Murphy will be the first name on the Democratic Party line in the June 8 primary, heading up machine-backed tickets and, in some cases, running directly opposite progressive-backed candidates pushed into “ballot Siberia.” The attorney general Murphy appointed, Gurbir Grewal, has sided against progressives in a lawsuit they filed this year seeking to eliminate that balloting system.
“If anything, this is a case study in why these machines should be weaker, because you have a governor who’s extraordinarily powerful who still feels a need to dance a certain way for their pleasure,” said Sue Altman, executive director of the progressive New Jersey Working Families Alliance and one of Murphy’s biggest supporters.
Those progressives may have had an early and powerful ally in the governor, but they’re now experiencing first-hand how difficult it is to fundamentally alter a power structure with built-in advantages for incumbents, and where relatively few party bosses — mostly men, some elected and some not — exercise outsized influence over who has a realistic chance of getting elected.
The ballot system is one of the most obvious examples of how Murphy has taken positions that threaten to alienate the progressives who have supported him and who he’s relied on in his political battles with the Democratic bosses who tend to be far less liberal than the activist left whose influence grew during the Trump administration.
Though liberal, Murphy didn’t become governor by working against the political machines. The former Goldman Sachs executive paved his way into office with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Democratic county parties around the state, beginning years before he actually ran. Many of those bosses had other candidates in mind for their first choice, but once Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop — favored by most North Jersey bosses — dropped his expected candidacy, Murphy exploited the deep divisions between North and South Jersey Democrats to become the favorite for the Democratic nomination.
Not long after taking office in 2018, Murphy went to war with the South Jersey Democratic machine, which had been a key ally of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy’s nascent administration launched an investigation into the use of tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives by Norcross and his allies that resulted in state and federal investigations.
At the same time, the governor was backed by millions of dollars in donations from the New Jersey Education Association to a nonprofit called New Direction New Jersey that essentially acted as the governor’s political arm. Four years ago, NJEA battled with Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Norcross ally, and supported a Republican against him in a multimillion dollar state legislative race that was the costliest in New Jersey history.
Things have changed dramatically over the last year.
The investigations have gone silent. Norcross-linked companies, their tax incentives once put on hold, have gotten key approvals from the Economic Development Authority, the agency that administers the incentives, and a new law signed by Murphy could give businesses billions more in state-backed tax breaks. The NJEA, meanwhile, has pumped at least $1.25 million into a new super PAC controlled by Norcross.
“Liberals who feel betrayed by this should probably work on their expectations management, and I say that as someone who’s mismanaged my expectations many times,” said Jay Lassiter, a long-time progressive activist from South Jersey who called the fairly restrictive cannabis legalization law the governor signed earlier this year “dog shit.” “Hopefully when [Murphy] gets reelected, he’ll go back to [fighting with party bosses] because it was great watching him shake things up in a really meaningful way.”
Spokespersons for Murphy and Norcross declined to comment.
In the Legislature, Sweeney — a Norcross‘ friend and his strongest ally in the Statehouse — has eased up on Murphy. Early in the governor’s term, the Senate and Assembly held joint hearings into the administration’s decision to keep a former campaign worker on staff despite allegations of sexual assault by another staffer during Murphy’s 2017 campaign.
But last year, after Sweeney announced with Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. that he would form a bipartisan committee to look into the administration’s handling of the pandemic and nursing homes, where thousands died, several Senate Democrats resisted and Sweeney reneged, sparing Murphy the political headache.
Now, the governor and Senate president are sharing a ticket on the June 8 ballot in South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District. And in Camden — where local officials in 2019 held a press conference to tell Murphy to stay out of town because of his attacks on local Norcross-linked comapnies’ tax incentives — Murphy is sharing the county line with the machine-backed mayor, Vic Carstarphen, while three other mayoral candidates share a column in far off to the right.
“I suspect that Murphy’s personal feelings are that ‘the line‘ is not a good thing because that is really what undergirds the political machine in our state, but I think there’s also just the reality of politics,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy who advocates against the county line system. “If you are counting on parties to get the vote out for your election, is this the time you want to have that battle with them? I think we have to wait and see what he does after the election.”
Despite the apparent peace with the party bosses, residual fights remain that reflect a Democratic divide.
Murphy is pushing the Legislature to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act, which would expand access to abortions and contraception. But Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin have been hesitant to post it for a vote because it could inject a wedge issue into some some state legislative districts.
At the same time, Murphy’s fighting with Sweeney and state Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), himself a political boss in part of North Jersey, over a Sacco bill that would end mandatory minimum sentences for political corruption offenses while the son of Sacco’s longtime girlfriend faces some of those charges.
Murphy is also facing pressure from the party’s left flank.
Immigrant rights groups, often in lockstep with the governor, have been deeply frustrated with him. Groups like Make the Road New Jersey have aggressively lobbied for the state to provide cash relief for undocumented immigrants. Murphy recently allocated $40 million in what‘s left of eligible CARES Act money to help thousands of undocumented immigrants with one-time cash benefits of up to $2,000, an amount that advocates have called “peanuts.”
A group of progressives is suing in state Superior Court to end the county line system. Among them is Hetty Rosenstein, the recently-retired head of the New Jersey Communications Workers of America — the state’s largest public workers union and a key ally of the governor. Now Rosenstein is working for Murphy’s campaign as an adviser for progressive coalitions an outreach.
“Many progressives believe that the New Jersey ballot design is undemocratic and puts the thumb on the scale in favor of candidates chosen by leaders of both parties, instead of by voters, and therefore needs to change,” Rosenstein said in a statement. “However, the Governor is running in an election that reflects the system that currently exists, not the system that we want to exist, and I do not see how that fact diminishes the tremendous progressive accomplishments we’ve achieved by working together.”
Despite their frustration with Murphy, progressives aren’t writing him off and are hoping the peace he’s made with the political bosses, though fragile, is one of convenience that will crash shortly after the November election.
“I remain hopeful that in his second term [Murphy] can continue to portray himself and be a reformer,” Altman said. “I think that if he has national ambitions beyond New jersey, and I don’t know if he does … being a reformer who cleans up New Jersey is a far more compelling message to a national audience than having New Jersey in fair but corrupt working order.”
Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.