Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.
When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.
There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.
In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.
As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.
Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.
In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.
As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.
Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”
One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.
AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.
While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.
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?
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.
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 candidatevis-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.
It is not until November 7, 2017 when the state of New Jersey can officially vote on a successor to Chris Christie for the office of governor following his two-term maximum in this role. If you ask a number of New Jerseyans, including myself, however, this date could not come sooner, and in the event of an impeachment, it could actually, in theory, come to pass even earlier.
Before we begin singing the Ballad of Chris Christie, however, full disclosure: I voted for Christie in his bid for re-election as governor. I am not particularly proud of this chapter in my history at the polls, but I’ll admit it. I have no excuses for choosing as I did. I can only explain my thinking at the time, and my dominant thought at that moment was, “Who the heck is Barbara Buono anyway?” Buono, his Democratic challenger in 2013, before opting to run for the governorship, had served in the New Jersey General Assembly from the 18th District (the Fightin’ 18th!) from 1994 to 2002, and then in the New Jersey Senate from 2oo2 to 2014.
According to Wikipedia, among Barbara Buono’s notable stances and achievements during her tenure as a lawmaker were sponsoring legislation prohibiting predatory lending, voting for the legalization of medical marijuana (a measure staunchly opposed by Chris Christie), and perhaps all too appropriately given the disposition of her opposition in the gubernatorial election, authored the “Anti-Bullying Law” (more on that aspect of Christie’s character later). Since getting soundly defeated (or as Donald Trump would have it, “schlonged”) in 2013, Buono not only appears to have left politics, but the state altogether, moving to Portland, Oregon. Maybe it was the shame of losing so badly to a Republican in a state that traditionally tends to vote blue. Maybe she just wanted to get as far away from Chris Christie as possible. All I know is I hardly knew Barbara Buono then, and seem to know only marginally more about her now. Oh, well.
Chris Christie depicted himself as a no-nonsense, confrontational sort of governor early on in his tenure. I suppose this was something of a continuation from his time as Chief Federal Law Enforcement Officer in New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, wherein he pledged to make terrorism and public corruption his top priorities. Indeed, some 130 officials at various levels of government were either convicted or pleaded guilty as a result of the work of Christie’s office. Of course, Christie was not above scrutiny or controversy on his end. On the corporate dimension, Chris Christie negotiated a number of deferred prosecution agreements that allowed companies to avoid prosecution with limited or no admission of guilt, and obviously similar lack of public exposure.
Certainly, Christie is not the only prosecutor to make use of this procedure, as in recent years their employment has increased significantly, but it does reflect a nuanced willingness to more privately pursue fraud in the private sector while making a very public show of going after public officials. There were also murmurs about impropriety in his office’s decision to appoint the Ashcroft Group—owned by his former boss, John Ashcroft—as outside monitor in a DPA case against Zimmer Holdings, as well as a stipulation in a DPA deal with Bristol Myers to dedicate $5 million to a business ethics chair at Seton Hall University School of Law, where Christie just happened to go to school. As we’ve seen in the case of Eliot Spitzer, those who make it a point to target the misdeeds of others in an air of self-righteousness might not be without sin in their own right. The idea is worth noting, at least.
At any rate, Chris Christie, like a corruption-fighting white knight, rode his horse (presumably one which could support his weight) right into the Governor’s Office, defeating incumbent Jon Corzine, a man whose later financial dealings—especially those concerning MF Global, a multinational futures broker/bond dealer which went bankrupt and saw $1.2 billion of client account funds “go missing”—would prove to be decidedly and ironically suspicious. Not soon after getting sworn in, however, Christie succeeded in doing something which seems well-suited to his cantankerousness: pissing people off.
Fiscally speaking, Christie vowed not to raise taxes, even though reductions were made to the earned income credit, among other items, as well as nearly $1 billion in budget cuts in 2011, including spending that would otherwise have gone to areas like child care, higher education, Medicaid, museums, nursing homes, and urban aid. So, great—no new taxes, but if you were poor, you were essentially now told to get f**ked. Also part of Chris Christie’s legacy as governor of the Garden State? New Jersey’s credit rating being downgraded nine times during his tenure by Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and Standard & Poor. Nine times! Only Illinois has fared worse on this dimension during this span. But, hey, the man has delivered balanced budgets ever year, right? Yes, but he’s bound by the state constitution to do so, as any other governor would be. This is not an achievement on which to hang one’s proverbial hat.
Other policies and stances of Chris Christie’s, whether based on legitimately held beliefs or designed to burnish his conservative credentials, did not really endear him to those outside the traditional wealthy, white, male Republican base, and however you slice it, Christie has taken positions that at times seem frustratingly contradictory. He has repeatedly cut pensions for public workers, including firefighters and law enforcement, though he has compromised with Democrats when necessary to reform employee pensions and benefits or to pay the state pension fund. He has supported exploration of alternative energy production, yet has rejected permanent bans on fracking, has pulled New Jersey out of an initiative designed to cap and reduce carbon emissions, made it a priority to weaken the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, and settled with Exxon Mobil for environmental damages for less than 5% of the initial figure sought by state lawyers. He has repeatedly vetoed a state minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $8.50. He believes homosexuality is innate and not a “sin,” but has opposed gay marriage. He once was pro-choice, but now opposes abortion. He favors allowing the states to determine applicable gun laws, though he believes in upholding those in place in his state, among the strictest in the nation. On one hand, this all can be construed as Chris Christie possessing nuanced views on the various core issues facing New Jersey. On the other hand, the criticism may be equally, if not more, valid that Christie will express one stance to one audience and a conflicting position to another party. Accordingly, for all his tough talk about wanting to keep Hillary Clinton out of office, and her tendency to waver on positions, it’s a bit of a pot-kettle situation.
To the average New Jerseyan, however, Chris Christie may have been doing a fine job. Certainly, he seemed to be a capable leader in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a storm whose wrath was felt all the way up north in the Garden State and from which parts of the Jersey Shore are just beginning to truly recover. The response of his office, in large part, explained the upward trend in his prospects for re-election, which were more of a coin toss before that point, and come time for voters to choose between he and Barbara Buono, Christie was poised to hold the governor’s seat for a second term. In particular, his working with President Obama and welcoming him to New Jersey to survey Sandy’s damage so close to the election, and his verbal lashing of House Republicans for failing to more expediently approve a relief package for his state, helped boost his approval rating among his constituents.
Moreover, the identity he cultivated as an “outsider” and a no-holds-barred politician made people take notice on a national level, and the earliest musings about Chris Christie as a potential GOP presidential candidate began to manifest. Despite his, you know, lack of political experience and the notion he hadn’t really accomplished much during his tenure as governor of New Jersey. This is the Republican Party we’re taking about, though. As the litany of candidates who vied for the party nomination in advance of this presidential election have indicated, political experience, policy ideas, and general regard for human decency aren’t necessary to apply.
Ah, but there was still that critical second term to traverse, and as the results have borne out, there was plenty of room for Chris Christie’s approval ratings to fall. Christie had already exhibited a questionable decision-making ability in instances such as the 2010 cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core project, which would have created two new tunnels under the Hudson River and a new terminal in New York City for NJ Transit trains. The corpulent governor insisted concerns about cost overruns informed his decision to nix the planned expansion and renovation, but killing the ARC project also meant thousands of jobs were not created and those “tubes” underneath the Hudson, of which their estimated future useful life is only about 20 years, were left unimproved. And in terms of going forward, most of whatever ARC money available that didn’t have to be returned to the federal government has since been spent, and a discussed Gateway Project by Amtrak has yet to be funded. Chris Christie’s move to put the kibosh on the Access to the Region’s Core project was criticized at the time as one of the worst public policy decisions in New Jersey history, and some five years later, it’s hard to argue to the contrary.
But yes, about that second term. When ineptitude wasn’t a hallmark of a particular decision or bit of happenstance of Christie’s administration, as with New Jersey missing out on $400 million of Race to the Top federal education funding due to administrative mishandling of the application, it was political scandal characterized by Chris Christie’s desire to play favorites with those politicians who played ball with him. Though an investigation commissioned by the governor’s office purported to debunk her claims, Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer alleged that more Hurricane Sandy relief funds were offered in exchange for accepting a proposal by the Rockefeller Group to construct an office building in her city. When Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City, refused to endorse Christie in the 2013 election, according to Fulop, numerous scheduled meetings with state commissioners were quickly cancelled, and subsequent requests for meetings were rejected, as retaliation for not endorsing. Thus, whether it was incentive in the form of a quid pro quo, or punishment for not paying lip service, Chris Christie has seemed to operate under a conditional, transactional relationship model, which does little to take the public’s mind off the ugly side of politics.
All these considerations come to a head with the ongoing embroilment that Wikipedia refers to as the “Fort Lee lane closure scandal,” but known colloquially as “Bridgegate.” Let’s set the scene. As with Steven Fulop, Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, opted not to endorse Chris Christie in his bid for re-election. The apparent result? A plot to intentionally use lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as payback. On August 13, 2013, Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, E-mailed David Wildstein, the Port Authority’s director of interstate capital projects, with the simple message, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to which Wildstein replied succinctly, “Got it.” About a month later, on Monday, September 9, 2013, two of three dedicated toll lanes on the upper level of the bridge were closed to local traffic, causing massive congestion and delays. By September 10, Sokolich texted Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority and Christie appointee, about the need for help with the traffic situation, with no apparent response. By September 11, evidence suggests Bill Baroni, Chris Christie, David Samson (chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority and also a Christie appointee), and David Wildstein, together at a commemorative event for 9/11, discussed the deteriorating situation on the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge, but did so in a joking, deprecating fashion, suggesting they knew full well of that situation in advance of this chat. By September 12, John Ma, chief of staff to Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye, tipped off Bergen Record columnist John Cichowski to the idea the lane closures were politically motivated, a notion Cichowski passed on to the local media. It was not until September 13, four days after the initial closures, that Foye ordered the lanes reopened. Four days.
It would be one thing if Chris Christie’s office, his political appointees, and officials at the Port Authority conspired to, say, put cones on Mark Sokolich’s car for four days. It would’ve been pretty stupid revenge, mind you, but it wouldn’t have affected commuters and Fort Lee residents who rely on the George Washington Bridge for transportation. The lane closures were particularly egregious because of the collateral damage of Christie’s and his lackeys’ machination. At least one person died as a direct result of the congestion, with emergency medical services unable to get to an elderly person having a heart event because of the diverted traffic, and there were likely material financial costs from the delays as well. But what seems to be particularly galling to many in the aftermath of Bridgegate is the brazenness of the actors involved. Chris Christie and his partners in crime knew about the closures, laughed about them privately, didn’t tell Mayor Sokolich and others ahead of time about the planned operation, and showed no regard for the public’s safety. It’s a level of arrogance that exceeds even what we might imagine of politicians at their worst. What’s more, for all the goodwill earned by Christie in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in light of his response, with the all the revelations from the criminal investigation into Bridgegate’s central figures, that all has been thrown away. Add to this Christie’s obvious politically motivated backing of Donald Trump, a move that, if intended to curry favor with the Republican presidential nominee in hopes of earning him a vice presidential pick, didn’t succeed, and the plus-sized New Jersey governor has since all but destroyed his credibility as a serious political candidate on a national stage.
As of this writing, closing arguments have been made in the trial of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, each charged with nine counts including conspiracy, deprivation of civil rights, misapplying Port Authority property, and wire fraud. Yes, wire fraud. Of course, prosecution of Baroni and Kelly is important in its own right, but what about the biggest fish of them all? It’s possible that Chris Christie doesn’t get off scot-free in a separate investigation, an official misconduct case to be heard by the Bergen County prosecutor’s office in November of this year. Of course, it would be great if they throw the book at Christie, but more realistically, it would be all-too-appropriate if Christie, the former prosecutor who negotiated a number of deferred prosecution agreements, was forced to take a deal himself. The indignity of it all.
Looking back at Chris Christie’s tenure in its totality, a vote for his re-election seems particularly egregious now. Let my cautionary tale of woe and regret guide you in your decision-making then. Mere visibility alone should not be enough to earn a candidate your vote. In Christie’s case, because he is loud and confrontational, he is very visible. Besides, the guy is rather full-bodied. I mean, seriously—you can’t miss him. But does this make him a good leader? I submit no, especially when his modus operandi involves bullying and intimidation, as with a certain presidential nominee you may have heard of. The popular sentiment is that Chris Christie has tarnished his reputation to the extent he won’t be able to do more than wax political on Fox News or some Glenn Beck vehicle on the national stage. As a concerned New Jerseyan, meanwhile, I am convinced he was worn out his welcome not only across the country, but in his home state. So, though it may be another year until the Garden State chooses his successor, let me be one of the first to wish him well on his time after the governorship. Happy trails, Chris. You won’t be missed.