Sworn into office with the same Bible that President John F. Kennedy used for his inauguration nearly 60 years ago, Gov. Phil Murphy repeatedly struck tones of service and inclusion during his inaugural address in Trenton yesterday. He also urged fellow Democrats to get to work right away on measures that would follow through on major campaign promises, including increasing the minimum wage and boosting funding for women’s healthcare.
Murphy emphasized a message of unbridled optimism during the roughly 30-minute address, saying he would remain sanguine while taking on the state’s steep fiscal problems and other major policy challenges.
“The public is tired of pessimistic and short-sighted thinking,” Murphy said. “They have rejected the politics of division, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and asked us to focus on ‘we’ — all nine million who call this great state home.”
Murphy delivered the inaugural address after being administered the oath of office by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner just before noon inside the Trenton War Memorial.
After the speech, which also served at times as a strong rebuttal to the policies of President Donald Trump, Democratic legislative leaders said they were looking forward to working with a new governor from their own party after years of seeing legislative priorities blocked by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. But it remains to be seen whether they can put aside intra-party differences to push through all of Murphy’s agenda, including levying higher taxes on millionaires, legalizing marijuana, and establishing a minimum wage as high as $15.
‘… he’s still posturing’
Republicans, meanwhile, said they would be willing to work with Murphy on shared policy goals, but some were also critical of parts of the speech that they viewed as overly political.
“I think he’s still posturing, still campaigning,” said Senate Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris).
Murphy signed his first executive order later yesterday, one that prohibits state departments and agencies from asking potential employees about their pay history. The policy change is intended to promote more gender-pay equity in New Jersey, and the salary history issue is something that has been emphasized in recent years by equal-pay activists. By asking lower-paid candidates — typically women — what they were paid in their last job before an offer, it can perpetuate the problem of lower pay.
Last year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order doing the same thing for city agencies, and Massachusetts enacted legislation that banned employers from asking a potential employee about their salary history, both for the public and private sectors.
“This is our first executive order, and it’s not a coincidence why we’re here today,” Murphy said during a disorganized and cramped signing event in a room set up for press events but that was packed yesterday with supporters.
Kennedy family Bible
Originally from the suburbs of Boston, Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany, has spoken frequently about how he was inspired to serve by the Kennedys. And for yesterday’s official swearing-in, Murphy was provided with the Kennedy family Bible by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the same Bible used by the former president at his own swearing-in ceremony in 1961.
In the inaugural address, Murphy quoted both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, including JFK’s famous remarks about astronauts aspiring to go to the moon.
“We do things ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard,’” Murphy said yesterday as he paraphrased the former president.
He also spoke of the inspiration of his own family, and a hardscrabble upbringing that included working under-the-table as a diner dishwasher at age 13.
“I accept the tremendous responsibility of this office with my parents clearly in mind and knowing they and my big brother are looking down today satisfied that the lessons taught around the kitchen table — the lessons of fairness, of justice, and of having the backs of others — still burn deeply within me,” he said, at one point getting clearly emotional.
Trump in his sights
In addition to issuing the challenge to state legislative leaders to take swift action on shared priorities, Murphy took direct aim at the policies of President Trump, including Trump’s hardline and at times profane approach to immigration.
“It is leadership that has driven America through the generations to be the envy of the world, to have saved it from fascism and other existential threats, and to have made us a force for good around the world, and a beacon for peace and prosperity,” Murphy said.
“It is leadership that has made our country a place where immigrants still come in hope of a better future — and that includes from Haiti and the continent of Africa,” he said, ad-libbing the second part to loud applause.
He closed the speech with a pledge to be bipartisan, and a call that suggested lawmakers could elevate the tradition of transactional politics that New Jersey is often known for.
“We can do this together if we approach politics not as a game to be won, but as a noble calling to be answered,” Murphy said. “I urge you to join us on the road forward, whether you are a Democrat, or a Republican, or an independent,” he went on to say.
Sweeney: NJ can be national model
Afterward, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said New Jersey is now set up to serve as a national model for policies that blend “progressive values with fiscal responsibility.”
“With Democrats providing leadership in the governor’s office and in both houses of the Legislature, we have the ability to act decisively on Democratic priorities which we have advocated for years,” Sweeney said.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) was also optimistic, saying he is looking forward to working with Murphy and former Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, a Democrat who was sworn in as the state’s first-ever African-American lieutenant governor yesterday.
“As Gov. Murphy acknowledged, hard work lies ahead, and as I’ve also made clear, the Assembly is ready to do hard things, stand up for middle-class families and boost our economy,” Coughlin said.
Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor, said he thought Murphy used the speech to lay the groundwork for what he wants to accomplish as governor, including the “big things” that go beyond simple campaign promises. “I thought it was a transition speech, from a campaign speech to a governor’s speech,” Hale said.
But Pennacchio, the Republican senator, took issue with Murphy going out of his way to castigate Trump and his policies in an inaugural address.
“He spoke against the politics of division, and then he went on a whole litany using Donald Trump as a whipping boy,” Pennacchio said.