Perhaps one of the most interesting events at this year’s League of Municipalities was the annual conference of former governors.
This year brought together many of the old faces we used to like to kick around when they were still in office, but still somehow over time have come to revere – with one glaring exception.
Few “bad boys” (and girls) of the past retain their stigma as completely as former Gov. Christopher Christie – who has left such a foul political stench behind him that Dick Codey could not bring himself to utter his name.
Codey was not shy about singing the praise of the current governor, Phil Murphy, who has become a standard bearer for the progressive side of an already progressive party.
But not all the former governors who attended this year’s event in Atlantic City felt as comfortable with Murphy as Codey.
John Bennett, who joked about his extremely brief term as acting governor, suggested that Murphy needed to make friends. As a political outsider, Murphy never got to hobnob with the upper crust of the Democratic Party and so can’t use these personal connections to broker his agenda.
A few more dinner parties, going over to some political big wigs house for the holiday will go along way to solving many of the state’s problems. While Bennett did not suggest this, a good joint among close friends might well clear the air for a potential legalization of marijuana in a state in a race to get a new tax revenue to help pay for the massive social agenda Murphy proposed when running for governor.
Codey appeared to have no problem defending Murphy, and less a problem attacking the questionable legacy of Christie – who like the central villain in the Harry Potter movie – he refused to name, repeatedly referring to that illusive ghost of governors past. Codey didn’t need to mention the cones that closed the George Washington Bridge or the man in the beach chair hanging out on that Fourth of July the summer he closed to state parks to everybody else.
Jim Florio was much kinder, and somehow embodied the last great liberal governor, a kind of symbolic warning against taking a progressive agenda too far before the taxpayers’ revolt. Nobody mentioned tax on toilet paper, the most symbolic element of his 1990 tax plan that the GOP used to unseat his legislature and eventually put Christine Whitman in as governor.
What was also left unsaid at the former governor’s conference was the swing voters generally take, seeking more services under one governor while hating to pay taxes on the other. Florio’s liberal agenda was a reaction to Tom Kean’s austerity, and Whitman’s two terms in office sought to appease overtaxed taxpayers, often dipping into funds such as unemployment or pensions to make it appear the state was doing better than people thought.
Nobody actually knows what might have transpired under Gov. Jim McGreevey since he was driven from office before he could actually get his wings off the ground.
But in not mentioning Christie by name, Codey does a disservice to what Christie actually accomplished – in between political dirty tricks that might have made Richard Nixon proud.
Jon Corzine as governor was supposed to repair the damage done under Whitman but left a fiscal disaster as he legacy, which got dumped into Christie’s lap – and which for the most part, he managed to repair, if at the expense of many programs previously seen as sacrosanct – such as robbing the funds from all of the Urban Enterprise Zones in the state – funds that were not restored despite the state’s electing the extremely progressive Murphy.
While Codey may defend Murphy’s agenda, there is this question as to the historical backlash that always comes when a governor pushes the agenda too far in one direction or another.
Fortunately, Murphy serves as governor at a time when Donald Trump is president, someone whose name generally gets mentioned among the progressive electorate followed by a number of four-letter words.
While Codey refused to mention Christie’s name, Trump has proved a boon for Murphy at a time when Murphy could be facing as huge a backlash as Florio once did. Some studies suggest that taxpayers unhappy with Murphy’s progressive agenda are leaving the state rather than doing what they did under Florio. This could pose serious problems for future progressives when they will no longer have Christie or Trump to kick around and may actually have to run for reelection on their record.
Some wonder what the political impact will be on the governor’s race in 2021 if Democrats retake the White House in 2020. Although seen as a blue state, New Jersey voters tend to put in governors of the opposite party from national leadership.
And you’ll have to wonder if Murphy gets dumped in favor of a Republican in 2021, what other governors will say about him in future former governor conferences? Will people mention him by name or in hushed tones over the legacy he left? Perhaps, Murphy will become another Florio, the governor future Democrats will blame for restoring strength to the GOP. Not all this is Murphy’s fault, and perhaps – taking Bennett’s advice – Murphy should go over to Stephen Sweeney’s house for a Christmas Eve sip of eggnog.