Less than Politically Nimble: Trailing a Storm, Murphy Administration Staggers Toward December

Now is the winter of our discontent — Richard III, Act I, Scene I

When Shakespeare put quill to parchment in 1592 to scratch out those words, even an imagination as fertile as his could not have foreseen they’d be used five centuries later to send a message to a governor of New Jersey that discontent in the 2018-19 winter would be unleased in all its fury upon the Administration if it repeated its dismal response to the Nov. 15 snowstorm.

Enraged commuters trapped for hours in cars or busses attempting to navigate snow and ice covered roads took en masse to social media to flog Gov. Phil Murphy unmercifully for the failure to respond in a timely fashion to the early winter storm.

They were joined by others marooned in offices or places of employment along with parents waiting for hours for their children’s school busses to show up. Not to mention the hundreds left stranded on the sidewalk outside the Port of New York and New Jersey bus terminal when the agency locked the buildings’ doors and suggested those outside find another way home.

Murphy brought much of the criticism upon himself with a remarkably out of touch response, refusing to accept responsibility while blaming weather forecasters for failing to more accurately predict the storm’s impact.  He appeared satisfied to counsel commuters to remain patient and assuring them they’d reach home sooner or later.

It was a stunning failure to grasp the clear lessons of history — in natural emergencies, a governor is expected to take control quickly, assume command, take a highly visible role in calming and reassuring the public that the situation is in hand and that government resources have been mobilized.

None of that happened.

He continued to insist it was all the fault of weather forecasters, bringing a stinging public rebuke from a former National Weather Service executive who pointed out that warnings of the potential severity of the storm were sounded 48 hours before it hit and accused the governor of engaging in a “scam” to avoid being held responsible for the state’s failure to respond effectively.

It only grew worse with the revelation that while traffic accidents reached more than 1,000 and calls for emergency assistance for disabled vehicles soared, Murphy was enjoying dinner in a five star restaurant near his home in Monmouth County.

His spokesperson responded that Murphy ate at the bar rather than at a table, a disconnected and oddly out of sync reaction to the reality of thousands of stranded commuters unable to enjoy a family meal because they were at a standstill on the state’s major highways and interstates or creeping along on county and municipal roads.

Presumably, the governor sacrificed further by skipping the dessert.

While it may not have been his intention, Murphy’s behavior created the impression he was aloof at best and uncaring at worst, concerned only with blaming some other entity for the events that had befallen the state.

Critics gleefully compared his actions to those of former Gov. Chris Christie photographed with his family basking on the beach in the midst of a government shutdown and closure of public beaches over the July 4 weekend last year.  It certainly did not attain that level and the critics can be forgiven for giving in to exaggeration and hyperbole.

He harmed his image further by his continual refusal to utter the word “apology,” leaving it to the Commissioner of Transportation to do so while he appeared satisfied with a promise to do better next time.

The Administration’s poor performance raised questions yet again about its competence and whether the top levels of government staff possesses the experience and reactive instincts critical to addressing a crisis situation.

The Administration has been beset by such concerns since its’ outset, highlighted by the turmoil surrounding the budget negotiations and the threat of a government shutdown.  After weeks of charges, accusations and swapping harsh language about political motives, the governor eventually backed down and, by all measures, acquiesced in the legislative leaderships’ demands.

Fairly or not, the Administration has achieved a reputation as considerably less than politically nimble and easily outmaneuvered by more adept practitioners of the dark arts of deal-making, compromise, consensus building and discipline.

A failure to shed that perception does not bode well for a smooth legislative path for the remainder of the Administration agenda.

While all weather-related events produce disruptions and inconvenience, snowstorms pose an unusually high degree of political peril for governors who fall short in dealing with them.

New Jersey is a commuter-dominated state and, when a snowfall impacts it, the effects are felt across tens of thousands of people who take it as a personal affront when government fails to do what it is properly expected to do.

Former Gov. Christie felt the righteous wrath of the public when he remained at Disney World soaking up the sun with his family while large swaths of the state lay buried under more than two feet of snow in 2010.

A failure to respond quickly and effectively to a snow event reaches beyond mere disruption and inconvenience; it becomes a matter of government meeting its most fundamental and crucial responsibility — ensuring public safety.

The risk of accident and injury grows exponentially as the inches of snow pile up.  Concern that the situation has gone beyond their personal control increases and produces anger that those in charge, i.e., government, has failed to deliver.

The images and memories of the pre-Thanksgiving storm of 2018 will dim over time — such things normally do — but when the next snow storm hits the state, Murphy will be judged on how well he responds and leads.

The winter of discontent may fall upon his head, but there are three other seasons and he can’t afford to risk the discontent spreading to them as well.

And, it won’t be written by Shakespeare.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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