Governor Phil Murphy’s State of the State address, delivered on Tuesday, January 10, had an almost presidential quality in terms of some of the content and presentation of the annual speech.
At the start of the address, the governor paid tribute to the men and women defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion, a war which is almost a year old and has wrought vast destruction on the former Soviet state. Murphy, while not able to affect foreign policy as a governor, had been a staunch advocate for the Ukrainian people from the start of the conflict, and made it known that the Garden State was welcoming to Ukraine. He has worn US/Ukraine flags for his lapel pin and acknowledged the presence of four Ukrainian servicemembers invited to the speech who had undergone medical treatment in New Jersey. He also called for a moment of silence in honor of the victims of Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
Last Spring, the governor and Jon Bon Jovi with his family established the Together for Ukraine fund for war relief. The governor, who had served as US ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration, had previously said he wished New Jersey could “send tanks” to Ukraine, but acknowledged that that was beyond his authority.
“For more than ten-plus months, the bravery and strength of the people of Ukraine in fighting back against Russia’s barbaric aggression has been nothing short of inspiring,” Murphy said. He added that he was honored to be joined by Archbishop Daniel of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America, headquartered in Somerset, New Jersey, and Ukrainian Consul General Oleksii Golubov.
The governor’s address continued in national terms, seeking to redefine a “Next New Jersey” as a leader in the country on opportunity, social justice, and safety. In direct response to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, one of the most contentious and divisive issues in American politics today, Murphy made it known that New Jersey stood against the conservative-dominated court by legislatively defending abortion and reproductive care access for women. As many Republican-led states across the country have seen legislation rolled out deemed hostile to voting rights, Murphy again took a national-level stand in pointing to New Jersey’s legislative efforts to expand and protect voter enfranchisement.
Murphy hailed Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver and First Lady Tammy Murphy for their work in “taking on long-standing racial inequities in maternal and infant health, with New Jersey being one of only four states to improve in the most-recent March of Dimes Report Card.”
The national flavor of the state of the state address was clear. Murphy leads the National Governors Association and invited the Republican Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, who serves as the NGA’s vice-chairman, to the address. “There are few states more different than New Jersey and Utah. Yet over the past six months, Spencer and I have come to respect each other not just as colleagues, but even more so as friends. I know the same can be said for the First Lady and Utah’s First Lady, Abby Cox. As Governor Cox said in his 2021 State of the State Address, ‘There must be no room for contempt or hate. We are friends. We must always be friends.’ This is what we need more of in our politics. Definitely at the national level, but right here at home, as well.” Murphy rejected “Washington-style dysfunction and chaos.”
Afterward, the governor listed a number of achievements and projects underway in the state, but continually emphasized the leadership position he wants New Jersey to assume.
On gun safety, Murphy touted the most recent piece of legislation which effectively bans concealed carry of handguns from almost anywhere except one’s own home. This came as a response to the Bruen decision from the US Supreme Court, affirming that states cannot deny an applicant’s wish for a carry permit without a justifiable need, which had previously been New Jersey’s position. While the governor patted himself and his fellow Democrats on the back for taking a stand against the Supreme Court, the legislation was almost immediately challenged by a federal court as potentially unconstitutional.
“We are primed to be a leader on the East Coast in offshore-wind and a national leader in component manufacturing and logistics for the wind industry as a whole,” Murphy said. Additionally, he said, “We remain a leader in all aspects of online gaming and sports wagering…. We are a leader in the financial services technology sector, as evidenced by Fiserv’s opening of its new office in Berkeley Heights, in Union County…. We are taking full advantage of our location to be a global trading hub, as evidenced by the clothing retailer Uniqlo’s decision to put their major logistics operations in Phillipsburg, in Warren County…. we are reclaiming our historic standing as the Medicine Chest to the World, welcoming tomorrow’s leaders in the life sciences while keeping companies that have proudly called New Jersey home right here, companies like Roche….” And, of course, Murphy touted the state’s growing TV and movie industry.
The film world is a New Jersey birthright, in a sense. The home of Thomas Edison, whose work in photography and motion pictures were the foundation for movies, New Jersey and film are inseparable. “The motion picture industry was born in New Jersey,” the governor said. “Fort Lee was Hollywood before there even was a Hollywood. Like so much else, what past generations and prior politicians let get away from New Jersey, we are bringing back.”
Phil Murphy, of course, is not without his detractors. Ignoring the bottomless pit of acidic swill that is internet commentary regarding anything the governor does, there are those who are determined to ensure any presidential dreams remain exactly that—dreams. In his Star-Ledger column, Tom Moran launched a blistering attack on any notion that the governor would have a chance at a presidential run. Governor Murphy’s progressive agenda accomplishments are ones Moran ascribes more to the legislature which had been previously stymied by Governor Chris Christie’s veto stamp. The public, Moran asserts, was already on board with many of Murphy’s goals, and so he does not ascribe much “political lift” to the Garden State’s chief executive.
“He did the right thing, yes, but where is the signature achievement?” Moran asked. “The parade was already moving down Main Street when he took his spot at the front and started twirling his baton.” Moran continued, chopping at Murphy’s tree over of his first campaign’s mishandling of sexual harassment and rape allegations vis a vis Katie Brennan in 2017, the abuses at the women’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and some 9,000 deaths in New Jersey’s state-run veteran homes during the early days of the still-with-us COVID pandemic. In the beginning of December, Moran had predicted that Murphy’s chances were shot to bits when he fired Julie Roginsky, a long-term Democratic operative who helped build his campaign from the start. “He has almost no chance of winning the presidency… And I worry that Murphy’s inner circle is so packed with boosters that no one is telling him that,” Moran wrote. “He’s like the guy with a piece of spinach caught in his front teeth, with no true friends at the table to tell him.”
New Jersey Republicans wasted no time in slamming the governor’s speech as “extreme” and hurled defiance at him on taxes (a time honored and universally bipartisan grudge), the huge state budget, education, and crime. As Murphy has positioned himself to be the torch-bearer for the progressive Left, the Republicans have never missed an opportunity to paint him as out of touch with reality and, in fact, dangerous for the average New Jersey small business owner with his policies. Given the hyper-polarized political landscape from the national-to-the-neighborhood, Murphy can expect these calls to grow only louder and more ferocious should he start making overtures to heading down the trail south towards Washington DC.
Additionally, while Murphy’s second term is still young, speculation as to his successor has been less-than-quiet. Democrats, Alan Steinberg wrote, have been trying to contend with possible candidates in 2025. A “resurrected” Steve Fulop, the powerful mayor of Jersey City, is a factor, and likewise potentially another Steve, Stephen Sweeney, the former senate president, arch-rival of Phil Murphy, and George Norcross ally to carry south Jersey Democrats’ torch. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, Montclair Mayor and NJEA President Sean Spiller, maybe even Congressman Josh Gottheimer, all are names being grappled with. Age, race, professional background, urban vs. suburban, north vs. south, male or female, who has the chops, who is the most party-pliable, who is seen as autonomous as opposed to carrying water—one person who doesn’t have to worry about any of it is Phil Murphy.
Whether or not Murphy has surrounded himself with yes-men who smile with their fingers crossed behind their backs is secondary to the reality that he is, indeed, the governor, and they are not. The governor would not be the first politician in history to earnestly believe his own hype, if that is, in fact, the case, as Moran seems to suggest. With two terms as governor in place, a presidential run would not necessarily harm Murphy even if he lost. He has reached one of the highest political offices available to American citizens. If he follows in the footsteps of his Republican predecessor and has an abortive bid for president, what then?
Does it matter? When it comes to politics, the only thing that makes a material difference is whether or not you get into office. A relatively young man still at 65, a multi-millionaire, physically active and trim, Murphy could easily ride out his golden years at his Italian villa and walk away from politics forever if he so choose. Hand-wringing over a failed Murphy bid for the presidency is a waste of time.
But if he does run?
Not for the first time, Murphy took a dig at Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a potential GOP presidential contender for Republicans tired of the unpredictable chaos and headaches presented by former president Donald Trump. He did so while reminding the public that New Jersey was “cool again”—a place of opportunity as opposed to a place “where ‘woke goes to die’,” a term Murphy said he did not truly comprehend anyway.
International presence, defiance of national conservative social movements, improved standing in healthcare compared to other states, an executive with a footprint on the national stage among fellow governors, a state with a “renaissance” underway—a term often employed during the state of the state: all of these elements seem to build a greater and greater platform for a national presence. If the governor is optimistically preparing himself for a State of the Union, his State of the State address offers an opportunity to practice—and he has unquestionably taken advantage of that chance.