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Opinion: A Democratic Governor Is Near Inevitable, Could It Be Phil Murphy?

Right now, all Phil Murphy has is a so-so slogan. He’s got plenty of time to demonstrate some ‘street cred’

carl golden
Carl Golden

Ending what little suspense existed, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and former Goldman Sachs executive Philip Murphy announced he’s a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for governor in 2017, promising he’ll be “A governor who’ll have your back.”

Originality is not the campaign’s strong suit.

Sloganeering aside, Murphy -- much like his potential primary opponents state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop -- spent time caressing the erogenous zones of the left wing of the body politic.

He expressed his support for the constitutional amendment to require the state to establish a level and a timetable for contributing to the public pension and benefits system, and he opposes the freeze on cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for retirees.

He wants the minimum wage increased to $15 an hour and the gasoline tax raised to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund. He supports greater state assistance to higher education and reinstatement of the tax surcharge on incomes above $1 million.

He’s opposed to the cap on local property taxes and -- in a break with Sweeney -- wants the state to abandon efforts to seize control of the functions of the Atlantic City government.

Again, much like his potential challengers, Murphy suggests the additional cost to state government to support his platform can be met by “growing the economy” -- a rather vague and badly overused phrase that can be uttered without the need to offer definitive proposals.

While both Sweeney and Fulop can rely on political power bases -- a united South Jersey for the Senate president and a healthy Hudson County organization for the mayor -- Murphy is counting on his early start (the primary is a year off) and his personal wealth and possible self-financing to offset the advantages of the others.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) continue to be a part -- albeit almost an afterthought -- of the discussions about the gubernatorial primary, but neither is considered a strong contender at this point.

Occasionally, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo is mentioned as a possible candidate, but aside from his immediate family and the patronage jobholders in the county administration building, it’s hard to find Democrats who would seriously consider giving the nomination to someone who endorsed Gov. Chris Christie for governor in 2013.

Murphy can position himself as an outsider (he’s never held elective office), but the early rap on him involves his career at Goldman Sachs, a reminder that the last multimillionaire from that firm to become governor -- Jon Corzine -- enjoyed a less than spectacular one term before becoming only the second incumbent to lose a reelection bid. (Jim Florio was the first in 1993.)

Murphy left the firm a decade ago and, in all probability, his employment there won’t be a particularly serious drag on his candidacy. Sweeney, in reacting to Murphy’s announcement, alluded to Corzine, but any effort to use it as an issue is likely to fail.

At this relatively early stage, there appears little separating the three principal contenders. All will claim the mantle of progressivism, of harnessing government power -- particularly fiscal power -- to strengthen the middle class and pull low-income families out of poverty.

In all likelihood, Democratic primary voters will be reminded of Sweeney’s frequent alliances with Christie, most notably the Senate president’s pivotal role in the 2011 pension-fund revisions that increased employee contributions toward their benefits and froze the COLA.

Nearly five years later, the bitterness of public employee unions toward Sweeney has diminished somewhat but remains just below the surface. He’s succeeded in restoring his relationship with organized labor by leading the efforts to enshrine pension rights in the constitution and to increase the minimum wage.

His association with Christie will certainly be an issue. Fulop, for instance, has already referred to it in the controversy over the state takeover of Atlantic City -- and there’s every reason to believe Murphy will attempt to tie Sweeney to a Republican governor whose job-approval standing has fallen to unprecedented lows.

Even his slogan -- unimaginative though it may be -- sends a not-so-subtle message that he’ll be “a governor who’ll have your back” because the Senate President has demonstrated that he hasn’t and won’t.

Sweeney, though, is not without resources. As the third most powerful individual in state government, he can command media attention to spread his message and can reap credit -- properly so -- for the enactment of legislation to advance his and the Democratic majority agenda.

He will position himself at the forefront of efforts to confront and resolve the state’s most pressing problems and enhance the quality of life for New Jerseyans. He’ll be able to point to accomplishments, rather than to mere promises.

He’ll benefit from his South Jersey organizational support while, at the same time, making a strong pitch to party leaders in the more populous northern part of the state that he’s the candidate best suited to not only return the chief executive’s office to Democratic control, but to retain legislative majorities as well.

With the Republican Party in disarray -- not to mention financial difficulties -- the early morning-betting line is that winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to a victory in November. The longer no Republican steps forward as a credible candidate, the stronger the belief in the inevitability of a Democratic governor.

All three -- Sweeney, Murphy and Fulop -- can lay claim to impeccable Democratic credentials and fealty to party principles. It may, in the end, all come down to which one voters are convinced will have their back.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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