NEWARK, N.J. — On a cool evening in a city park, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told a cheering crowd that electing him for a second term would mean leaving behind the ugly politics of “us vs. them.”
“Those days are over,” Murphy told the Democrats and union members who gathered last weekend for the rally in Weequahic Park. “It is sunrise in New Jersey.”
Former President Barack Obama joined Murphy on stage a moment later, saying the governor’s first-term accomplishments like hiking the minimum wage, enacting paid sick leave, and investing in child care have made the state a fairer place.
“Phil’s been busy!” Obama told the crowd. “He’s done the work.”
Murphy’s Republican challenger, former assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, has described Murphy’s policies as extreme and said the state’s cost of living and government spending have made it a less desirable place to live and work. He’s also targeted Murphy’s pandemic response, saying his vaccine and mask mandates are too restrictive and his business closures gutted the economy.
But if Murphy wins a second term on Nov. 2, it would validate his campaign’s message: that most New Jerseyans agree with his progressive approach to taxes, health care, and gun laws.
It would also be the strongest indicator yet that New Jersey, which hasn’t reelected a Democratic governor in more than 40 years, is moving decisively to the left. Demographic shifts have suggested as much — census figures show the state has become more diverse. The state rejected President Donald Trump by 16 percentage points last November, and registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than a million.
Murphy’s progressive critics include environmentalists who wish his plans were more ambitious and those who say his package of corporate tax incentives he approved was overly generous. Pledges to reform the NJ Transit system and ethics in Trenton have been sidelined. Concerns surrounding his 2017 campaign, from which allegations emerged of abuse and misogyny by male staffers, have never quite gone away.
Murphy has said the state’s history of one-term Democratic governors is a reminder to take nothing for granted: He’s campaigned aggressively in recent weeks and planned appearances with other national party leaders, including President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. He has consistently polled ahead of Ciattarelli, with a survey this week indicating an 11-point lead.
As Murphy told the crowd that evening in Newark, “Our team is bigger than their team. Our team shows up, we win. If the winning team doesn’t show, this is a coin toss.”
A proud liberal
One of only two governor’s races in the country, New Jersey is often watched as an early referendum on a new president. Four years ago, in one of the first races of the Trump era, Murphy won by running as a proud liberal.
This year, Murphy is seen as having a wind at his back thanks to a unified base and polls indicating that the public supports his handling of the pandemic.
A former Goldman Sachs executive who made millions on Wall Street, the 64-year-old Murphy is campaigning on his record: He signed bills for pay equity and legalizing recreational marijuana, and invested in clean energy. He passed a tax on millionaires and expanded free tuition at state colleges. He made the first full payment to state workers’ pensions in decades.
Ciattarelli and other Republicans say those accomplishments came at a cost, and that Murphy has taken the state deeper into debt. But many Murphy supporters say they’re impressed with how many promises he’s managed to fulfill. This week’s Monmouth University poll found voters view Murphy’s job performance more favorably than Biden’s so far.
“Murphy reflects the kind of governing approach that Biden has,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “That of making change by reforming the system, not throwing it out … A Murphy win would be a validation of that style.”
The last Democratic governor to win a second term was Brendan Byrne in 1977. In 1993, Gov. Jim Florio, facing anger as a result of steep first-term tax hikes, lost narrowly in a reelection bid. Gov. Jim McGreevey was elected in 2001 but resigned after announcing he was gay and acknowledging an extramarital affair. His successor, Democrat Jon Corzine, who like Murphy was a product of Goldman Sachs, was unpopular with voters and lost in a reelection amid a recession.
A Massachusetts native who grew up in a family of Kennedy Democrats, Murphy was a stage actor in college before joining Goldman Sachs. He lives in Middletown with his wife, Tammy, who has played a major role in his administration due to her work on climate change and on reducing infant mortality. The couple has four children.
After leaving Wall Street, Murphy served as finance chair for the Democratic National Committee and later as Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Germany, where he was based in Goldman Sachs’ Frankfurt office. Before 2017, he’d never been elected to political office.
When the pandemic hit, thousands tuned in to Murphy’s coronavirus news briefings. Some warmed to his low-key manner and dad jokes or appreciated his occasional flares of anger at “knuckleheads” who flouted public safety rules or spread misinformation about vaccines.
Mara Novak, co-executive director for a North Jersey organization that advocates for voters’ issues, who attended the rally in Newark last week, said she’s been pleasantly surprised by how progressive Murphy has been. Those briefings during the early days of COVID-19 also made her see him in a different light.
“He shared the stage,” said Novak, of Montclair. “You could really see his diplomat roots. You could see he was working collaboratively to find solutions, not in a way that was ego-driven.”
Ciattarelli and other Republicans say Murphy’s coronavirus lockdowns caused businesses to close permanently, and that people were faced with long delays for unemployment checks. The state’s high death rate in nursing homes, which Ciattarelli has said was the result of a policy that forced long-term care homes to readmit residents who were infected with the coronavirus, remains under federal investigation. Murphy has said COVID-19 patients were only to be returned to their homes if they could be isolated.
Along with passing a law to protect abortion rights in the state, Murphy said ethics reforms are a top priority for a second term.
“We also got elected to fix the culture of government in our state, to fix Trenton,” he said in an interview. “And make it more transparent. And folks deserve that.”
A campaign overhaul
Murphy was less than a year into his first term when a major scandal emerged: A state official, Katie Brennan, went public with claims that a campaign aide raped her in 2017 while both were working for the campaign. She said her reports to Murphy’s staff were ignored, and that the aide was hired for a state job.
Brennan’s testimony before a 2018 legislative panel, in which she said her “voice went unheard” as she asked Murphy’s staff to take action, undercut the governor’s self-portrayal as an advocate for women. Murphy said he was unaware of the details of Brennan’s allegations until months later; a state panel in 2019 faulted Murphy’s staff for mishandling Brennan’s case.
Last year Julie Roginsky, a former senior adviser and strategist, said Murphy’s 2017 campaign was toxic for women. She was among several women who accused Murphy and campaign officials of not responding adequately to harassment complaints; some said they faced retaliation.
The governor has said he acted on the complaints he knew of, and he apologized to those he “failed.” His 2021 campaign hired a human relations firm to oversee the office culture and train staff.
“I’d put the protections in that workplace up against any workplace in America,” Murphy said in a recent interview.
Murphy also signed bills to improve the government’s handling of sexual assault claims. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), the majority leader who in 2019 led a committee to address the “climate of misogyny” in state politics, said Murphy deserved credit for that. But in the early days of the scandal, she felt some members of the governor’s team seemed more concerned with protecting one another than with addressing the root problems. It bothers her that some of those people remain in Murphy’s inner circle today, she said.
“Sometimes people who are friends and allies fail, and they have to be replaced,” she said. “But sometimes that’s not what happens.”
Brennan, who no longer works in the Murphy administration, told NJ Spotlight News in August, “We still need to take a very close look at whom we surround ourselves with, and ask if that’s representative of the state of New Jersey and the women in it. And if you’ve held your own staff accountable.”
‘He understands this state’
At a rally last month in Burlington County, Murphy spoke alongside former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a prominent gun control advocate after surviving a 2011 mass shooting. After the event, several supporters said they were more enthusiastic about voting for Murphy than they were four years ago.
Donna Williams, a retired New York City transit worker, approved of Murphy’s pandemic response and said he’s looking out for the middle class.
“The things that are important to people are important to him,” she said.
Michael Infanger and his wife, Denise Mahoney, of Moorestown, said they’re Democrats but that years ago, they voted for Republican Diane Allen when she was their state senator. Allen is now running on Ciattarelli’s ticket as his choice for lieutenant governor — but Mahoney said they were too turned off by comments she’s made in her campaign (particularly those alleging that undocumented immigrants are spreading COVID-19) to consider supporting her now.
They were skeptical of Murphy when he was elected, saying they were disappointed by Corzine, another former Goldman Sachs executive turned governor. But Murphy won them over.
“You think maybe he’s just a rich guy looking for the next part of his life,” Mahoney said. “But he certainly is not an elitist. He understands the heartbeat of this state and the people who make it work.”