The Power of Television: Can Phil Murphy Campaign 2021 Replicate Tom Kean Campaign 1985?

Michael Testa, Sr., with former Governor Tom Kean.

I first met the then Assemblyman Tom Kean (pictured above with Michael Testa, Sr.) following the election of 1976, in which he served as chair of the New Jersey reelection campaign of President Gerald Ford.  At that time, Kean was considered too patrician to win the forthcoming 1977 New Jersey Republican gubernatorial primary against Senator Ray Bateman.

Kean ran a strong 1977 primary and then went on to win the GOP gubernatorial primary and history’s closest New Jersey gubernatorial contest against Jim Florio in 1981.

Still, he continued to be dogged by the patrician label.  One of his rivals in the 1981 GOP primary, the late industrialist Joseph “Bo” Sullivan ran a commercial against him with the phrase, “I can’t see having a beer with Tom Kean in Bayonne.”

In short, the New Jersey conventional wisdom was that Tom Kean was too aristocratic, too stiff to relate to the pols of the State House and to the electorate in general.

Despite Kean’s previous remarkable success as both Speaker of the Assembly and Assembly Republican Minority Leader, the establishment pundits predicted during his difficult  first year as governor that he would be a governmental failure due to the opposition of the Democrats, who controlled both the State Assembly and Senate, and a political failure with the electorate as well.

This was the worst prediction ever made since professional football scouts predicted that Tom Brady would never make it as an NFL quarterback.

After his difficult first year, Kean became the most successful governor of 20th Century New Jersey. Never has the Garden State had a governor with finer political instincts. His economic development, business attraction, and tourism measures resulted in job creation and economic growth that exceeded all expectations.  His education and environmental initiatives, combined with his emphasis on what he termed “The Politics of Inclusion,” resulted in a much-improved quality of life for New Jerseyans of all races and ethnic constituencies.

Kean was able to implement this ambitious agenda largely due to his continued high popularity with the electorate. In the 1985 election, the people of New Jersey gave Kean the most emphatic vote of confidence ever given to any governor.

He was reelected in that year with 68% of the popular vote and carried all twenty-one New Jersey counties and all but three of the state’s 567 municipalities.  Tom Kean, who had once been dismissed by the cognoscenti of New Jersey politics as unlikely to make his mark as New Jersey’s chief executive, was now enshrined in New Jersey history as the gold standard for gubernatorial political and governmental success.

How ironic it is that on the verge of the gubernatorial election year of 2021, the incumbent governor and overwhelming favorite for reelection, Phil Murphy is an individual who, like Kean, was initially dismissed as lacking the personal and political assets essential for success as governor.

While Kean was initially derided by the word “patrician,” Murphy was outright mocked by the Trenton chattering class by the use of a name:  Jon Corzine.  Murphy, like Corzine, had been a veteran of the Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs.  And Corzine had been an absolutely abysmal failure as governor, both politically and governmentally, due to his total lack of political instincts and the perception that he believed himself at all times, to be “the smartest person in the room.”

Corzine was inaugurated as governor in 2006 after having served five years as a United States Senator from New Jersey.  Unfortunately, his Senate service was no real preparation for Corzine’s ascension to the governorship.

Similarly, Murphy’s only governmental experience prior to his inauguration as governor in January, 2018 was his tenure as US Ambassador to Germany, hardly an arena of preparation for New Jersey street politics. The word in the State House at the time of Murphy’s inaugural was that State Senate President Steve Sweeney and his patron, South Jersey Democrat Boss George Norcross would thwart any attempt by the new governor to enact any governmental initiative or Democratic Party reform.

What a difference three years makes.

As we enter Election Year 2021, Phil Murphy continues to attain in the polls approval ratings over sixty percent.  He has triumphed over all the efforts of Norcross and Sweeney to curtail his powers and effectiveness.   Instead, due to his continued high popularity, he has succeeded in enacting 1) the Millionaire’s tax, 2) a minimum wage hike, and 3) increased aid to municipalities and school districts.  And during the Coronavirus Pandemic, Murphy maintained strict standards on personal and business activity that reduced the infection and death rate below the catastrophic rates that might have otherwise prevailed.

And there is one major aspect of commonality of Kean and Murphy that has been critical in the popularity that each has attained:  Initially, both were viewed as merely adequate in their performance on television.  Today, it is beyond question that Tom Kean and Phil Murphy are the two finest New Jersey political television performers over the past seventy-five years.

In illustrating how television has been vital to the political and governmental success of Kean and Murphy, a review of their use of the medium is in order.

When Kean was inaugurated in 1982, his paramount challenge was to revive all sectors of the New Jersey economy that had been ravaged in the recession of 1980-1982.  A critical component of this revival was the enhancement of the negative perceptions of New Jersey held by individuals inside and outside the state.

So in 1983, Kean initiated a state sponsored television advertising campaign described in detail in the definitive biography, Governor Tom Kean, by Dr. Alvin S. Felzenberg.  The primary objective was to boost tourism to New Jersey, but the campaign had the salutary impact of enhancing New Jersey’s overall image as well.

The star of these commercials was Tom Kean himself.  The slogan of these commercials will never be forgotten: “New Jersey and You – Perfect Together.”

The essential message of this slogan was one of pride.  In order to effectively deliver a message of pride, one has to convey a feeling of optimism.  And no politician in my lifetime, not even Ronald Reagan could create an atmosphere of optimism more effectively than Tom Kean.

Indeed, the “New Jersey and You – Perfect Together” television commercials were the key to the Kean message that resulted in his landslide reelection victory.

Murphy’s use of television has been primarily through the television commercials sponsored by New Direction NJ, a 501(c)4 non-profit advocacy organization created by allies of the governor.  Murphy appears in the commercials, yet his message is quite different from the Kean slogan.

These commercials support the Murphy agenda, including a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, property tax relief, lower healthcare costs and many others.  They have been crafted, designed, and produced by Brad Lawrence and Steve DeMicco, two of the Democratic Party’s most competent and innovative message and media consultants in the nation.

The theme of these commercials, which is proving to be remarkably effective, is “a stronger, fairer New Jersey.”  Phil Murphy rarely will give a speech where this slogan is not mentioned.  The thinking behind the “stronger, fairer” mantra and message is that the Murphy agenda is designed to strengthen and grow the middle class and make the state’s economy work for everyone, not just the insiders and big corporations.

Murphy is supremely effective in delivering the “stronger, fairer” message because it requires a quality of empathy.  And empathy is one of Murphy’s strongest personal characteristics.  He displays it every day in his Covid-19 press conferences.

Also in support of the Murphy agenda is Forward New Jersey – a coalition of more than 75 New Jersey-based organizations representing over 1.5 million New Jersey residents and more than 140,000 New Jersey businesses.  Forward New Jersey launched a new campaign in early October to highlight the benefits of Governor Phil Murphy’s infrastructure investment plan.  The commercials are produced and designed by Maggie Moran, a highly distinguished New Jersey political strategist. While Murphy does not speak in any Forward New Jersey commercials, they powerfully communicate the positive economic impact of the Murphy infrastructure plan.

So the historical comparison between Tom Kean and Phil Murphy is clear.  Both were highly successful governors – in fact, Murphy is the most successful New Jersey governor since Kean.  And both governors owe their political popularity and success largely to their proficiency with television.

The Murphy popularity, combined with the albatross of Donald Trump which the Republican gubernatorial candidate, rightly or wrongly, will have to carry, has made the governor a prohibitive reelection favorite.  But can he match the Kean 1985 numbers?

I doubt it, because it is virtually impossible for any Democrat to carry Warren, Sussex, Hunterdon, or Ocean County.  But I think that Murphy is capable of exceeding the 60 percent mark.  And that will more than satisfy Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Democrats.

Alan 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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  • Kathleen Demarest

    ………………….CHARACTER COUNTS.

    I am going to state this column in simpler but less interesting terms.

    Governor Tom Kean and Governor Phil Murphy are both men of
    outstanding character, truly interested in helping New Jersey
    and its residents. Their character is evident whenever these men speak.
    So basically, their competence, sincerity, and empathy is projected
    to their TV audience, They are respected and trusted, and yes, voted for
    by New Jersey residents who perceive these qualities in these two fine men.

    YES, Alan Steinberg, as you well know……CHARACTER COUNTS!!!

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