Phil Murphy ran for governor in 2017 with a long list of progressive promises: a tax on millionaires, a minimum-wage hike, legal marijuana and more. Four years later, he’s mostly delivered.
So as Murphy seeks reelection, he’s doing so with New Jersey’s liberals squarely in his corner and no Democratic challenger in sight.
Some progressives cite disappointments during Murphy’s first term, like a controversial $15 billion state tax incentive program. But with the governor enjoying high approval ratings three months before the June primary, many are focused instead on down-ballot races and policies they plan to push in a second term.
Since taking office, Murphy has tightened gun laws, approved college financial aid for undocumented immigrants and mandated paid sick leave. Last week alone, he signed a set of bills to decriminalize recreational marijuana, extended a program offering free community college tuition and announced a full payment to the state pension system for the first time in 25 years.
“There has never, ever been a more progressive governor, or a governor who’s been more effective on progressive issues,” said Hetty Rosenstein, longtime state director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest state employees union. “He’s raised so many expectations because of that.”
If he succeeds in November, Murphy would be New Jersey’s first Democratic governor in decades to win reelection. Voters have largely approved of his pandemic response, polls show, and he’s built party support by making peace with the powerful South Jersey Democrats he clashed with earlier in his term.
Republicans say Murphy’s progressive agenda and handling of the coronavirus will ultimately be his downfall, citing a high death rate in nursing homes, borrowing that increased the state’s debt, a bumpy vaccine rollout and business restrictions that put many people out of work.
Candidates vying for the GOP nomination to challenge Murphy include former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Hoboken pastor Phil Rizzo and Atlantic County businessman Hirsh Singh.
“I don’t know any Democrat who doesn’t think our property taxes are too high,” said Ciattarelli, the GOP front-runner. “I don’t know any Democrat who thinks we have a great climate for businesses. He adopted this progressive flag as a matter of political convenience, but at the end of the day, he’s not making the kinds of changes needed to stimulate real economic growth.”
In his annual budget address last week, Murphy said his administration would expand access to affordable health care, invest in schools and issue tax rebates paid for by a new tax on the state’s wealthiest residents.
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“This is the time for us to lean into the policies that can fix our decades-old, or in some cases century-old, inequities,” he said.
A former Goldman Sachs executive who poured millions into his 2017 campaign and served as ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, Murphy hardly fits the mold of a political outsider. He’s managed to brand himself as one because he didn’t rise to power through the Democratic machine that controls many local governments in New Jersey.
The Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, Gloucester County, and a prominent social justice advocate, said Murphy deserves credit for prison reforms, including legislation ensuring that judges consider an offender’s age at sentencing.
Murphy’s administration isn’t without blind spots, Boyer said. His newly assembled cannabis commission has no Black men — the population Boyer said has suffered most from discriminatory drug enforcement policies. But Boyer said Murphy has earned the support of Black voters, and he wants Murphy to move past criminal justice to address economic and educational disparities.
“If reelected, he will be coming in with basically a Black mandate,” Boyer said. “I hope he can be even bolder on some of these issues.”
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Some say Murphy’s environmental policies could also be more aggressive. Murphy pledged all of the state’s electric power will come from renewable energy sources by 2050, and he has announced initiatives to electrify public transportation and build wind farms. He supported banning fracking in the Delaware River Basin and reversed some environmental regulatory rollbacks enacted under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
But the state last year approved construction of a dock that would ship natural gas through a terminal in Gloucester County — a project environmentalists say encourages fracking and that Murphy later vowed to block. Other fossil fuel projects remain underway.
“The most urgent problem facing us is climate change, and we’re still kind of nibbling around the edges,” said Jeff Tittel, head of the state branch of the environmental activist group the Sierra Club. “We have to keep the pressure on him to get the major things accomplished.”
A December deal on a state tax incentive bill to create about $15 billion in credits for businesses drew outrage from some Murphy supporters, particularly those who cheered the governor’s earlier attacks on the program.
Murphy has said the new bill imposes much-needed regulations on a program that became a lightning rod for accusations of corruption and that it will boost small businesses. But progressives saw the deal as Murphy shoring up crucial support from state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and his powerful ally, the South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross. A Murphy-appointed task force had previously investigated whether companies with ties to Norcross abused the program to win overly generous tax breaks. The companies denied wrongdoing, and Norcross has said the credits helped revitalize cities like Camden.
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“People were looking for (Murphy) to maintain a tough stand against party politics,” said Kate Delany, president of the South Jersey Progressive Democrats. “There’s some disappointment.”
Other progressives are fighting a ballot system that they say stacks the deck against party outsiders. In New Jersey, primary candidates endorsed by local party leaders get their names printed on the much-coveted “county line,” grouped with better-known candidates running statewide. A coalition of progressive activists filed a federal lawsuit last month arguing the design gives endorsed candidates an unfair advantage.
Donna Pearson, who won a seat on the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners last year without the support of local Democratic leaders, said she benefited from a growing dissatisfaction with party politics. In her corner of South Jersey, she said, voters felt their elected officials weren’t being held accountable.
But she sees Murphy as similar to her, someone who can stand on his own and is less beholden to political relationships than some previous governors.
“I don’t agree with everything he’s done, but I think he’s done as good a job as he could do,” Pearson said. “Is he a real progressive? I don’t care what he calls himself, as long as he’s getting it done.”