TWO CATHEDRALS – JERSEY STYLE

The clock is clearly ticking on the future of what is left of Governor Phil Murphy’s administration as he deliberates over how to deal with the budget fight before him.  A product of machine politics, Murphy finds himself in the unenviable position of being at war with the toughest political machine and political machine boss, George Norcross, in the state.

He has been outmaneuvered at every turn and on nearly every issue with the possible exception of Sweeney’s failed attempt at gerrymandering reform that had far less to do with anything that Murphy did and almost everything to do with Sweeney’s own overreaching and threats of primary challenges to incumbent Democratic Assemblypersons that came solely from the progressive grassroots and not from Murphy or anyone associated with him.  Maybe the problem is that Murphy has the wrong writers writing his story in particular and the story of New Jersey politics in general.

For far too long, the story of New Jersey politics has been written by those far more inspired by David Chase, who wrote “The Sopranos”.  Maybe we need to pass the author’s quill to someone more inspired by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote “The West Wing”.

Those of us who were avid West Wing watchers can most certainly remember “Two Cathedrals” the iconic finale for season two where President Josiah Bartlet seeks inspiration from the memory of his recently departed aide-de-camp, Dolores Landingham, to help him make the toughest decision of his Presidency.  Maybe what Murphy needs right now is some inspiration from the great beyond as well.

 

CUT TO: INT. THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE – NIGHT

Governor Murphy closes the door behind Bill Castner in his office. Thunder roars.  The sound of pouring rain is almost as loud.  Murphy walks to lean on his desk and places his hands among the many pictures on it.  Suddenly, the wind blows the portico door wide open and rain pours in.

 

MURPHY

Ah… Damn it!  This state needs a Governor and I can’t even find a handy man to fix a damn door!

 

…the office door opens…

 

THE GHOST OF DECEASED FORMER GOVERNOR BRENDAN BYRNE

[walks in, resolutely] I really wish you wouldn’t shout, Mr. Governor.

 

MURPHY

[beat, as he looks at him in disbelief] The door keeps blowing open.

 

BYRNE

Yes, but you have bigger problems than a door that won’t stay closed.  You have a pension system that is going all pear-shaped and property taxes that are even more out of control since I passed the damn state income tax that was supposed to eventually replace them.

 

MURPHY

I was…

 

BYRNE

You don’t know how to govern.

 

MURPHY

It’s not that I don’t know how govern, it’s just that I haven’t figured it out yet.

 

[Byrne looks at Murphy and Murphy smiles wryly.]

 

MURPHY

I don’t know how to govern.

 

BYRNE

Then why in the hell did you run for Governor?

 

MURPHY

You’re gonna make jokes?

 

BYRNE

The joke’s on New Jersey, Phil.  You and Corzine are the only millionaires who go into public service because you think that it might be something fun to do with your free time.  At least the Republican millionaires who do it are honest about why they do it.  They want to become billionaires.

 

MURPHY

[motions him to sit and sits down] What do I do, Brendan?

 

BYRNE

You do what anybody who is faced with a fight does.  You either fight or you run.

 

MURPHY

I have been fighting!  And I have been getting my ass kicked!

 

BYRNE

[sits opposite from him] You haven’t been fighting, Phil.  You have been pretending to fight.  If you were going to fight, you would have run someone against Coughlin in 19, DeAngelo in 14, and a few other places.

If you were going to fight, you would have called for a budget that Sweeney couldn’t have matched so easily with budgetary tricks and tomfoolery and without your beloved millionaire’s tax.

If you were going to fight, you would have made this fight about something much bigger than 600 million dollars.  You would have made this fight about the more than 60 billion dollars that our state, county, and local governments and schools are spending every year and how so much of it is frittered away not just by waste, fraud, and abuse, but by the cancer that is home rule and how it fuels everything else that makes our dysfunctional government as dysfunctional as it is.

If you were going to fight, you would be willing to fight your allies just as much as your adversaries when they are in the wrong.  That is what got me as many primary challenges as I got when I ran for re-election.

And your public employee allies are in the wrong.  They cut a deal with Christie Whitman that allowed her to raid their pension fund to balance her budget and they have backed bad candidates after worse candidates year after year who have mismanaged the pension system.  Poor Jim Florio got thrown out of office for doing the right thing and Dick Codey got muscled aside by Corzine even though he was willing to do the right thing, because the party bosses are more interested in winning than good government.

 

MURPHY

What do I do now?

 

BYRNE

You know what you have to do now.  You have to sign that budget.  You’re not going to win a shutdown.

 

MURPHY

And then what?

 

BYRNE

You fight or you run.  If you want to run, then resign.  Be honest for once in your life.  Admit that your transition team did a terrible job on every imaginable front and that your administration has neither the focus nor the moral clarity to fight the kind of fights that need to be fought over the next two years.

Pass the baton to Oliver.  She will either be better or worse than you.  Maybe she still holds a grudge against Norcross and Sweeney for dumping her as Assembly Speaker.  Or she will have learned the wrong lessons from that experience and will get along by going along.  Either way, at least she will be historic.

But if you are going to fight, you have to be ready for a serious fight and you have to be willing to fight friend and foe, because your friends, Currie and Sacco, are just as bad as your foes, Norcross and Sweeney.  You are going to have to build your own line in every county in 2021 and draw a line in the sand with incumbent Democratic legislators.

You have to tell them that they have to elect a new Senate President and a new Assembly Speaker who is going to work with you, not against you.  You have to let them know that if they don’t, you will recruit your own Assembly candidates to run against them in 2021.

 

MURPHY

I can’t do that.

 

BYRNE

Sure you can, Phil!  Damnit, you’re Irish!  Good Catholic boys like us were born and bred for fights like this!

 

MURPHY

How?

 

BYRNE

The truth hurts.  You’re a terrible Governor.  You’re probably worse than Corzine.  But the one advantage that you have right now over Corzine is that you are still Governor and unless you decide to have an affair with someone and appoint that person to a position of authority over the state’s homeland security apparatus only a few months after the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history while using code words like “Machiavelli” all over the place, you will have two years to bring this fight to the people of New Jersey.

And if you bring this fight to them, the fight has to be about more than just a few polices that make you seem progressive like tuition-free community college and marijuana legalization.  The fight has to be about changing the way our governments at every level operate and it has to be about changing the way that our state does politics so that it can truly make them better, less costly, and more effective and efficient.

The fight has to be about home rule, machine politics, and the party line.  It cannot just be about property tax relief, particularly at such a paltry level as $125 a pop.  It has to be about doing away with the property tax entirely and funding local and county government and our schools with state income taxes.

 

 

MURPHY

But Sweeney is already talking about merging K-6 and K-8 school districts into K-12 school districts.

 

[From a shot up top, we see Governor Murphy is talking, and the opposite chair is empty.]

 

BYRNE

Stop bringing a knife to a gunfight, Phil.  If Sweeney is talking about merging districts, you should be talking about consolidating municipal governments into county governments.  We’re a state of nine million people with economies of scale up the wazoo that could be saving our state billions of dollars if we didn’t have it broken up into over 1200 local accounts between the municipalities and the schools each with their own little fiefdoms, cutting all of their own backroom deals, giving out jobs and patronage contracts like they were candy.

Christie’s first budget led to the eventual elimination of over ten thousand teaching jobs that have still not come back.  The NJEA should care more about having more teachers in the classrooms and lower class sizes than their pensions and if they won’t, you will have to care about this for them.  You have to do the right things for the right reasons, not just the popular things that will keep your friends happy so that they remain your friends.

 

MURPHY

You’re absolutely right, Brendan.

 

 

BYRNE

I know that I’m right, Phil.  I wouldn’t be here telling you this if I thought I was wrong.  I would be somewhere in Hudson County right now registering to vote.  By the way, you can tell your buddy, Sacco, that I voted for Wainstein.

 

MURPHY

I would have too if I lived there.

 

BYRNE

You know if you don’t want to fight, I respect that. [stands up]

But if you don’t fight ’cause you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose… well, God,

Phil, I don’t even want to know you.

 

BYRNE walks out and gently closes the Governor’s Office door behind him. Governor

MURPHY stands, walks into the open door onto the portico and lets the wind blow on him

and the rain wash over his face. He looks up into the sky. Music starts.

Instead of “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits the song is “Rising of the Moon” by the Dubliners.

Bertin Lefkovic has been on the outside of New Jersey politics looking in for almost two decades, even while working on former Governor Jim Florio’s Senate campaign in 2000.  He is/was a prominent volunteer leader for the New Jersey for Howard Dean and New Jersey for Bernie Sanders Presidential campaigns, is a board member of Our Revolution New Jersey, and has supported the off-the-line efforts of candidates ranging from Maryanne Connelly in 2000 to Jun Choi in 2005 to Peter Jacob in 2018 and all of the progressive insurgents who fought the good fight and both lost and won in 2019, sadly losing more than winning.  If the Sanders-inspired progressive insurgency within New Jersey’s Democratic Party ever prevails, he looks forward to spitting on the graves of ALL of the political machine bosses.

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