Is Governor Phil Murphy just an “ordinary man”? Murphy has, in some respects, proven himself a transformative governor. He broke the Democrats’ Curse by becoming the first Democratic governor to win re-election since Brendan Byrne. He was the first New Jersey governor in a century to lead the state through a global health crisis. While New Jersey was hit very hard, especially early on during the COVID pandemic, the ship weathered the storm—not without damage—and stayed afloat.
Governor Murphy had consistently touted himself as a progressive or liberal champion, and managed to placate his allies on the left sufficiently to achieve many of his major policy objectives, even if he was surely aware some, such as the sweeping concealed carry prohibitions, would not go unchallenged in the courts. By gaining a second term, Governor Murphy had the right to feel his administration was validated by the New Jersey voters.
Despite opposition and resistance from some sectors, mostly on the right, to wearing masks and imposing other restrictions during the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic, in general, New Jersey was able to hang on. The loss of the summer of 2020 threatened to permanently shutter the Jersey Shore and many businesses closed across the state, never to open again. There is no debate as to the realities of the COVID plague. The New York Times reports that just over 36,000 New Jerseyans have died from the coronavirus. The state had been blamed for failing to deliver on unemployment benefits adequately and state-backed loan programs were confusing and complicated, with many small businesses missing the bus completely. The governor, however, maintained constant updates for the public and had to contend with an unprecedented emergency. His ability to schmooze then-president Donald Trump, rich guy to rich guy, was credited for the state obtaining significant federal support in terms of ventilators, PPE, and cash. So much cash, in fact, that COVID surpluses became a political issue once the worst of the crisis began to subside.
Why, therefore, would a departing governor want to throw a monkey wrench into his final term with an act of blatant power-abuse, such as the Elections Transparency Act represents?
Though passed through the legislature mostly along party lines, both left and right have blasted the bill which would gut ELEC’s political independence and prove a boon for the wealthy and connected to further entwine themselves with candidates. As reported in multiple sources, the bill, signed by Governor Murphy, will decrease the statute of limitations on ELEC investigations from ten years to two, eliminate pay-to-play rules on the local level, establish a salary for ELEC commissioners, significantly increase the amount of money donors can give to candidates and parties, remove limits on contractors making donations to parties, let the Democratic and Republican parties create “housekeeping” accounts for non-political purposes, and other provisions. The most controversial of which, however, is that it empowers the governor to hand-pick ELEC commissioners himself, without senate oversight, within a 90-day period. The thinking behind this is that it will allow Murphy to install ELEC commissioners in his camp and have them oust the executive director, Jeff Brindle.
Brindle’s attorney said that the governor benefitted from “dark money” and would stand to gain from dark money contributions for future political campaigns. An alleged email where Brindle was said to have made a remark deemed anti-gay was the trigger the administration used to get the gears turning and engineer Brindle’s ouster. Brindle has sued in response.
Digging for cheap tricks, the administration cowardly used the LGBT community—a community generally well-disposed towards Murphy’s policies—as a component to justify a power-grab. Readers should also keep in mind that Jeff Brindle has served on ELEC since 1985, monitoring and investigating election-related matters during both Republican as well as Democratic administrations.
Condemnation from both sides of the aisle poured in ahead of the Election Transparency Act—something which should be a warning sign. If two camps who can seldom agree on whether it is sunny or rainy come out and slam a piece of legislation, then one should pay attention.
The “We The People” coalition, which is a self-described anti-Trump progressivist group, said before Murphy’s ink hit the paper, “We are deeply disappointed that A4372/S2866, the so-called Elections Transparency Act has passed the State legislature despite persistent bipartisan opposition to the damaging provisions in this bill that supercharge money in politics and dangerously undermine the independence of our elections watchdog. ELEC’s ability to enforce the law is also permanently undermined by this legislation, and the bill kills 80% of current investigations into campaign misconduct. Though Gov. Murphy has signaled that he will sign this bill, we urge him to do the right thing and conditionally veto A4372/S2866. If we want a truly representative democracy in NJ with fairer elections, we need a comprehensive campaign finance and ethics overhaul – not this bill, which will instead subvert the will of the majority and ensure that the biggest donors and businesses with vested interests have an outsized say in our government.”
Bob Hugin, the Chairman of the NJ GOP, released a statement following the governor’s signing. “Governor Murphy knows that his Democrats in the legislature are in serious trouble this November and signing this last-ditch piece of legislation is his only way out. Not only will this so-called ‘Transparency’ Act in-kind hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign fines back to the three largest Democratic state committees before Election Day, it will also give Murphy veto power over one of the state’s last independent agencies. Mark our words: Phil Murphy and the Democrats’ greed and hubris will be their undoing this November.”
The phrase “so-called transparency” is a common theme. Nobody trusts the intention behind the bill, which was ostensibly to weaken “dark money” funding. But it seems, for all intents and purposes, to be a naked power grab for a governor—who has no need to concern himself going forward about gubernatorial elections—a way to give Brindle the heave-ho as Murphy prepares for his own exit. Why bother?
Murphy’s credibility as a progressive may stand with most of his policy positions, but progressives will need to ask themselves whether or not he truly is their champion, or merely rode the base to carry him to two terms of power? A man who roundly slammed Trump as an enemy of democracy has, himself, closed the doors on transparency and opened new ones for abuse—hardly progressivist ideals. When Beethoven had composed his “Eroica” in 1804, he had dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who would likewise stimulate feelings of betrayal and resentment among certain supporters. On learning from his friend that Bonaparte had crowned himself emperor in the presence of the pope—turning the ideals of the French revolution completely on its head, Beethoven fumed. “So, he too is nothing more than an ordinary man! Now he also will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his own ambition. He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant!”
Napoleon was, at his core, a pragmatist, despite the engine of Enlightenment ideals driving revolutionary fervor. For all Murphy’s smiles and feel-good social media videos, he, too, is a political pragmatist. A Goldman Sachs executive, he was able to come into New Jersey seemingly out of the blue and be elected to the chief executive position. The path paved with cash, this set the stage for his blood feud with then-Senate President Steve Sweeney who felt he had been robbed of the opportunity. Sweeney had paid his dues, put the work in, and was cut out from below. Sweeney’s antagonism towards Murphy was a constant political theme until he was toppled by another out-of-the-blue figure, Ed Durr.
Aside from empowering a Republican governor-to-be in ways which a Democrat would call an abuse of power, Murphy, an apparently “ordinary man,” has sullied his legacy in the last chapter of his time as governor, and for reasons one can only speculate. If Murphy has ambitions on the national level, as is considered likely by sources, then his chances of becoming president are slim to none. But, if he cannot be emperor, he surely wants to be part of the court. Murphy has a national presence as the head of the National Governors Association and made waves at times, showcasing himself as a sort of anti-Ron DeSantis. Murphy is also known on the international stage, having served as Ambassador to Germany during the Obama years, video-conferenced with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, made economic development trips to India as well as Ireland, and fundamentally has a panache for the theatrics that suit politics in a media-obsessive world. His style is generally charming and affable, he doesn’t use naughty language, and he has worked to protect vulnerable groups within the state. These reasons make the signing of the Election Transparency Act all the more baffling, as it serves to undercut so much of the confidence and trust he has cultivated among his supporters. His detractors are fueled, and properly so, and will inevitably benefit from the power leveraging apparatus Murphy set up for them once he has gone.