him, he could comfortably stand with those others, like the governor himself, on the outside.

He didn’t have to shut the government down. He didn’t have to line item Christmas tree items as punishment.

He had made his stand.

He had made his point.

Not for now.


If he lacked the inside political game, he had the moral (it was, admittedly a very difficult word to choke down in Jersey, nearly impossible, his allies admitted in gloom) authority of one who refused to kowtow to those same bosses – or boss – the people reviled.

In a state hosed by insider politics, someone who could convince the many that he was morally grounded, made for a compelling counterweight. It would have to be enough to get through this budget cycle. The governor would lose, but – apparently armed with the criminal referral over at the AG’s office and that progressive alliance of Ras Baraka diehards, public sector workers, women activists in the suburbs who saw Norcross as a Donald Trump stand-in, and a county or two or three in the north – hold the moral high ground (in addition to the wink-wink somewhat politically creative moves of making former U.S. senator Cory Booker state director George Helmy his chief of staff and installing Booker’s brother in a Department of Education gig, just in case the machine tried to get Booker to run for governor on the other side of a failed bid for president) for a longer-range war.

It was still, in the bloody end, a fight to the death.

Murphy, left, and Sweeney
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