In New Jersey, It’s Phil Murphy vs. the Political Machine

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney opposes a “millionaires tax” and has been instrumental in stalling legislation to legalize marijuana. But sure, the state doesn’t have enough money and needs to raid public workers’ pensions. (Photo Credit: Lbiswim/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In politics, corruption is often presumed to be so much of a tradition and so pervasive that at times we become inured to it. As my father is wont to say, “They’re all crooks,” before summarily ending all seeing of, hearing about, and speaking about politics until further notice like the three wise monkeys of lore.

As it frequently manifests itself, the political response to alleged malfeasance on the part of one or more public figures involves members of the opposing party decrying these heinous acts and demanding accountability. The hubris! The outrage! This is unacceptable! That is, until one of the party’s own is caught with his or her proverbial hand in the cookie jar. Then, as the saying goes, all bets are off.

In my home state of New Jersey, meanwhile, even with understanding of a tradition of backroom deals and other less-than-transparent arrangements, one set of circumstances involving misuse of the state’s economic resources is shocking if only because of the breadth of the scandal. Moreover, the resulting war between factions of the same party is striking for its rancor.

At issue are millions of dollars in tax incentives included as part of more than $11 billion facilitated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under Gov. Chris Christie. An audit of the EDA by the state comptroller published earlier this year found that “New Jersey’s lavish corporate subsidy programs operate with little oversight and no evidence of spurring economic growth.” Of particular issue, especially as the news has grabbed headlines from local outlets and even national publications like Politico, are the findings that businesses and individuals linked to insurance executive and Democratic Party boss George Norcross benefited disproportionately from the tax breaks authorized by the NJEDA.

As this opinion piece from the New York Daily News editorial board explains, Norcross is South Jersey, “controlling just about everything in and out of sight. One of his brothers is a congressman; another is managing partner at a big law firm. A solid bloc of loyal state senators are always ready to bend the family’s way.” In other words, Norcross has connections—to put it mildly.

That he would leverage his influence to steer economic benefits to those personal connects is, while again not terribly surprising, nonetheless remarkable for its brazenness and its magnitude. An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that of the $1.6 billion in tax incentives greenlit for capital investment in Camden, Norcross’s hometown, $1.1 billion went to Norcross’s insurance brokerage, his affiliated businesses and charities, and clients of his brother Philip’s law and lobbying firms. Camden also received better than four times as many tax breaks as the combined benefits provided to other designated “growth zones.”

With all due respect to the city of Camden, New Jersey’s poster child for the ravages of income and wealth inequality and thus a city in legitimate need of investment, this reaping of the lion’s share of the EDA’s incentives seems excessive with respect to the way in which it was achieved. It’s especially egregious when considering claims by activists and community developers that the employees coming to work in Camden from the suburbs aren’t really contributing to the local economy. They’re not living there. They’re not spending there. They’re out by five each day, effectively rendering downtown Camden a ghost town. This does not appear to be what the NJEDA’s designs are all about.

In response to findings of abuse of its programs, Gov. Phil Murphy, Christie’s successor, created a special task force to investigate the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. This prompted George Norcross, the good Democrat that he is, to do the logical thing: sue. That’s right—Norcross alleges in a suit that Murphy “unlawfully empowered the task force with powers he did not possess and authorized the retention and payment of New York lawyers who proceeded to commence and conduct an investigation in violation of multiple provisions of New Jersey law.”

To the degree Norcross’s case has any merit is beyond me. From the outside looking in, the aspect of the task force’s lawyers allegedly not being able to practice law in the state of New Jersey could be problematic. There are also questions about what the task force is able to legally do (according to Norcross’s legal team, it can’t issue or enforce subpoenas) and who it can investigate (Norcross and Co. claim that because he isn’t a public official, he is out of bounds). In addition, the plaintiffs in the case have stated they have “made an enormous investment in the revitalization of Camden” and have been “falsely” accused of misconduct.

Norcross’s and his cronies’ purported innocence notwithstanding, their protestations strike one as weak sauce. Realistically, their arguments against Murphy’s task force involve technicalities such as legal standing, not a resounding repudiation of their guilt. And if Norcross’s motives seem petty or suspicious related to this lawsuit, what do we say about fellow Democratic politician Stephen Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate since 2010 and someone backed by Norcross?

Sweeney, born in Camden, has been instrumental, for one, in stalling marijuana legalization legislation which appeared to be on its way to being voted on by if not passing the Senate and Assembly prior to the bombshell revelations of the WNYC/ProPublica report as well as a whistleblower’s account of her employer lying about its relocation plans to secure a tax break. Sweeney also formed a tax incentive committee called the Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies that has its sights set on the very task force created to investigate misappropriation by the EDA. Which, if it supplements the work of the task force is great, but otherwise looks like nothing more than political retribution.

And this is before we get to other criticism of Sweeney for his steering of the state Democratic Party as one of its leaders. Doing a 180 from his position during Christie’s tenure as New Jersey governor, Sweeney has backed off his support of a millionaires tax now that Murphy is in the governor’s seat, echoing Republican talking points. To boot, his proposed “Path to Progress” initiatives have been slammed by public workers who stand to see cuts in their health care and pensions to pay for them while the pensions of other public workers (notably firefighters, law enforcement, and judicial employees) are evidently sacrosanct. That Sweeney has few qualms about bypassing Gov. Murphy to achieve these goals would only seem to speak volumes about dysfunction among New Jersey Democrats.

In all, these events paint New Jersey politics, already murky in its expression, in a harsh light, not to mention they cast a pall over a key victory for Democrats in the Trump era in Gov. Murphy’s triumph over Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. On top of this, they underscore a more global tension between establishment politicians and progressives who are new to the political process or otherwise can be characterized as “outsiders,” a divide which tends to get played up for effect by news media to generate sales and clicks but one that does exist and which shines a spotlight on the roadblocks leftists face from actors on both sides of the political fence in advancing their ideals.

It’s a conflict worth fighting, though everyday voters are still caught in the middle, chiefly poorer New Jerseyans, women, and people of color, distinctions which recognizably aren’t mutually exclusive of one another. If we’re assigning blame, however, the best place to start might be with the persons of George Norcross and Steve Sweeney. After all, they’ve been playing this game for a longer period of time.


It admittedly feels strange to talk about Phil Murphy as the “progressive” politician of the bunch here given that his track record leading up to becoming an elected official wasn’t exactly a grassroots organizer’s dream. Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum, bought his ticket to the gubernatorial general election by opening his personal checkbook and donating generously to the various county wings of the Democratic Party in New Jersey.

Before that, as a prominent Democratic Party donor, his finances were also key to his securing an ambassadorship to Germany under Barack Obama, a tenure that saw him have to weather a diplomatic storm after his negative comments about Angela Merkel and other German officials were made public as part of WikiLeaks’s U.S. diplomatic cables leak. With the memory of Jon Corzine, another ex-Goldman Sachs who ended his run as governor at a mere 33% approval rating, fresh in the minds of New Jerseyans, there was every reason to be wary of Murphy. Especially when his campaign strategy appeared to be little more than running against Donald Trump, not his actual competitor in the gubernatorial race, and his ads involved repeated promises that he “doesn’t owe the insiders anything” and that he’s “got our back”—all delivered with a cheesy smile.

Heretofore, though, the results have been better than perhaps many would’ve expected. Murphy signed a bill banning offshore drilling in state waters. He has also signed into law legislation to automatically register voters at Motor Vehicle Commission offices and other agencies, to close the gender pay gap, and to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, among others, and his Cabinet has been the most diverse in the state’s history.

As with any administration, there has been room for criticism. Murphy has taken a lot of heat from environmentalists for his failure to more strongly oppose the construction of a proposed natural gas power plant in the Meadowlands amid a push for a more robust commitment to renewable energy sources. In addition, Murphy’s administration met with scandal after Al Alvarez, one-time chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, was accused of rape by fellow Murphy campaign staffer Katie Brennan (now chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency) but officials couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say who had hired him or how he was allowed to remain on the payroll for months after the accusations. Not a highlight of Murphy’s tenure, to be sure.

By and large, however, Gov. Murphy has been a marked improvement over Gov. Christie, who, like Gov. Corzine, ended his governorship in ignominy. Going back to the New York Daily News‘s editorial on his spat with George Norcross, too, if their opinion is any indication, it’s the latter who is the fly in the ointment. From the piece:

Phil Murphy is the elected governor of New Jersey and he’s asking crucial questions about who got what in tax breaks from the state Economic Development Authority.

Norcross doesn’t like it one bit, but he can go suck an egg, because the people’s money demands an honest accounting.

That’s really the crux of the matter. Murphy is an elected official accountable to taxpayers. Norcross is not and has materially benefited from the public’s contributions. This is a serious subject deserving more than Norcross’s legal team’s attempts at an end-around and warnings by Camden mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran that Murphy is not welcome in the city until he stops “attacking” it. Think about that. He’s the governor of New Jersey and you’re telling him to stay out. That’s quite a show of chutzpah from South Jersey Democrats toward a member of their own party.

Ditto for Steve Sweeney. He has protected himself better in terms of public opinion relative to Norcross, but as progressives might argue, he’s playing hardball with the budget and advocating for cuts for certain public sector employees in the name of “responsibility” when significant approval exists for raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and legalizing marijuana, potentially viable sources of revenue. Sweeney is making a power play here, seeking to take advantage of Murphy’s rising disapproval from moderate voters. But he is out of step with public opinion on these issues and risks overplaying his hand in advance of a possible state government shutdown this summer, particularly when considering his past support for such a tax during the Christie era.

Political figures should be held accountable regardless of experience and party affiliation. This applies to Phil Murphy, at the top of the New Jersey hierarchy, but equally so to “power brokers” like George Norcross, Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. In an age in which people-powered solutions to political dilemmas are in increasing demand, we don’t need a political machine dominated by a few to dictate our future.

The Problem with Bipartisanship

Josh Gottheimer is co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus and one of the most bipartisan lawmakers in the House of Representatives. These aren’t necessarily things to be touted, though, and his attempts to strong-arm Nancy Pelosi into making rule changes definitely shouldn’t be commended. (Photo Credit: FCC/Wikipedia)

Note: This post was first published before any meetings between Nancy Pelosi and the Problem Solvers Caucus. The two sides have reportedly cut a deal on proposed rule changes.

I’m not the biggest fan of Nancy Pelosi personally. Even I, though, have to balk at the recent attempts to challenge her prospective leadership as Speaker of the House.

In particular, a no-vote of confidence from members of the Problem Solvers Caucus seems to be, well, a problem, or at least a distraction. The Problem Solvers Caucus is a bipartisan group of representatives that seeks to create cooperation among members of both major parties on key policy issues. In practice, it is a centrist committee.

For the purposes of this challenge’s to Pelosi’s authority, Jim Costa (CA), Vicente González (TX), Josh Gottheimer (NJ), Daniel Lipinski (IL), Stephanie Murphy (FL), Tom O’Halleran (AZ), Kurt Schrader (OR), Darren Soto (FL), and Tom Suozzi (NY) are the Democrats who are making their support contingent on the eventual Speaker’s acceptance of certain rule changes.

As Gottheimer, caucus co-chair, identified, these #BreaktheGridlock changes involve 1) legislation going to the House floor for debate and a vote when co-sponsored by at least three-fifths of Congress, 2) an amendment to legislation getting a debate and vote with at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors, and 3) each member of Congress being allowed to introduce a bill for debate and vote on a committee he or she serves on once a congressional term.

In principle, these proposals designed to “break the gridlock” are worth considering in the name of procedural reform. The timing and very public nature of this threat to Pelosi’s leadership, however, as well as the take-it-or-leave attitude accompanying it, are concerning. What’s more, when considered alongside existing feelings that the Democratic Party needs to be taken in a “new direction,” the overall picture is one of party discord at a time when gains in the House should perhaps have the Dems thinking more harmoniously.

What’s additionally striking about this turn of events is that it has come at the behest of members of a caucus that tout their bipartisan credentials, not long after Pelosi herself vowed the House would move toward greater bipartisanship. Of course, this in itself drew criticism elsewhere. That Nancy Pelosi—damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Amid a spirit of partisan acrimony and congressional ineffectiveness, bipartisanship would seem to be exactly what we’d want or need. Everybody gets along, Congress actually gets meaningful things done—sounds good, right? The problem with bipartisanship as an ideal, however, is that it may be overrated, if not counterproductive.

Lew Blank, editor-in-chief of The Outsider, an independent, student-led online publication devoted to telling stories from outside the mainstream media bubble and the two-party binary, wrote in a detailed post last year (with helpful charts and graphs!) about how bipartisanship is, well, a myth. Firstly, there’s the matter of how the goal of bipartisanship tends to reduce matters to “debates” in the name of balance when there should be no room for debate. Blank starts his article thusly:

What America considers a debate is pretty messed up. Apparently, the existence of climate change is a “debate.” Allowing 33,000 Americans to die every year because they can’t afford health care is a “debate.” Continuing to arm ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria is a “debate.”

And yet, there’s one singular issue that seems to read “case closed” in the minds of millions of Americans, both red and blue: bipartisanship. Somehow, we have wound up in a world where saying “we should stop literally arming terrorists” is an opinion, but lauding the glories of bipartisan politics is unbiased and impartial.

On top of this, and more to the point, finding bipartisan legislative solutions tends to involve compromises that skew to the political right. As Blank characterizes this relationship, centrist Democrats often strive for policies that are “both (a) conservative enough to get Republican support, and (b) liberal enough to like.”

Viewing Obama-era policy directives through this lens, however, very few, if any, of them actually ticked both boxes. Either they were too conservative for liberals to like (e.g. extending the Bush tax cuts), too liberal for conservatives to pass or support after Obama was gone (e.g. the Paris Agreement), or neither very liberal nor supported by the GOP (e.g. military expansion that still saw Obama’s critics calling him “soft on terrorism”). The wrench in compromising and finding a middle ground, as many on the left might expect, is the uncompromising position Republicans take on issue after issue. In Blank’s words, their failure to “support anything with even a tinge of progressivism” means trying to bend over backward to appease them is a non-starter.

The true solution for Democrats, then, is to run to the left. Only from this position can they negotiate and get something close to what they really want. Per Blank:

This is compromise 101. If you get an offer of $50 for a painting and you ask for $60 instead, you may come away with a solid $55. If you go the “moderate” route and raise to $51 instead, you’re missing out on a potential four dollars.

What’s more, the statistics seem to bear out that running further to the left is the better strategy from an electoral perspective. How else to explain the enduring popularity of someone like Bernie Sanders and the lingering unpopularity of someone like Hillary Clinton? Of course, popularity and social media fervor don’t necessarily equate to votes cast. Then again, capitulation is not a very sexy approach to attracting voters, especially in the context of a general election, so why not go for the gusto?

Noting the refusal of Republicans to yield on policy matters in recent years, examples of bipartisan cooperation on the part of moderate Democrats might actually be more disconcerting than anything. As alluded to before, increased military spending has continued to be approved by Congress despite the cost of human life and despite the notion this focus on “defense” dwarfs the spending on domestic programs the GOP claims we can’t afford. The Dodd-Frank rollback aided and abetted by “Blue Dog” Dems like Gottheimer also jumps to mind as one of those points of accord between parties that should inspire fear more than confidence. Coming together is all well and good when we’re paving the road to another economic collapse.

For any number of reasons, therefore, bipartisanship may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Not the least of which is, if you ask this writer, that at 14 letters, the word bipartisanship is already too long.


As with “civility,” calls for bipartisanship are only as good as the individual or individuals making such an appeal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell caught flak for an op-ed for FOX News in which he asked whether the Democrats will work with Republicans, or “simply put partisan politics ahead of the country?” The irony was not lost on, er, pretty much anyone who knows McConnell. The Republican senator from Kentucky has been the proverbial poster child for partisan obstructionism in recent years. Accordingly, the prevailing response seemed to be “Merrick Garland” and some sort of invective or gesture not printable in this space. How’s that for bipartisanship, Mr. McConnell?

Nancy Pelosi, in her stated preference to work in a bipartisan manner within Congress and with President Trump, may have been similarly full of shit—at least outwardly. That is, she may genuinely wish to work in a partnership with Trump and the GOP, but knowing his and his party’s demands, this is functionally impossible. In this respect, Pelosi’s conviviality appears to be a show of rationality and goodwill in the face of a White House that lacks it so as to make her and her party look more reasonable. Even in jest, however, the sentiment is one whose sharing has the power to boil progressives’ blood.

I’m a resident of New Jersey’s ninth congressional district, but I’m a friend of a number of progressive-minded residents of the fifth where Josh Gottheimer calls home (by crossing from one town into the next, you’re entering into a different district). And I can tell you this much: while they’re plenty relieved to have someone like Gottheimer rather than someone like John McCann or his predecessor Scott Garrett in office, they’re disappointed in this display of brazenness from the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus.

This isn’t the first time he’s disappointed them either, whether it’s because he voted with the GOP or because he has avoided making his stance clear so as to not risk a backlash. On one hand, there’s the political “reality” that he represents a district which has its clearly blue and red segments, so his bipartisan mentality may have its advantages.

On the other hand, as a Democratic supporter, it makes you wonder what lines someone like Gottheimer won’t cross. A number of these friends either voted to endorse him or campaigned for him in the midterms. Their reward? Little, if any, expressed gratitude and an overt attempt to undermine their party’s leadership. It should be no surprise that there’s already talk of wanting a primary challenge to Gottheimer’s seat in the House. For my part, I think all incumbents should be challenged as a matter of procedure and because it makes for better party platforms, but I sympathize with this desire.

Though it may go without saying at this point, there’s a financial aspect to this effort to contest Pelosi’s leadership heretofore unmentioned. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept reports, political/corporate consultant Mark Penn and No Labels, a bipartisan group funded by wealthy donors, are the driving force behind this revolt. Gottheimer and Penn, described by Grim as “one of the most toxic and notorious partisan warriors the Democratic Party has produced in the past three decades,” have a history together dating back to the Bill Clinton White House.

Members of no Labels, described by critics as “aggressively” centrist, have had an ax to grind against Pelosi for some time now. While they may have softened their position to make her Public Enemy #1—when in doubt, Bernie Sanders makes a convenient target—that ill will has evidently lingered.

There’s ample room for debate whether or not Nancy Pelosi, a seeming epitome of the “old guard” of Democratic Party leadership, is the right person for the role of Speaker of the House come January. Certainly, though, this attack on her from the Problem Solvers Caucus is one to be disparaged, as their insistence on “breaking the gridlock” purely as a function of their moderate ideology rings hollow.

In all, the Democrats’ commitment to bipartisanship without any show of good faith from the Republican Party is a questionable tack to take. It’s bad negotiating on top of poor electoral strategy, and its effectiveness as a tool to rally the base is similarly suspect. With the Dems needing a big win in 2020 to continue their momentum, that’s a problem.

The Bob Menendez Conundrum

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For a candidate with superior legislative experience and supposedly stronger “Jersey values,” Bob Menendez is awfully compromised by his ethical failings. That fellow New Jersey Democrats rallied behind him so quickly after his criminal trial speaks to a dysfunctional political process in his home state and with the Democratic Party at large. (Photo Credit: Benedikt von Loebell/World Economic Forum/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Though you probably don’t need a reminder, in 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Despite getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton overall, Trump won enough states—and the right states, at that—to secure victory under the current system. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s lack of experience in public office, his moral failings, and his platform predicated on demonization of “the other” were negligible next to their dislike of Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption.

Pundits and average voters alike (rightly) have criticized this viewpoint in the endless postmortem dissection of the election to follow. But the notion remains that Americans, jaded about the country’s politics and/or susceptible to political rhetoric, viewed these candidates on par with one another. This, despite Clinton’s obviously superior comprehension of D.C.’s workings and her message—however genuine—that “love trumps hate.” Trump’s triumph seemed to be a clear signal to establishment politicians that voters are fed up with the status quo and are willing to roll the dice on an unpolished outsider, even if it risks further damaging the institutions they regard as broken.

It’s 2018 now and the midterms are fast approaching. As evidenced by the race for Bob Menendez’s seat in the Senate, though, little has changed in the Democrats’ approach to winning elections. At a time when winning back the House and/or Senate is a priority for the Democratic Party, it bears wondering whether history will repeat itself and the Dems will find themselves on the losing end once more, even with apparent momentum.

First, a little background re Menendez. Back in June, in a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about how Menendez was set to garner the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey’s Senate seat up for grabs this November, and how his nomination serves as a symbol of how “calcified” the party really is. For Greenwald and numerous New Jerseyans, the issue with Menendez, who is seeking a third term in the Senate and is a veteran of Congress of 26 years, is his—how shall I put this?—questionable attention to ethics.

As Greenwald details, the public integrity unit of the Obama administration’s Justice Department began prosecution of Sen. Menendez in 2015, bringing him up on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. Allegedly, Menendez accepted lavish gifts and donations from friend and supporter Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist,  in exchange for helping Melgen resolve disputes with federal health agencies, secure contracts, and obtain visas for three of his female “associates.”

Ultimately, the case against Menendez was dismissed because of a hung jury, but as Greenwald characterizes this situation, the New Jersey senator benefited from federal bribery statutes diluted “to the point of virtual impotence” by the Supreme Court over the years. Without the presence of a “smoking gun,” as several jurors in the case cited in their refusal to convict, convictions of public officials are “close to impossible to obtain.” The Trump DOJ, as apparently litigious and vindictive as it is, opted not to re-try Menendez. All of this occurred amid Menendez receiving a public admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting and failing to disclose gifts, effectually bringing discredit to a legislative body that hasn’t been all too credible of late, especially in the minds of everyday Americans.

And yet, as Greenwald explains, Menendez’s fellow Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, then-governor-elect Phil Murphy, state senate president Steve Sweeney, then-incoming State Assembly president Craig Coughlin, and influential party leader George Norcross, were quick to rally around him. Thus, with an advantage in party support and finances, any primary challenge was all but a non-starter.

It bears highlighting that Greenwald criticizes more than just Menendez’s ability to skirt convictions owing to lax bribery statutes, and that his fault-finding is indicative of larger reservations about the Democratic Party on a national level. For one, as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Menendez is an influential and outspoken Iran hawk, and during George W. Bush’s tenure, he voted with Republicans to authorize the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which later would be deemed unconstitutional. Menendez also has been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for his trouble, has received donations from AIPAC supporters and officials, including significant sums for the costs of his legal defense.

Greenwald sums up his case against Menendez thusly:

This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.

Whether New Jerseyans outside the progressive vanguard are fully aware of Bob Menendez’s profile as a U.S. senator is a matter of debate. His very public corruption charges, on the other hand, are fresh in the minds of voters, and likely explain why Menendez performed relatively poorly against Lisa McCormick, a virtual unknown, in the Democratic Party primary. It also likely explains to a large extent why a recent Stockton University (GO OSPREYS!) poll has the race between Menendez and his Republican opponent Bob Hugin essentially in a dead heat.

So, who is Bob Hugin? Hugin grew up in Union City, NJ, and attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, later earning an MBA from University of Virginia. He also served as an active duty infantry officer in the 70s and 80s, and a reserve officer after that. In terms of his professional life, Hugin has worked at J.P. Morgan, and most recently, spent close to two decades with Celgene Corporation, a biotechnology company which manufactures drugs for cancer and other chronic illnesses.

As for Hugin’s positions on the issues, among other things, he supports the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, increased domestic production of oil and natural gas, opposing “sanctuary cities” and securing our borders, enhancing our vetting process for immigrants, increased military spending, school choice, extraditing Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard as part of relations with Cuba, and accountability for North Korea given any denuclearization agreements. Much of Hugin’s platform, meanwhile, lacks specificity, particularly when, say, addressing New Jersey’s finances or the state’s health care. While he may appear more socially moderate than someone like Donald Trump, his stances are, on the whole, generic conservative Republican.

Moreover, Hugin is not without unsavory elements in his past. At Princeton, he fought antidiscrimination protection for gays, and later opposed making an all-male eating club co-ed, describing a lawsuit at the time to overturn the gender exclusivity policy as “politically correct fascism.” Hugin says his views have “evolved” since then. Additionally, as CEO of Celgene, Hugin oversaw significant price increases in cancer drugs. Hugin and the company have defended these increases as necessary to offset expenses, but consumer advocates have accused them of “gaming the system” to prevent generics from reaching the market and artificially keeping revenues high. In an era when executive behavior is under increasing scrutiny, this is not a good look.

For all Bob Hugin’s baggage, however, given how ethically compromised Bob Menendez is perceived to be, it’s hard for him to connect in his attacks on Hugin’s character in a meaningful way. How can one point fingers about the other’s greed when he himself was accused of accepting lavish gifts? Even the indignation about the excesses of Big Pharma seems misplaced considering Menendez has received over $900,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of his legislative career. These monies include 2012 donations from Celgene employees; Menendez was third-highest in Congress in donations from Celgene employees that election cycle. Bob, meet Bob. Pot, meet kettle.

It is no surprise that nearly all of the content of the political ads between Hugin and Menendez has been negative, attack-oriented fare rather than substantive reasons to vote for either candidate. As it concerns the latter individual, the strategy seems to be a shrug and a “take me as I am” attitude, much as it was with Hillary Clinton and the outrage about her E-mails and other scandals, however disproportionately they may have figured into the 2016 election. For most Democratic voters this election cycle, it means biting the proverbial bullet and casting their ballot for Menendez or staying home and risking losing a Senate seat to the Republicans. Electorally speaking, it’s the equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place.


In making allusions to Clinton vs. Trump, I recognize that different factors were in play than with Menendez vs. Hugin. Though Hillary and her supporters might’ve been quick to accuse her critics of sexism, gender bias almost certainly had an impact on the race. There also hasn’t been anything close to the magnitude of what happened with James Comey and his fateful letter to Congress—though it’s still early, mind you. Plus, there’s the obvious contrast in the levels of the races being run; Clinton/Trump was a national race for the presidency, while Menendez/Hugin is a state race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. For what it’s worth, Bob Hugin (thankfully) isn’t Donald Trump, to boot.

Differences aside, the essence of the conflict for potential Democratic voters is the same: as with Clinton and Trump, an experienced Democratic Party politician may lose to a Republican with no history of holding public office who touts his ability to create jobs (which he had to do as a function of running a business) as a crowning achievement. In Bob Menendez’s case, it’s particularly bad given a) New Jersey tends to vote “blue,” b) the president, a Republican, is largely unpopular, and c) the state just lived through two terms of Republican Governor Chris Christie, also largely unpopular.

I’m not suggesting it should be a walk-over for Menendez necessarily, and you may well dispute the predictive accuracy of the Stockton University poll or any similar poll. As some observers might argue, however, Menendez and his campaign waited a while to get into the fray with political advertisements, allowing Bob Hugin to strike first. In a blue state like New Jersey, Bob Menendez would be expected to have a lead, even if slight. An effective tie is vaguely embarrassing, and is downright disturbing to those leaning left with visions of “flipping” the House and Senate.

I’m also not suggesting Democrats, independents, and others with qualms about Menendez should necessarily choose otherwise or just stay home either. While I might strongly suggest that my fellow New Jerseyans not vote for Hugin, their vote is their business. Should Hugin end up as the victor, though, blame should be placed primarily on the shoulders of Bob Menendez and his campaign, not his constituents. The onus should be on the candidate to make the case to voters why they should choose him or her, rather than accusing or shaming voters for their choices. Sure, greater turnout should be encouraged. Pointing the finger at average voters who have to work and/or may not have much concern for politics seems like a poor tack to take, meanwhile, notably when both parties are yet more unpopular than individual politicians.

At any rate, voters in New Jersey and other states deserve better than to feel forced to cast their ballots for candidates they feel hard-pressed to endorse without meaningful and robust primary challenges and without room for serious debate. And they shouldn’t have to worry they are giving their implicit consent and reinforcing the bad political strategy of the major political parties with their vote. In the grand scheme of things, Bob Menendez is just one candidate in one race. But his situation is representative of a larger dysfunction within American party politics that beckons substantive reform.

My Big Problem with Phil Murphy

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Oh, Phil Murphy, you and that smile for the commercials. (Image Credit: Phil Murphy/YouTube)

I get it: Phil Murphy is probably going to win the Democratic Party primary in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race. As Graham Vyse, writing for New Republic tells it, A Former Goldman Sachs Executive Is Running Away With This Year’s Most Important Race for Democrats.” Citing Quinnipiac poll data, he notes that Murphy was 17 points ahead of John Wisniewski, his closest competitor, as of last month, and even with more than half of voters polled identifying as undecided, that’s a significant margin given the primary election is now less than a month away. Indeed, the consensus opinion from experts seems to be that the race for the Democratic Party nomination is Murphy’s race to lose, and as Vyse muses, there is as much to say for him as there is to say against his rivals.

Though candidates like Wisniewski and Jim Johnson are painting themselves as progressive alternatives, the article tells of Phil Murphy as someone who agrees at least in principle with progressives on a number of issues, including a $15 minimum wage, improved environmental protections, a more progressive tax system, more responsible banking, and stronger gun control regulations. Aside from his stated policy stances, reference is even made to his personality and his willingness to shake hands and take selfies with everyone in a given venue. Moreover, with Democrats in control of both the State Assembly and State Senate, and with party members nationally struggling to win races at the gubernatorial level of late, it is argued that for the Democrats, as “desperate” as they are, and with Murphy being a “sufficiently progressive” candidate, “maybe it’s just as well” that the kind of progressive spirit that won Bernie Sanders such popularity among young voters hasn’t quite taken hold in New Jersey and that being a former Goldman Sachs doesn’t disqualify him from winning the race. A win is a win, right?

Maybe I’m being a bit naïve here, but what exactly does it mean to be “sufficiently progressive?” Does that mean you, say, support only the decriminalization of marijuana as opposed to its legalization? Are you against fracking only on weekends and holidays? Do you think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad but consider NAFTA in its current form “a’ight?” The notion of a candidate being sufficiently progressive is quite a distinction for Graham Vyse and others to be making, not least of which because it is a subjective assessment. By this token, the idea of sufficient progressivism would appear to be dependent, to a large extent, on one’s circumstances and where he or she fares in the polls. During the 2016, Hillary Clinton repeatedly tried to distinguish herself from her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders by referring to herself as a “progressive who gets things done.” In this context, “sufficiently progressive” would appear to mean progressive enough that she can draw enough support from Sanders supporters and independents without alienating prominent donors or losing her the race. Well, um, it was a nice idea while it lasted.

While not of the magnitude as a presidential election, once again, with the New Jersey gubernatorial election, we have a situation where the Democratic Party nomination is all but assured (in this case, for Phil Murphy), and projections indicate Democrats should carry the day come November. Of course, the specifics are a little different with the race for New Jersey’s next governor, as rather than picking a successor to Barack Obama, a man who, through no conscious effort of his own, inspired feelings of division, New Jerseyans will be choosing someone to replace Chris Christie, whose approval ratings are in the dumps, whose legacy is tainted by Bridgegate, who failed badly in his bid to win the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination—spending a good bit of time away from the state of New Jersey in the process, mind you—and who has since become more or less a shill for Donald Trump, the President who evidently denigrates the office he holds at every turn. In addition, New Jersey tends to vote blue, as they did in this most recent presidential election, coming out for Hillary at a clip of around 55% to Trump’s 41%. There’s no chance that a GOP candidate can upset Murphy, right?

Pardon my cynicism, but wasn’t Clinton supposed to be a shoo-in with Trump’s campaign in disarray and with all the things he did and said leading up to the election that were supposed to disqualify him? Sure, FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress about re-opening the investigation into Hillary’s finances and revelations about the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were contributing factors in her electoral defeat. I mean, just ask her—she’ll tell you. Still, complacency from a campaign and its supporters alike can be a difference-maker for the associated candidate, and while Kim Guadagno, the presumptive front-runner on the GOP ticket in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, is not an odds-on favorite based primarily on her association with Christie as his lieutenant governor, to start coasting at this point can be dangerous. We saw the unexpected happen in the United Kingdom when Brexit referendum voters opted—narrowly, but still—to Leave the European Union. We may yet see it if Marine Le Pen manages to upend Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election. To reiterate, the New Jersey gubernatorial race is not of the same echelon as a national election, and the details are different, notably concerning the incumbents in each instance.

All this aside, and even if his primary victory is all but assured, to think that Phil Murphy is unassailable in the general election may be an ultimately specious mentality for Democrats to take in advance of November. Back in January, Alan J. Steinberg, writing for The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey-based newspaper, opined that Kim Guadagno isn’t such a dark horse candidate vis-à-vis Murphy. As Steinberg reasons, “conventional wisdom” dictates that Murphy should win based New Jersey’s history as a Democratic state and the guilty-by-association political albatross hanging around the neck of his likely Republican rival. However, this, Steinberg argues, underestimates the positive assets Guadagno brings to the table as a communicator, as a political candidate aware of the issues facing her state, as a problem-solver, as a professional, and as a public official. Not only this, but Guadagno contrasts on a number of key points with Phil Murphy—and in ways that may work to her benefit.

For one, while Kim Guadagno owns a distinguished record of public service, Phil Murphy does not. As Alan Steinberg profiles, Murphy served without significant achievement in the roles of chair of former governor Richard Codey’s New Jersey Benefit Task Force and as U.S. ambassador to Germany. Indeed, Murphy’s greatest contributions seem to be directly to the Democratic Party in terms of securing donations as DNC National Finance Chair from 2006 to 2009—a role which he began by tapping into his list of contacts at his Ivy League alma maters and Goldman Sachs—and as a personal donor to various Democratic Party committees. That’s not even remotely the same thing. Moreover, while Guadagno may be burdened by her association with Chris Christie, Phil Murphy’s ties to Goldman Sachs stand to hurt him in the arena of public opinion. I’ll let Steinberg explain in his own words:

Murphy’s career successes were achieved at Goldman Sachs, the ultimate symbol of American oligarchy. And it is this perception of “Murphy, the Oligarch” that constitutes his ultimate political albatross, especially when it pertains to lifestyle.

Guadagno, her husband, New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Michael Guadagno, and their three sons live a decidedly nonostentatious middle-class lifestyle. By contrast, Murphy, his wife Tammy and their children, during his tenure as ambassador to Germany, lived a lifestyle right out of the former Robin Leach television series, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” This lifestyle was vividly portrayed by Agustin C. Torres in articles in the Jersey Journal.

We are living in an era of a growing anti-oligarchical mood, as evidenced by the surprising showing of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Murphy is well aware of this. The oligarchy issue could result in a low turnout for Murphy among Sanders voters.

Rank-and-file voters tend not to like rich candidates who throw their money around—who would’ve thought? Certainly, in the eyes of New Jersey progressives, the subject of how Murphy has used his finances has been a bone of contention. Back in June of 2016—almost a year-and-a-half before the gubernatorial election—Murphy’s first television ad began airing in the Garden State. As Democratic rival for the nomination Jim Johnson has highlighted, Murphy has already spent upwards of $10 million on his campaign before even getting to the primary, raising questions about his professed desire to institute campaign finance reform and, by virtue of this, his commitment to progressive values. For those aforementioned Sanders voters, this smacks of a candidate buying the nomination, a sore subject after Hillary Clinton, big-ticket fundraiser in her own right, had a network of support from Democratic leaders and superdelegates at her disposal as the race was just beginning. Even if the charge against Murphy is arguably somewhat overblown given he and Clinton, or for that matter, fellow Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine, are obviously not the same person, can you blame Sanders voters and other progressives for having such a strong reaction when getting money out of politics is one of their top concerns?


As a Sanders voter in my own right, the amount of money injected into the New Jersey gubernatorial race by Phil Murphy for Phil Murphy is not exactly endearing, nor is his legacy as a Goldman Sachs executive. I suppose I feel roughly the same way about this aspect of his personal history in advance of June’s primary as I did Hillary Clinton’s own connections to Goldman Sachs as a paid speaker in advance of the Democratic Party primary last year— a very, very well paid speaker. In fact, I still wonder what was so potentially damning within the transcripts of those speeches that she refuses to release them, like Donald Trump clutching to his tax returns like a baby to its mother. Concerning Murphy specifically, I also find it suspicious that various political and non-political—well, at least not expressly political—organizations have apparently been lining up for months to shower him with their endorsements. As with Clinton, there never seems to be proof of a quid pro quo, and in Murphy’s case, I don’t know that he did or even would donate to these organizations from his personal wealth for the purpose of securing much-desired public support. If anything, perhaps this says more about the state’s political landscape than it does about Phil Murphy, though to be fair, it’s not like he seems intent on bucking the trend.

And yet, over and over again, I keep hearing about how Phil Murphy is a good guy. In a November 2016 New York Times profile on Murphy written by David W. Chen and cited by Graham Vyse in his own article, he is depicted as a candidate who “oozes affability, remembers the tiniest details about people he has met and quickly owns up to his missteps.” He also has been engaging as a participant in town-hall-style political forums, actively involved in his campaign’s canvassing efforts across New Jersey, and the kind of guy who will shake hands with as many people as possible before walking out the door. He’s punctual. He worked his way up from a low household income. He has the backing of both Cory Booker and Robert Menendez. Maybe I’m wrong about Murphy. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Democratic groups in the state of New Jersey have so enthusiastically and so rapidly coalesced in backing him. Maybe I’m just being cynical for the sake of being cynical.

And yet. Irrespective of his finances, his history with Goldman Sachs, or his outward personality, I still have reservations about Phil Murphy as a candidate, and I’ll (finally) tell you why. Much as I’ve wondered how much national Democratic Party leadership “gets it” when it comes to owning up to strategic miscues (see also “Hillary Clinton, 2016 presidential campaign”) and forging a path forward for the party structurally (see also “Debbie Wasserman Schultz on grassroots candidates”), I wonder whether Murphy truly appreciates the unique challenges that face the state of New Jersey, and with this, whether he’s even running in a way that acknowledges he is campaigning for the seat of governor, and not something larger as his would-be predecessor Chris Christie did.

From that very first TV spot which aired back in June 2016, entitled “Honor,” Phil Murphy’s flair for the dramatic shines through. Standing in a small room full of people of different backgrounds, he talks about living paycheck to paycheck before putting himself through college, building a career, and learning how economies grow and create jobs. So he is running for governor of the state of New Jersey to reward the hard work of its constituents with better jobs, a higher minimum wage, and equal pay for equal work. And before proclaiming that he will have your back as New Jersey’s governor, he firmly boasts that he doesn’t owe the insiders anything. That’s Phil Murphy, progressive champion and political outsider for you. Please, please—all this applause is embarrassing!

Since then, though, the ads have continued, but with all the same fanfare and stock footage of smiling, industrious people, and yet few specifics on what he would accomplish beyond the platitudes he has already espoused. Special interest politics has failed our state. We’re going to grow the middle class. We need an economy that works for all of us. Make millionaires pay their fair share. Stop hedge fund managers from ripping us off. Affordable college. This is all great, but how? Beyond the formation of a public bank in the state of New Jersey, very little is said about what particular policies Murphy would effect if he were governor of the Garden State. The only thing I’m certain of is that Phil Murphy doesn’t owe the insiders anything, and that he’ll have our back—and that’s only because it has been drilled into my head with every commercial.

When he’s not not giving specifics, meanwhile, Phil Murphy is spending advertising money not to denounce his biggest Republican rival or even his biggest Democratic rival, but Donald Trump. Now, don’t get me wrong—I enjoy a good Trump-bashing as much as anyone; in fact, I do it pretty regularly on this blog. Still, I’m not running for governor—Phil Murphy is. As such, I feel like he should be speaking to Chris Christie’s failed leadership more than anyone else’s, if he indeed references anyone’s record outside his own. Here’s Exhibit B, a spot titled “Betrayed.” Yes, Donald Trump’s ramped-up immigration enforcement is a blight on our nation. Yes, “alternative facts” are stupid. Yes, deep down, I believe we are “better than this.” Unless we are ardent Trump supporters, however, we already know and subscribe to these ideas. Murphy isn’t telling us anything new, nor is he describing anything any other Democratic governor wouldn’t have to deal with. And he’s not talking enough about certain issues that are particularly relevant to New Jersey voters, including the serious pension shortfall facing the state, concerns about our transportation infrastructure, funding for schools and higher education alongside debates about school choice and testing, and the ever-present preoccupation with property taxes, consistently the highest in the nation. So, while Phil Murphy is busy defending us from the machinations of Donald Trump, who’s actually going to be fixing the problems he inherits from the Christie administration? The office of governor is a full-time job, in case you are unaware, Mr. Murphy, sir.

See—this is where not having a more competitive primary is potentially very dangerous, and beckons genuine reform. Democratic leaders in New Jersey, as they did for Hillary Clinton in the general election, view the quick consolidation of support across the state as an asset, as it shows a sign of strength for the party. For a significant portion of New Jerseyans, however, this is evidence of a political “machine” and of a “rigged” system, and this threatens to turn off these valuable voters for this election, if not longer. In turn, if Democrats and independents don’t come out in force for Murphy come November, and the supposed wide margin between him and Kim Guadagno or another GOP candidate doesn’t turn out to be the blowout many experts anticipate it will be, this “coasting until after the primaries” strategy could backfire. At any rate, it risks the prospect of starting to undo the havoc wrought by Chris Christie. You know, assuming there is a legitimate plan to do this beyond not owing the outsiders anything and having our back.

To bring this to a close, and to repeat, Phil Murphy may be more than the sum of his wealth and his experience in the financial sector, and may have a legitimate plan to deal with the various crises facing the state of New Jersey. In spite of what Graham Vyse and like-minded individuals may insist about him being “sufficiently progressive,” though, and as much as the Democrats could use a win at the state level, victory isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all when the wrong policies may not only be detrimental to voters, but may cost the party in the months and years to come. Jon Corzine’s tenure as governor ended in ignominy and scandal, paving the way for loudmouth Chris Christie to swagger his way to the head of New Jersey’s government. Chris Christie, given his obsequious loyalty to Donald Trump and the sheer brazenness behind the bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, is likewise carrying out the end of his term under a dark cloud of disgrace, and a bigger cloud at that. Eventually, Murphy is going to have show us something beyond rehearsed lines from his commercials and that cheesy smile he forces from time to time. If he doesn’t, he may find it hard to govern—if he even it makes it that far.