Murphy at Halftime


Last Monday afternoon, January 13, I interviewed New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in his office in Trenton.  Prior to my departure from my home in Highland Park, I received a phone call from a friend and confidant, asking me the following question:

“Have you arrived at a sports figure analogy for Phil Murphy yet?”

As my readers know, it is my wont to make analogies between 1) political figures and professional athletes and 2) political issues and sport events.  After following Phil Murphy through his campaign and first two years in office, I had failed to develop such an analogy for him.

Within five minutes after beginning the interview, I had in mind the professional star athlete of the past with whom to make a remarkably apt comparison with the. governor.

I have described Phil Murphy, a native Bostonian who spent his adult life as a citizen of New Jersey as highly underrated in terms of his political skills.  Throughout my interview with him, the governor expressed his guiding mantra as “stronger and fairer,” whether discussing his visions for economic development, urban revival, education enhancement, or social justice.

And I could not help but think of a native of Jersey City who made the reverse life journey from that of Phil Murphy, moving from New Jersey to Boston where he became a highly successful college and professional basketball  player, coach, and broadcaster over a period of 60 years for Holy Cross and the legendary Boston Celtics.  And like Phil Murphy, when you mention this man’s name, the word “underrated” comes to mind.

That man was Tommy Heinsohn, who was 1)  a college and professional Hall of Fame all-star power forward who was underrated when compared with other Celtic star players like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy; 2) a two time championship coach who was underrated when compared with other championship Celtic coaches like the aforesaid Russell and Red Auerbach; and 3) a superb broadcaster who was underrated when compared with the iconic four decade voice of the Celtics, Johnny Most.

And the Murphy mantra, “stronger and fairer” was the way Tom Heinsohn expressed himself on the basketball court, whether as a player or coach.

Tommy played a power game, using his strength to get into positions for shots and rebounds.  But he was not a dirty player.  And he expected fairness from the officiating and would erupt at an official who he felt was making unfair calls against him or other Celtic players or against an opposing player who he felt was cheating.

And there is another remarkable similarity between Tommy Heinsohn and Phil Murphy.   Both are extremely artistically talented, Heinsohn as a painter and Murphy as a singer and dancer during his college years in productions at Harvard.

I don’t know if Phil Murphy is a Boston Celtics fan or if he is familiar with Tommy Heinsohn.  I assume that he would be more pleased with my sports comparison of him with Heinsohn than Chris Christie would be with my comparison of him with Sonny Liston for his political bullying and thuggery.

Again, in sports terms, Phil Murphy’s State-of-the State last Tuesday, January 14 marked halftime for his first term.  And the first half of Murphy’s first term as governor was virtually the direct opposite of that of another Irish-American New Jersey governor, Brendan Byrne.

As I have written in previous columns, Murphy’s first half has been distinguished by remarkable political success, as shown by his high poll ratings, his forging a widely accepted compromise regarding the reelection of John Currie as New Jersey State Democratic Chair and LeRoy Jones as future Democratic State Chair, his effective political neutering of his prime political adversary, George Norcross, his obtaining the endorsement of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo for his reelection, and his successful campaign efforts in Somerset County, resulting in the Democrats gaining control of the freeholder board.  And the core of Murphy’s policy agenda, his proposal for the Millionaire’s Tax is actually quite popular among the voters.

In my interview of Governor Murphy, I mentioned how unanticipated his political victories were, given his Wall Street background and lack of Main Street political experience.  The governor was quick to attribute his political acumen to his late father, who had been active in Massachusetts local politics and imparted his experience and wisdom to Young Phil.

By contrast, the first half of Byrne Term One was a political disaster.  His popularity declined to historic low levels, due to public opposition against his proposal for enactment of New Jersey’s first gross income tax.  In fact, he was labeled with the initialism of “OTB” – One Term Byrne during those seemingly dark political days for him.

The income tax proposal of Governor Byrne was necessitated by the decisions of the New Jersey Supreme Court mandating a more equitable methodology for the funding of public schools.  The Millionaire’s Tax of Governor Murphy has been proposed by him in order to fund his vastly increased budget requests for property tax relief, public education, workforce development, necessary New Jersey Transit improvements, and closing of the deficits in the Teachers and Public Employees’ Pension Funds.

Murphy’s State-of-the-State message was a highly effective presentation as to why these increased expenditures are warranted.  The historic test of the second half of Murphy Term One, however, will be whether he can translate his enhanced political status into enactment of the Millionaire’s Tax.

And with regard to the legislature, Phil Murphy has the opposite situation of Brendan Byrne.  Murphy is a highly effective politician with few allies in the Assembly and Senate, the last bastion of George Norcross power and influence.  By contrast, Brendan Byrne was an ineffective politician with significant and astute allies in both the Assembly and Senate.

During the second half of Byrne Term One, the first New Jersey Gross Income Tax was enacted, not due to the political talents of the then governor but instead due to the highly sagacious actions of his legislative allies. They actually advised Byrne to go low profile and low key, while they carried the ball.  And they succeeded.

Murphy has few such allies, but he can be effective one-in-one with legislators in obtaining their support.  He will have to do much more of this in order to obtain legislative passage of the Millionaire’s Tax.  But I think Murphy can succeed in such efforts in view of two factors: 1) the relative popularity of the measure; and 2) the declining influence of George Norcross with legislators, especially if the media make more revelations of unsavory activity on the part of GN3.

By the way, I am a person of the center-right, and I am not well disposed towards the Millionaire’s Tax.  But this article is written as a political analysis, not as policy advocacy.  I also have to admit: the more I get to know Phil Murphy, the more I come to like him on a personal level, to respect his talents, and admire his character and integrity.  And I suspect that many more New Jerseyans are starting to feel the same way that I do.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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