Gov. Murphy insists he and Steve Sweeney, the New Jersey Senate president, have a "good relationship."
Says Sweeney: "There is no relationship."
"We talk all the time," says Murphy.
Says Sweeney: "I've had one meeting with the governor, one-on-one. It was 15 minutes and it was not very productive."
A longtime trade union official who lives in West Deptford, Sweeney says he misses the give-and-take of what some described as his "bromance" with Murphy's gubernatorial predecessor, Republican Chris Christie.
"Chris and I figured out what we could agree on, and we worked together to get it done," he recalls. "I had some of the brutal fights of my life with him, but we're friends."
Says Murphy, who retired a decade ago after a successful Wall Street career and calls Middletown, Monmouth County home: "I'm not a transactional guy. I'm not a career [politician]. And that is just a fact."
If Murphy is professional, earnest, and to some, a bit awkward, Sweeney is famously proud of his rougher edges and appears utterly at ease with his power.
The ironworker and the millionaire: Can this marriage of convenience be saved?
And does it really matter to people other than, say, newspaper columnists, whether Trenton's most powerful pair of Democrats get along?
The two — Murphy, a fierce, albeit paint-by-numbers, progressive, and Sweeney, also fierce, but too conservative for my taste — both claim to be taking the high road with their eyes on the big picture.
Those are my cliches, not theirs, although theirs aren't much better: Murphy says he's focused on "what's good for working families," and Sweeney says his goal is "to make this state better."
The two men have working-class roots and similar views on issues such as the sharing of services by local governments, recreational marijuana, and funding for pre-K programs.
Murphy is a newcomer to Trenton and to politics generally, a fact Sweeney cites frequently. The Senate president has served in the legislature since 2002 and was a Gloucester County freeholder for several years before that.
But since the governor took office in January, he and Sweeney have worked together on women's health, pay equity, and other issues.
Last week they shook hands on camera after Murphy signed bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sweeney and his friend Sen. Steven Oroho (R., Sussex) that will allow the state to partner with private firms on highway and other infrastructure projects.
"If you look at the work we've done collaboratively, it's been remarkable in advancing the priorities of the governor, and ours," Sweeney said in a recent interview at his West Deptford office.
On the day we spoke, a Wall Street Journal editorial gave Sweeney a somewhat backhanded compliment — but a compliment nonetheless — in characterizing him as a rare New Jersey Democrat "sobering up" from a spending "addiction."
Murphy, the editorial pointedly concluded, "is still in denial."
Elsewhere in Murphy-Sweeney news last week, "Is this Democrat (not Phil Murphy) New Jersey's strongest leader?" was a headline on NJ.com.
And an InsiderNJ commentary crowned Sweeney as a probable leader, along with Sen. Tom Kean (R., Essex), of a potentially bipartisan approach to pension and health care benefits reform for some public employees.
The column by Alan Steinberg also dismissed Murphy as a "political hostage" of the New Jersey Education Association.
That's the statewide teachers' union, which last year spent $5 million to support the campaign of Sweeney's reelection opponent and recently issued a statement assailing the Senate president for allegedly "siding with millionaires over the middle class, again."
By phone Friday, Murphy dismissed the notion that he and Sweeney don't get along as "inside the Trenton bubble, 'he said, she said' stuff that is … of little interest" to him.
"I want to get as much done as fast as possible," the governor said. "We're digging out of a complete mess left to me by my predecessor … and with all due respect to what's been written, with the Assembly speaker [Craig Coughlin, a Middlesex County Democrat] and the Senate president, we're gotten a lot done."
Murphy also had kind words for the "Path to Progress" report issued this month by a bipartisan working group Sweeney appointed earlier this year to make recommendations to address the state's fast-approaching fiscal crisis.
"I welcome [the effort by] smart people trying to figure out the answer," said the governor. "I don't have all the answers by a long shot. My guiding principles on the recommendations will be, 'Does this work for the middle class?' "
After spending a good chunk of our 90-minute conversation painting Murphy as a neophyte who has disrespected him and has unrealistic, if noble, notions, Sweeney did have a number of kinder things to say about him.
"The governor worked very hard to become governor. He believes very much in what he is saying. He didn't mislead anybody. Phil Murphy is who he is."
Sweeney also scoffed at the idea that he is already running to replace Murphy in 2022.
"I hope we have a two-term Democratic governor. We haven't had one since Brendan Byrne," he said. "Phil Murphy, coming in with his background, understands the finances of the state and is the one guy who knows how to fix this. We have to fix New Jersey."
By all means, gentlemen, please do.