A Goldman Sachs millionaire, the Governor had come to power in New Jersey advocating liberal policies but without a deep bench of longtime loyal establishment allies and now, in what arguably amounted to the first crisis of his administration, that lack of insider depth contributed significantly to Phil Murphy’s seeming political vulnerability.
The departure from his administration of Marcellus Jackson and Al Alvarez and the possible mounting of Murphy World casualties revealed a lack of reinforcing cover that in New Jersey usually translates as a dearth of real relationships.
The trust of other people creates power structures in bad political weather. Those structures defy attack. Flimsy friendships spawn a vacuum. No amount of back slapping and winking can ultimately withstand an intractable opposition machinery. Connected contracts incinerate an 11th hour atmosphere of progressive animal warmth. As anticipation for the Katie Brennan story grew and spilled from the subterranean passages of Trenton and backrooms of county party organizations, it demonstrated the establishment’s impatience – especially on the heels of the budget debacle – with a prolonged Murphy honeymoon.
There was a gleeful, willful surge among establishment players alert to a new spurt of negative energy.
It wasn’t just Brennan, sources said.
It was a culture of misbehavior on the campaign trail that gurgled into Murphy’s government, they insisted.
It was Petra Gaskins allegedly harassed, complaining internally and failing to get a fair hearing, sources said.
It was – back on the campaign trail – Lambertville Mayoral candidate Julia Fahl allegedly on the receiving end of a hurled chair by Joe Kelley. There was a chair, said a source familiar with the episode, but it didn’t land near Fahl. In a heated moment, Kelley shoved it, but not at her, the source said.
It was Brennan allegedly sexually assaulted by Latino outreach director Al Alvarez, and failing to find justice in the corridors of power.
It was a bad boys’ bar culture run amok, with insiders already trying to figure out which of Murphy’s minders would be cast as John “Bluto” Blutarsky.
The story – or part of it, the main part – finally hit here.
But before it landed, a “disturbed” Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) and the Republicans had all already reestablished their political war footing, eager to tee off on their favorite common target: Governor Murphy.
The Governor’s allies tried to fight back.
This was little more than embittered former Murphy people trying to enact revenge, they said.
Emotions run high on any campaign trail.
People throw things.
They turn over tables.
The Brennan allegation – “Serious,” they acknowledged – had already received the full treatment by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. Hudson Prosecutor Esther Suarez and Alvarez weren’t “lifelong friends,” as alleged; she knew who attorney Alvarez was from her days as Bergen County counsel. Never knew him socially and hadn’t seen him, they said, in over ten years. She knows Brennan better, sources said, and they’re friendly.
They dispatched attorney Paul Josephson to challenge The Wall Street Journal‘s story (would it even run after Paul was done with them?), amid mutterings today that the newspaper had issued only part of the bigger story and planned a broader net sequel.
But under all of the observable actions, the antagonizing anti-Murphy narrative – boosted with a new sense of outrage by the unequivocal statement made by Katie Brennan: “Al Alvarez raped me” – continued to take shape.
Those forces appeared to have read those infamous lines of Ian Fleming: “It was always safer to advance than to retreat. Advance against the enemy and the bullet might miss you. Retreat, evade, betray, and the bullet would never miss.”
“It’s everyone for themselves,” a Statehouse source groused. “They’re a bunch of hired guns. There’s little loyalty.”
The source glibly described the front office as place in “panic mode.”
Another veteran insider – griping about incompetence and ignorance – characterized perpetual internal dysfunction, the consequence of green campaign people turned government bigshots lacking battle-tested credentials.
“He’s got Pete, but really no one else in there,” the source told InsiderNJ.
“Pete,” as the source refers to him, is Pete Cammarano, the Governor’s chief of staff, defended by Murphy in the aftermath of the budget debacle, who nonetheless stirs buzz whenever he’s around about whether any given time might be the last occasion that anyone sees him in the chief of staff role.
“My thought is Pete quietly winds down around Christmas,” the source added.
The Governor had scheduled a press conference for Monday, a day after The Wall Street Journal story hit.
A Preview of the Governor’s Economic Mission Trip to Germany and Israel.
The New Jersey political establishment, by contrast, didn’t appear, as usual, to be going anywhere. They were settled. Established. Connected. The budget had been a preview. Now they had a #Me2 Movement moment, which threatened – without the assistance of serious pushback on the Governor’s behalf – to jar Murphy away from those progressive allies who held with him during the budget season, mostly along the jagged lines of public and private sector labor. How hard would it be to cohere those allies now?
His opponents looked dug in, and willing to go toe to toe, for as long as necessary, with a rookie Governor who lacked their reservoir of relationships.