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Is NJ Gov-elect Phil Murphy's liberal agenda too much for his own party?

Even as Gov.-elect Phil Murphy positions himself as a liberal star in a leaderless national party seeking to combat the Trump administration, intra-party feuds at home and a tight fiscal situation threaten his agenda.

New Jersey Gov.-elect Phil Murphy speaks during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.
New Jersey Gov.-elect Phil Murphy speaks during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.Read moreAP Photo/Seth Wenig

In a little more than a month, Gov. Christie will leave office and New Jersey will join a handful of states where Democrats control the governor's mansion and the legislature.

But even as Gov.-elect Phil Murphy positions himself as a liberal star in a leaderless national party seeking to combat the Trump administration, intra-party feuds at home and a tight fiscal situation threaten his agenda.

Instead of waiting for Murphy to take office, Senate Democrats last week pushed through dozens of Christie-nominated appointees to judgeships, agencies like the Delaware River Port Authority, county tax boards, and prosecutors' offices.

While a certain amount of deal-making is par for the course in transition periods, and a number of appointees were Democrats, Murphy is said to be less than thrilled with the developments. The episode may test his relationship with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who controls which nominees get consideration, and George E. Norcross III, his political benefactor and childhood friend.

Murphy, a former banker and diplomat who has never held elective office, hasn't made things easy for himself. For example, Murphy named the president of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) — which spent millions of dollars to try to defeat Sweeney last month — to a top post on his transition team.

Democrats and Trenton observers are closely watching that dynamic, which could make or break Murphy's governorship, according to interviews with operatives, lobbyists, and lawmakers.

"It's like when a new lion comes across another lion's pack," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "The two alpha males are kind of circling each other to size each other up."

Meantime, a new report on the state's pension and health care debt served as a reminder that Murphy's lofty goals (raising the hourly minimum wage to $15; more money for pensions, public transit, and schools; free community college) face significant headwinds.

Despite incremental reforms implemented by Christie, the cost of pensions and health benefits for public workers is projected to account for 26 percent of the state budget by 2023, according to a Dec. 6 report by a Christie-appointed panel. The state is "at risk of losing the budget flexibility necessary to respond to emerging challenges and crises," the report warned.

Murphy has said he won't seek concessions from public workers, arguing that the state needs to meet its obligations first. The current year's budget is about $35 billion.

The governor-elect says he's still committed to fully funding pensions and schools. But lawmakers of his own party, who've often failed to get their way under Christie, are signaling they won't be rubber stamps.

"What you see is a Legislature trying to assert itself, especially because there's a new guy coming in who doesn't have the background and experience in trying to deal with" lawmakers, said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a longtime Trenton observer.

That partly explains why the Senate confirmed dozens of appointees in a single day last week.

Among the appointees for judgeships were Anne Marie Bramnick, a daughter-in-law of Christie's top Republican ally in the Assembly, and Michael Joyce, former chief public safety officer at the Delaware River Port Authority who was once disciplined for giving his daughter another employee's E-Z Pass.

Perhaps most striking about the appointments: Many could have been made by a Democratic governor. That the Senate instead chose to deal with Christie "tells you who's in on the joke here, and who's not," as one insider put it.

Lawmakers said some judicial nominees were needed to address backlogs in the courts. Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union) said his colleagues also couldn't be certain that Murphy would approve their preferred nominees.

"I gave Phil a list of nominations I intended to move forward," Sweeney said in an interview. "These were appointments my members wanted for quite some time."

"To be clear, he wasn't crazy about it," Sweeney said.

Publicly, Murphy suggested this was much ado about nothing.

"Have you seen the movie Casablanca? 'My Lord, there's gambling going on in the back,'" Murphy joked to reporters in Trenton on Tuesday, when asked about the appointments. "This is New Jersey. We come into this with our eyes open."

But privately, Murphy's transition team is "furious" over the appointments, according to a person familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly. Of particular concern to Murphy's camp, this person said, was that twice in recent months the Senate filled a host of vacancies for paid board positions and other posts that qualify for pension benefits.

That means Murphy will enter office with less negotiating power, because he'll have less to offer lawmakers in return for support of his agenda.

"If I were governor-elect I would want to hold up on some of those so I can participate," said Sen. Joe Vitale (D., Middlesex). "The governor-elect has to live with these appointments for the next four to eight years."

For his part, Sweeney wants the NJEA to change its leadership, according to two people familiar with the matter. One said Sweeney's camp was vexed by Murphy's apparent refusal to insist on such a change, especially after the Senate president won reelection in a landslide.

The lame-duck session is a preview of what Murphy can expect once he's sworn in Jan. 16.

Murphy's liberal agenda is in some ways more in sync with the progressive left nationally than some more conservative Democrats in the state Legislature.

In South Jersey, for example, Norcross built a Democratic machine in part by appealing to suburban voters with a message of fiscal restraint. "I'm a centrist; I don't make any bones about it," Sweeney said in a November interview.

That means Murphy's campaign pledges to legalize marijuana and raise taxes on the rich may face uphill climbs. Sweeney, after initially endorsing a new marginal tax rate on income above $1 million, hit pause as Republicans in Congress moved forward with their tax overhaul.

Crucial to Murphy's agenda is whether top executive branch officials mesh with personalities of legislative leaders like Sweeney and incoming Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex).

Murphy, a Harvard grad who cites Bobby Kennedy as a hero, comes from high finance; after leaving Goldman Sachs, he was finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee before serving as President Barack Obama's ambassador to Germany.

Sweeney, an ironworker who didn't go to college, takes pride in being a political brawler. You could say blue-collar guys like Sweeney built the kind of skyscrapers where people like Murphy had a corner office.

Some Democrats are optimistic that the party leaders will resolve their differences out of self-interest, if nothing else.

"Sweeney doesn't need a learning process. He already knows where the bathrooms are," said Lou Stellato, chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Committee. "He's been there for decades. Murphy's gotta get his toe in the water. It's no different than a marriage."