ATLANTIC CITY — Bad relationships with leaders in his own party, a weak response to sexual assault allegations against a staff member and unprecedented fiscal challenges have hampered Gov. Phil Murphy’s first year in office, according to a bipartisan panel of former governors and current academics.
They gave Murphy less than stellar grades this week at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities’ annual conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center, in a popular annual panel.
“His biggest challenge is to be prepared to deal with the fiscal picture in New Jersey,” said Jim Florio, a one-term Democratic governor who suffered a taxpayer revolt in 1990 when he tried to raise taxes by more than $2 billion to balance the budget and meet educational funding requirements.
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“I don’t know of any economist who doesn’t say we’ll have a downturn in the next three years. When it comes it won’t be pretty,” since the state is already facing a $60 billion shortfall in government workers’ pension funds and a $40 billion shortfall in health care funds for state employees, said Florio.
“We are dealing with numbers almost beyond comprehension,” said Florio, who gave Murphy a grade of incomplete.
Even the panelists’ list of his accomplishments contained some backhanded compliments.
“His biggest accomplishment was getting elected,” said Republican former Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, followed by getting a budget through a Democrat-controlled yet divided Legislature. DiFrancesco was governor from 2000 to 2001 after Gov. Christie Whitman left office to become administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He, too, opted to give an incomplete grade.
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“He’s not Gov. Chris Christie or President Donald Trump,” two politicians that are particularly disliked in the state, said Montclair State University Professor Brigid Callahan Harrison. But she said his bad relationships with Senate President Steve Sweeney and other Democrat leaders are “like a noose around his neck.” She gave Murphy a C to C+.
Benjamin Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, gave Murphy a B-, saying his best accomplishment was keeping a high public approval rating despite raising taxes by more than $1 billion and pushing a more progressive agenda than the public has seen in years.
“There are a couple of reactions the public can have. We saw one in 1990, and now this one is completely different,” said Dworkin.
Former Republican Gov. John O. Bennett gave him a solid B, crediting Murphy with putting alternative energy and environmentalists back to “front and center,” particularly with an aggressive offshore wind energy development program. Bennett was acting governor for four days in 2002, leading up to the inauguration of Democrat Gov.-Elect James McGreevey.
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McGreevey was also scheduled to be on the panel, but his mother recently died and her funeral was Wednesday, a league official said.
Harrison said Murphy has not delivered on his promise of getting a $15 minimum wage bill passed, has only made a down payment on free community college and hasn’t been able to get a bill passed to legalize recreational marijuana.
“It’s a Democrat-controlled legislature,” said Harrison. “This is the kind of thing an effective Democrat politician would have had staff working behind the scenes to be able to succeed out of the box.”
But all agreed that division within the Democrat Party is partly Murphy’s responsibility.
Murphy didn’t help Sweeney when the New Jersey Education Association opposed his re-election to state Senate in 2017, to punish him for working with Gov. Chris Christie on pension reform, said Harrison. And Dworkin said Murphy, who had never run for office before, got Democratic Party support for his candidacy in a way that ruined Sweeney’s chance for the nomination. That has led to a clash of egos, all agreed.
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Now, Murphy is facing an investigation by the Legislature of his administration’s hiring practices, after his administration hired Albert J. Alvarez to head the Schools Development Authority, despite knowing that a sexual assault complaint had been filed. The representatives of the governors office said that police had closed complaint.
Murphy has asked former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero to investigate. Alvarez resigned Oct. 2.
“It’s interesting he chose not to fire or sideline anyone after the rape allegations came out,” said Harrison of staff members who hired Alvarez.
“I agree. If the governor said, ‘I’ll cooperate,’ there might be no need for subpoena power,” said Bennett. “(An investigation) has to be done. The Governor’s Office needs to say, ‘What do you need to know? It’s open, I’ll work with you completely.’”
“Imagine the enormous distraction this provides from governing in the Murphy administration,” said Harrison.