TRENTON – In the backrooms of Murphy World when he ran for Governor in 2017, allies fretted about the veteran presence of Steve Sweeney on the Senate throne.
Murphy, if was to succeed and advance his agenda, required another ally in legislative leadership.
What about Assemblyman Craig Coughlin from Middlesex?
He was a thoughtful person, by all accountants, and close to Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac, who was Dick Codey’s treasurer; Codey, the guy arguably closest to Murphy in the entire legislature.
But Coughlin was baked into the establishment that seesawed Sweeney into his sustained position of power, the deal for the mild-mannered speaker-elect solidified by Coughlin benefactor, Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin McCabe, going to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the nod from outgoing Governor Chris Christie, the leading cross-the-aisle ally of the South Jersey brain trusted Democratic Party machine.
But met with internal resistance.
It wasn’t that Murphy lacked the leg up – having decided not to inject money into the elections process the way Jon Corzine did – to alter leadership and the composition of the state legislature, Murphy didn’t need to worry about the legislature. He would be the most powerful governor in America on the strength of those cabinet appointments New Jersey’s chief of executive makes. Plus, he would – without any resistance once Sweeney and Jersey City Steve Fulop exited the governor’s race – occupied the top of the Democratic ticket in all 21 counties.
He could walk into office and worry about the xs and os of Sweeney containment later.
It basically worked in the Democratic Primary, although a sizeable chunk of the population bucked Murphy, distributing 100K votes respectively to Jim Johnson and John Wisniewski, two guys running against the party establishment; a precursor arguably to Bob Menendez winning his own primary earlier this month against a no-name candidate who garnered over 130K votes off the line as a progressive standard bearer.
Then came the general election, and the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) decision to gin up the most legislative expensive contest in the nation’s history in an effort to get Sweeney out of office. It didn’t work, and the end result was a nuclearized ironworker Sweeney going back to the Statehouse nursing not only the indignity of Goldman Sachs dude Murphy having whupped him up north for the backing of the party but the added insult of a key Murphy ally – the NJEA – trying to beat him, and Murphy not once ever ordering the teachers to stand down.
Sweeney had something to prove, and those years-long establishment caucus allies who had been through the primary and general elections and had four more years n the clock, agreed with them.
How dare they try to take out Steve.
So now, with less than two weeks to go before the deadline, that same party establishment that had aligned behind Murphy to solidify itself and protect its incumbents everywhere sooner than present less than a unified front and welcome the gained ground of a percolating progressive movement, is bucking Murphy.
The figurehead no longer figures into the equation, at least that was the message this afternoon, as the Assembly and Senate Budget Committees prepared to introduce their version of a budget as an alternative to Murphy’s, eschewing his millionaire’s tax and free community college priorities for a hike on the corporate tax (containing a two-year sunset, as opposed to Murphy’s longer ranging millionaire’s tax) and a scaled down community college pilot, among other changes.
Earlier today, the Governor stood in front of a podium at the train station in downtown Trenton.
Trenton Mayor-elect Reed Gusciora joined him. So did Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes and members of the Governor’s cabinet, in addition to Working Families Chief Analilia Mejia and League of Conservation Voters Captain Ed Potosnak.
So did Ray Greaves, chair of the NJ State Council of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Greaves was ticked.
“I’m a little angry up here today talking about this in New Jersey. [The people]… overwhelmingly supported our Governor and most of the people in the state legislature,” said the labor leader from Bayonne. “It’s appalling that we would have legislators at this time turn around and look the other way, at a time when transit riders need relief. We went through eight years of hell, 36% increase in fares and 90% loss in revenues for NJ Transit. It’s time to rebuild this agency and entity that was once the envy of every other agency ion this country.”
Then he leveled a question at Sweeney and Coughlin and their allies.
“I ask our Democratic leadership in the statehouse: which side are you on?”
It seemed a fair question, but going back to the roots of how the machines run, the bad blood, and those trends in at least the last two election cycles suggesting an opening for well organized, well funded and strongly messaged alternatives to those county organizations that might resist Murphy and a millionaire’s tax, another question lingered.
It went to the Governor.
If the Legislature resists, would he consider backing primary alternatives to those establishment incumbents who appear poised to champion a budget not his own this coming Thursday, siding with those establishment functionaries of his own party sooner than bust a move for the neophyte Governor?
“It’s never occurred to me,” said Murphy. “It’s the 19th. I’m not suggesting this was bad [failed meetings with legislative leadership last Friday]. We were not throwing food at each other. I think at the end of the day we’ll find common ground.”
Yesterday, he said he would veto the legislature’s budget – although he joked at one point that neither he nor anyone else has actually seen it yet – and he remained committed on that front.
“Do I stand by what I said yesterday?” he asked Michael Aron of NJTV. “Yes.”
He stayed focused on his budget as a superior document to the 11th hour option spearheaded by his fellow party members – the substance, instead of the individual personalities.
“Year in year out revenues is what I’m fighting for,” Murphy said. “Sadly – although we still haven’t seen their budget, I believe it’s coming off the fax machine as we speak – it’s the principle missing in the budget the legislature’s fighting for. As we understand it, the legislature’s budget would contain one billion dollars in new revenue, all of which would disappear after two years. I ask how is any commuter supposed to believe we are serious about fixing NJ Transit, which is going to be a multi year challenge, if we don’t have a concrete plan to get us there? How are the people of New Jersey expected to believe that we’re serious about fixing long-term issues without long term revenues.
“This is the mindset I am trying to break here in Trenton,” he added. “It’s one of the reasons New Jersey is in one of the worst fiscal conditions in the country. This is how we dug ourselves into the hole we are in now, and it stops now.”
The question remains, however, whether the culture that predates Murphy, which he most ironically helped restore to power as the chief beneficiary of the Democratic Party line in all 21 counties, sees it as he does, or whether it regards him as merely an invader to a year-in-year-out comfort zone.