Phil Murphy is No Jon Corzine

Murphy

In the New Jersey general gubernatorial election of 2017, I strongly supported the Republican candidate, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno against the eventual winner, Democrat former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.

Kim ran an excellent campaign, and I am proud of my friendship with her. There was no way, however, that she would be able to overcome the twin albatrosses of Donald Trump and Chris Christie. The outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Phil Murphy is now at the midterm mark, and I would not classify myself as either a supporter or opponent of his. I do believe that he is a profoundly decent man and that he and his wife, Tammy, on a personal level, are excellent role models for the citizenry of our state.

On matters of policy, I do have two principal concerns with him.

First, I oppose his proposed Millionaire’s Tax, although I have emphasized in previous columns that this proposal will not in the least harm him politically.

Second, while I support the Governor’s backing of investigations into the methodology and results of the awarding of incentives by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), I would hope that his final business employment incentive package contains at least the same basic structure as the current law. The existing incentive framework was fashioned wisely on a bipartisan basis by former state senators Democrat Raymond Lesniak and Republican Joe Kyrillos.

I must emphasize above all, however, that in my view, Phil Murphy has been unfairly portrayed by the state house press corps as a gubernatorial dilettante. Specifically, they characterize him as resembling his fellow former Goldman Sachs executive, former Governor Jon Corzine. They assert, erroneously in my view, that like Corzine, Murphy is out of touch with Main Street New Jersey, lacks even minimal political instincts, and is a political failure.

In fact, the opposite is true. While the jury is still out on the success or failure of Murphy’s policies, in political terms, he has vastly outclassed his two most prominent political adversaries, Republican State Committee Chair Doug Steinhardt and his Democratic Party nemesis, the coterie of State Senate President Steve Sweeney and his patron, unofficial leader of the South Jersey Democratic Party Confederacy, George Norcross, III.

Recently, some in the establishment New Jersey political media have described Steinhardt as successfully leading a New Jersey Republican revival. In order to believe this characterization, you have to be under the influence of yet-to-be-legalized marijuana.

One look at the Murphy-Steinhardt win-loss record since Murphy was inaugurated governor in 2018 tells all: The Democrats have wrested four out of the five Congressional seats the GOP held prior to the 2018 elections. And in that same 2018 year, with substantial involvement and support from Murphy, Democrat incumbent US Senator Bob Menendez won reelection within months after he avoided criminal conviction by virtue of a hung jury. Finally, during Murphy’s tenure, the Democrats captured from the Republicans control of the freeholder boards in Burlington County in 2018 and Somerset County in 2019.

In New Jersey, the party that controls the county governing body also controls the politics of the county. That makes the Democratic takeovers in Burlington and Somerset under Murphy’s leadership all the more significant.

By contrast, the Steinhardt Republicans during that time period have only succeeded in significant victories over the incumbents in one legislative district in the state, the First, where it took a new GOP star, Senate candidate Mike Testa, Jr., to lead the Republicans to victory in the most pro-Trump district in the state.

As we go into 2020, the Steinhardt-led NJGOP is a vast political Jonestown, where his grass roots Republican supporters are drinking the Trumpian Kool-Aid, setting the stage for a massive New Jersey Republican political suicide in the presidential election year of 2020.

Murphy is also triumphing over his principal Democrat adversary, the Sweeney-Norcross South Jersey Democratic Confederacy. While the Sweeney- Norcross coterie failed miserably in their efforts to 1) retain the legislative seats in the First District and 2) win the Assembly seats in the Eighth, Murphy was focusing his campaign on the Somerset County freeholder race – and winning.

Steve Sweeney did have one notable Campaign 2019 success. He persuaded an all-too gullible State House Press Corps that the 2019 election should be read as a rebuke to Phil Murphy in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Norcross-Sweeney South Jersey Democratic Confederacy is attempting to regain its badly lost prestige through its efforts to replace Democratic State Committee Chair John Currie with the Essex County Chair Leroy Jones. If Jones wins, the main influence gained by the Confederacy will be on the appointments by Jones to the Legislative Apportionment and Congressional Redistricting Commissions.

That power will probably not be of major concern to Governor Murphy. In terms of partisan political activity, his focus until November, 2020 will be two-fold: 1) in his capacity as Chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association (DGA), the financing and other infrastructure assistance to Democratic gubernatorial campaigns throughout the nation; and 2) the Democratic presidential nomination and general election campaign, regarding which Murphy will find himself receiving calls on a daily basis from Democratic National Chair Tom Perez and from Democratic presidential candidates seeking his support.

Given this large partisan political portfolio, the influence gained by the Confederacy on the Legislative Reapportionment and Congressional Redistricting commissions appointments through a Jones victory will be a secondary priority for Murphy.

The truth is that Phil Murphy enjoys governing but doesn’t relish the politics that comes with it. He does, however, understand fully how essential good politics is to good government and the importance of having a good team to provide high quality political advice. Unlike Corzine, Phil Murphy feels no need to demonstrate that he is the smartest person in the room, and he knows what he doesn’t know.

Towards this end, Murphy has a superb outside political team and a front office with highly competent people occupying the key political positions.

The three key players on the outside team are Jim McQueeny, Brendan Gill, and Brad Lawrence. No governor since Tom Kean has had a better outside team. All three of these individuals have supreme skills at messaging, issue analysis, and political strategy. Their top-flight political communication skills are reflected in the excellent commercials produced by the advocacy organization New Direction New Jersey in which Gill and Lawrence are principals. These commercials propound the Murphy message in an attractive form readily comprehensible by the electorate.

The key front office political players are Chief of Staff George Helmy and Director of Communications Mahen Gunaratna. The most competent and successful gubernatorial chiefs of staff over the past half century were Harold Hodes under Brendan Byrne and Greg Stevens under Tom Kean. George Helmy has the governmental experience and political competency gained under Frank Lautenberg and Cory Booker and the natural people skills to give him the potential to attain the level of achievement of Hodes and Stevens.

As for Mahan Guanaratna, he possesses a wealth of communications experience in both political campaigns and in government to both adeptly advocate the Murphy message and respond to crises. The combination of the outside team with the inside team of Guanaratna and his staff provides Phil Murphy with the political asset of excellent strategic political communications.

Murphy himself focuses, to his political benefit on avoiding broad based levies and tolls on the middle class. He demonstrates this with his emphasis on avoiding fare hikes in financing necessary improvements in New Jersey Transit. You will not see him commit an egregious political blunder like Corzine’s toll hike and asset monetization plan.

Phil Murphy faces serious challenges in the next two years, and at this point, I will not make any predictions regarding the success or failure of his policies or initiatives. One thing is certain, however. Phil Murphy is no Jon Corzine. To copy a jocular comment once made by my former boss, George W. Bush, don’t misunderestimate him.

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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