Murphy Town Hall Turns into a Pep Rally

Murphy at his town hall.

MAPLEWOOD – It was billed as a “town hall” with Gov. Phil Murphy, but it turned out to be a pep rally.

The governor held forth for about 80 minutes Wednesday night, but most of that time (about 55 minutes) was consumed by Murphy highlighting his program and local politicians doing what they do far too often – telling each other how great they are.

This probably was not what most of the 250 or so people jammed into the Woodland, an old mansion, came to hear.

By the time, the governor got around to answering  questions from the crowd, there was another surprise. Questions had to be submitted in writing in advance and the governor’s staff presumably picked the ones they liked.

You got an idea how that was going to go when the first question was whether the governor thought young people should get involved in public life. For the record, he said they should.

Now in general, town halls tend to draw supporters of the man or woman on stage. But there are always detractors.

On this night, there was Terry Beck of Hillsborough who is gathering petition signatures to recall the governor. She said she had submitted a question; it was not picked.

And then, there were two people holding a banner condemning a planned electric generating plant in the North Bergen Meadowlands. Their question was not selected either.

Those selected were open-ended queries that allowed the governor to talk about his agenda – past and future. Or in other words, essentially repeat what he had said earlier in the evening.

Of course, this is an agenda that many people, especially Democrats, would applaud.

The governor highlighted his support for strong gun laws, environmental regulations second to none, continuing support for public schools, (rated by some as best in the nation), and trying to make New Jersey stronger and fairer for everyone. To that end, he said he is not giving up on the so-called millionaire’s tax, which the Legislature has rejected two years in a row.

The idea of increasing income tax rates on those earning at least $1 million a year polls well and drew cheers all-around Wednesday night. That is probably why Murphy admitted surprise that getting it passed has been harder than he thought.

Politicians of all stripes like talking about what they want to do. That’s to be expected.

But town halls are designed – at least in theory – for the average guy or gal with a gripe to speak directly to the elected official.

Everyone in New Jersey politics knows that under Chris Christie, gubernatorial town halls were must-see spectacles and if you missed one, no need to fret. You could catch the highlights on the evening news or YouTube.

Murphy referenced Christie’s town hall style when a teacher had her question selected. The governor joked that he wasn’t going to tell her to “sit down.” Instead, he asked her to “stand up.”

O.K. One can argue that Christie’s always combative, and sometimes insulting, style was not the best way for a governor to act.

However, for what it’s worth, the Murphy team would do well to consider the following for town halls to come.

First, eliminate the self-serving platitudes. Few people in the audience come to a public event with the governor to hear the local mayor talk about how wonderful his fellow elected officials are.

Second, and most important, shorten the prepared remarks and ditch the screened questions. Let people come to a microphone and ask whatever they want.

Democracy, you know, can be refreshing. And so could real debate.

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