Unpaid and unelected, New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy is among the most powerful forces in her husband’s administration
Tammy Murphy has been a part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaigns, has her own policy goals, and spends her days working to promote her husband’s Democratic agenda with people around the state.
On a summer day that brought Tammy Murphy from one end of New Jersey to the other, checking in on a construction site in Gloucester County was a priority. With metal beams towering overhead, Murphy walked across a dust-coated, concrete slab at the Paulsboro Marine Terminal, a site on the Delaware River that will one day be a manufacturing hub for giant steel pipes to anchor wind farms off the coast.
The project began in 2018, when Murphy and her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy, went to Germany during his first year in office to pitch wind companies to invest in New Jersey’s nascent clean energy industry.
“We never say no,” Murphy said of the way the couple approach policy goals. “We just kind of say, how?”
Many New Jerseyans likely don’t know Tammy Murphy’s name, but she’s one of the most powerful members of the administration.
Since her husband took office almost four years ago, she’s built a policy portfolio with goals to improve health care for women and children. She spearheaded a push to get climate change curriculum into schools, making New Jersey the first state to do so. A former Goldman Sachs analyst, she now spends her days working with her staff of three to promote her husband’s Democratic agenda.
She also figured prominently in his 2017 run for governor, a successful campaign that also sparked his first serious scandal, over allegations of abuse and misogyny by male staffers. Phil Murphy has apologized for the failings of 2017 and hired a human-relations firm for this year’s campaign to fulfill a pledge to “lead the nation in progressive workforce policies.”
Publicly, Tammy Murphy was mostly on the sidelines of that controversy, but the 2017 campaign is an example of how the first lady’s position as a key adviser to her husband cuts both ways: She has a platform to advocate for her chosen projects, but his administration’s scandals are also hers.
She now oversees the fund-raising arm of his reelection bid, and has been hosting canvassing events and meeting with volunteers as they gather to knock on doors.
If Phil Murphy wins a second term on Nov. 2, he will be New Jersey’s first Democratic governor in decades to be reelected. That would also mean four more years of Tammy Murphy at his side.
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After the first lady moved into a Trenton office down the hall from her husband, political insiders gave her the title of “co-governor” — a label she rejects.
“Phil’s the governor, Sheila [Oliver]’s the lieutenant governor, and I am somebody who complements and wants to support both of them in any ways I can,” Murphy, 56, said in a recent interview. “He is the governor and I never want anybody to think that I believe otherwise.”
Still, some see New Jersey’s first lady as more than a surrogate. On Aug. 31, when she joined a group of politicians in Cherry Hill to promote President Joe Biden’s jobs bill, Democratic National Chairman Jaime Harrison said voters who wanted results-oriented leaders should “send her back to the governor’s mansion” in November.
“We’ve got those sort of leaders right here in New Jersey,” he said. “Two of them are named Phil and Tammy Murphy.”
A team from the start
The state has had other first spouses in public roles. Murphy’s immediate predecessor, Mary Pat Christie, was a Wall Street bond trader whom Gov. Chris Christie described as the family breadwinner. She founded a nonprofit and raised millions in relief after Superstorm Sandy.
Tammy Murphy was different from the start. The governor’s decision to spend $13,000 converting a conference room into an office for her made headlines, and she gave a speech at his inauguration. In the early days of his term, lawmakers wondered how much sway she held over policy decisions, and insiders from both parties complained that her lack of a title created confusion.
South Jersey insurance executive George E. Norcross III, one of the state’s most influential unelected figures, told NJ Advance Media in 2019 that the governor “thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England, and they don’t have to answer to anybody.” (At the time, he and Phil Murphy were in a battle over the state’s controversial tax incentive program.)
The governor dismisses such criticism as “political noise.”
“She’s filling a role that otherwise, either someone else would have to step into that role, whether it’s Sheila, or me, or a cabinet secretary,” he said in an interview. “Or, and this is the tragic part, it wouldn’t get done.”
Most of what she takes on publicly is noncontroversial: Besides the project on maternal and infant health, she launched a successful financing network for women-owned start-ups and raised millions for pandemic relief. Her work on climate change could be a lightning rod, she said, “but maybe not after Ida.”
Matthew Hale, an associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University, said the focus on the pandemic has also allowed the first lady to stay under the radar.
“People are comfortable with her taking on certain things, but if she were to get involved with the budget or with law enforcement, it might not be the case,” he said. “She’s picked a smart lane, and she’s staying in it.”
Joe Kyrillos, a Republican and former state senator who has known the Murphys for more than 20 years, said anyone who knows the first lady expected her to play a major part in the administration.
“He’s lucky to have her as an ally, as a partner, as a counselor,” said Kyrillos, who is supporting Republican Jack Ciattarelli in the upcoming gubernatorial election. “When you have somebody as smart and as talented and as able as Tammy, if you can institutionalize it in some way, you’d be smart to do it.”
From London to Trenton
Married for 28 years, the Murphys have four children. They live in Middletown and own homes in Italy and Berlin. Friends say their marriage is close; they regularly run together in the mornings.
Growing up in a Republican family in Virginia Beach, Tammy Murphy said her parents taught her to value community service and fairness. She left the GOP, she said, after she became passionate about environmental causes and abortion-rights legislation.
She met Phil Murphy at the University of Virginia, where she was studying English and communications. They crossed paths again at Goldman Sachs, then years later reconnected in London, where she worked for the Investcorp firm. They married within months and moved to Germany, where he was based.
The family resettled in New Jersey in 1998. After two decades on Wall Street that made him a millionaire, Phil Murphy went into politics, serving as finance chair for the Democratic National Committee and U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Obama. By then, Tammy Murphy was also serving on boards, including Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. In 2017, she became a regular presence on the gubernatorial campaign.
The following year, the new Murphy administration was rocked by its first scandal: A state official, Katie Brennan, went public with claims that a campaign aide had raped her, and that not only were her reports to Murphy’s staff ignored, but that the aide, Albert Alvarez, was hired for a state job.
Alvarez denied the assault but ultimately resigned.
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, stood in sharp contrast with the governor’s self-portrayal as an advocate for women. Brennan said she had asked the governor and first lady for a meeting about a “sensitive matter,” but the meeting never happened.
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Phil 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 at every level.
Last year, Julie Roginsky, a former senior adviser and strategist, said Murphy’s 2017 campaign was toxic for women, describing verbal abuse and other mistreatment. She was among several women who accused the Murphys and campaign officials of not responding adequately to harassment complaints; some said they faced retaliation. The governor has said he and the first lady acted on the complaints they knew of.
Phil Murphy, who often touts his women-centered legislative accomplishments like strengthening the state’s equal-pay law and restoring Planned Parenthood funding, has since signed bills aimed at improving the government’s handling of sexual assault claims.
In an interview with The Inquirer last month, Tammy Murphy said she told the human-relations firm hired by the 2021 campaign it needed to be the “gold standard” for providing a safe and inclusive environment. Asked if mistakes were made in 2017, she said: “When somebody feels like they’ve been wronged, we’ve got to listen to them. And I would just hope that we, as fellow human beings on this planet, can listen and learn at every step of the way.”
‘Those bills are getting signed’
The mortality rate for Black women in New Jersey is seven times higher than white women — the worst disparity in the nation — and Black babies there are three times more likely to die within a year. As soon as her husband took office, Murphy honed in on reducing maternal and infant mortality as a priority.
Initially, she was naive about the complexity of the problems. She ended up spending years meeting with doulas, doctors, mothers and legislators, connecting stakeholders and learning best practices. The number of agencies working on the project grew from two to 18 as everyone from transportation to law enforcement got involved.
This year, the first lady released a plan outlining 70 steps aimed at reducing the mortality rate and addressing inequities; 10 are funded by the governor’s budget.
This summer, Phil Murphy signed a bill to provide free home nurse visits for new parents. Seated beside him, his wife said the law would prevent postpartum deaths by identifying health issues as well as other challenges, like food or housing problems.
Cosponsor State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex) said that even under other administrations with a Democrat-controlled governor and legislature, progress was slow to move bills into laws when it came to her policy priorities.
“Now we’re collecting pens,” she said, “because those bills are getting signed.”