Phil Murphy took on New Jersey’s Democratic machine. Now he needs it to win.

Murphy will be the first name in the Democratic Party’s line in the June 8 primary to lead machine-assisted tickets and, in some cases, run directly against progressive-backed candidates pushed into the “Siberian ballot.” Attorney General Murphy appointed Gurbir Grewal has campaigned against progressives in a lawsuit they filed earlier this year to try to get rid of that voting system.

“If anything, this is a case study of why these machines should be weaker because you have an extraordinarily powerful governor who still feels the need to dance a certain way for their pleasure,” said Sue Altman, executive director of the progressive New Jersey Working Families Alliance and one of Murphy’s biggest supporters.

These progressives may have had an early and powerful ally in the governor, but they are now experiencing firsthand the difficulty of fundamentally changing a power structure with built-in benefits for incumbents, and where relatively few party bosses – mostly men – some have an elected and others does not overly influence who has a realistic chance of being elected.

The electoral system is one of the most obvious examples of Murphy taking positions that threaten to alienate the progressives who supported him and whom he relied on in his political struggles with Democratic leaders, who tend to be far less liberal than them Activists whose influence grew during the Trump administration.

Although liberal, Murphy did not become governor by working against the political machines. The former Goldman Sachs executive paved his way into office with donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars to county democratic parties across the state, beginning years before it actually ran. Many of these bosses had other candidates in mind for their first election, but when Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop – favored by most North Jersey bosses – dropped his expected candidacy, Murphy capitalized on the deep divisions between North and South Jersey Democrats to become the favorite for the Democratic nomination.

Shortly after taking office in 2018, Murphy went to war against the South Jersey Democratic Machine, which had been a key ally of former Republican Governor Chris Christie. Murphy’s aspiring government launched an investigation into the tens of millions of dollars in Norcross and its allies’ use of tax incentives, which led to a state and federal investigation.

At the same time, the governor was supported by millions in donations from the New Jersey Education Association to a nonprofit called New Direction New Jersey, which essentially functioned as the governor’s political arm. Four years ago, NJEA battled Senate President Steve Sweeney, an ally of Norcross, and backed a Republican against him in a multi-million dollar legislative contest that was the most expensive in New Jersey history.

Things have changed dramatically in the last year.

The investigation has fallen silent. Norcross affiliates, once their tax incentives have been put on hold, have received critical approvals from the Economic Development Authority, the agency that administers the incentives, and a new law signed by Murphy could give businesses billions more in government funding Grant tax breaks. The NJEA has now pumped at least $ 1.25 million into a new Super-PAC controlled by Norcross.

“Liberals who feel betrayed by this should probably work on their expectation management, and I say this as someone who has abused my expectations many times,” said Jay Lassiter, a longtime progressive activist from South Jersey who legalized the rather restrictive law of cannabis called the governor signed “dog shit” earlier this year. “Hopefully when [Murphy] will be re-elected, he will return to [fighting with party bosses] because it was great to watch him shake things up in really meaningful ways. “

Murphy and Norcross spokesmen declined to comment.

In the legislature, Sweeney – a friend of Norcross and his strongest ally in the statehouse – exonerated Murphy. At the start of the governor’s tenure, the Senate and Assembly held joint hearings on the government’s decision to keep a former campaign worker on staff despite allegations of sexual assault on another employee during the 2017 Murphy campaign.

But last year after Sweeney announced with Senate Minority Chairman Tom Kean Jr. that he was forming a non-partisan committee to look into the government’s handling of the pandemic and nursing homes that have killed thousands, several Senate Democrats and protesters resisted Sweeney refrained from sparing Murphy political headaches.

Now the Governor and Senate President share a ticket to vote on June 8th in South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District. And in Camden – where local officials held a press conference in 2019 to tell Murphy to stay out of town because of his attacks on Norcross-affiliated companies’ tax incentives – Murphy shares the county line with machine-assisted Mayor Vic Carstarphen, while three others Mayoral candidates split a column on the far right.

“I suspect Murphy’s personal feelings are that ‘the line’ is not a good thing because that’s really what underpins the political machine in our state, but I think there is only the reality of politics,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, which campaigns against the county line system. “If you are relying on the parties to cast the vote for your election, is this when you want to fight this battle with them? I think we’ll have to wait and see what he does after the election. “

Despite the apparent peace with party bosses, remaining struggles persist, reflecting a democratic divide.

Murphy is pushing legislation to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act, which would expand access to abortion and contraception. But Sweeney and assembly spokesman Craig Coughlin have been reluctant to put it to the vote because it could create a wedge problem in some of the state’s legislative counties.

At the same time, Murphy was fighting with Sweeney and Senator Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), who is himself a political leader in part of North Jersey, to get a Sacco bill that would end mandatory minimum sentences for political corruption as the son of Sacco for many years Girlfriend faces some of these charges.

Murphy is also being pressured from the party’s left.

Immigrant rights groups, often in step with the governor, were deeply frustrated with him. Groups like Make the Road New Jersey have aggressively campaigned for the state to exonerate undocumented immigrants. Murphy recently allocated $ 40 million in remaining CARES Act funds to help thousands of undocumented immigrants with one-time cash benefits of up to $ 2,000, an amount that proponents have referred to as “peanuts.”

A group of progressives are suing the Supreme Court to end the county line system. Among them is Hetty Rosenstein, the recently retired head of the New Jersey Communications Workers of America – the state’s largest public sector union and a key ally of the governor. Now Rosenstein works for Murphy’s campaign as a consultant for progressive coalitions and public relations.

“Many progressives believe that the election design in New Jersey is undemocratic and keep their fingers crossed in favor of candidates chosen by leaders of both parties instead of voters and therefore need to change,” Rosenstein said in a statement. “However, the governor is conducting elections that reflect the current system, not the system we want to exist, and I don’t see how that detracts from the tremendous progressive achievements we have made by working together.”

Despite their frustration with Murphy, the progressives are not writing him off, hoping the peace he made with political leaders, despite being fragile, is a convenience that will collapse shortly after the November elections.

“I continue to hope that in his second term [Murphy] can continue to represent himself and be a reformer, ”said Altman. “I think if he has national ambitions beyond New Jersey, and I don’t know if he does, it is a far more compelling message for a national audience to be a reformer cleaning up New Jersey than New Jersey in a fair one but corrupt work to have order. “

Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

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