Tension in Trenton: Do Murphy and Sweeney Have Issues to Resolve?

Chase Brush | February 7, 2018 | Politics
For a Democratic governor with a Democratic Legislature, Murphy’s first few weeks at the helm have not been smooth sailing

Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy
For Democrats in the state, Gov. Phil Murphy’s election last year marked the beginning of a new era in New Jersey politics, one in which the party — now in control of both the Legislature and the executive branch — would be free to move forward on a range of policy initiatives, many of which had been previously kept out of reach by two-term Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

But that long-awaited unification has not come without its fair share of growing pains. Over a month into a new year and a few weeks into a new administration, relations between lawmakers and Murphy’s team have not been as bright as some would like them, with tensions evident on several pressing legislative fronts, from a collection of still-pending cabinet appointments to questions about how to handle the state’s increasing tax burden. Some reports also point to deep infighting among Murphy’s senior staff and members of the Legislature.

Together, the accounts challenge the assumption that all would be well as soon as Murphy took office.

“You would’ve thought the last governor was Democrat and vice versa,” said one Democratic source about the current culture in Trenton.

To hear some lawmakers and observers tell it, the main battle is playing out between Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney, two outsized personalities and almost competitors for the gubernatorial post that now find themselves wary partners at the top of state government. Despite certain similarities, both seem to be intent on exercising the full power of their respective positions — a dynamic that, at least in these early stages, has kept them somewhat at odds.

Irish alpha dogs

“Listen, they’re two big Irish guys with alpha-dog personalities,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, acknowledging at least some stress between the leaders. “One gets to sign,
and the other gets to send him legislation.”

That the two would find themselves in this situation isn’t altogether surprising. A former ironworker from South Jersey, Sweeney has spent the past eight years as senate president, winning his latest term after opting out of a gubernatorial run against Murphy last year. He’s amassed considerable popularity among fellow lawmakers over the course of his tenure, and built up a reputation as a pragmatic negotiator willing to work across the aisle when necessary. He joined forces often with Christie, most notably on historic pension and benefits reform in the second year of the Republican’s first term.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Sweeney is the alpha dog,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “He’s the leader of the Senate and he runs it with him in charge. He can collaborate, he certainly did with Chris Christie from time to time, but he likes to take charge of the Senate. It’s his playground.”

Murphy, meanwhile, is a millionaire former Goldman Sachs executive and relative newcomer to politics in New Jersey. Through his gubernatorial campaign, he established himself as something of a progressive standard bearer, promising a litany of liberal policy changes that Democrats had failed to attain under Christie, from a millionaire’s tax to a $15 minimum wage. He jockeyed early and aggressively for support in the north and central parts of the state, locking down key endorsements from local power brokers and ultimately convincing would-be competitors like Sweeney, a longtime ally of South Jersey kingmaker George Norcross III, to pass on their own bid.

North-south divide

In some observers’ minds, then, any division between the two figures comes down to familiar regional north-south politics.

“It’s hard to imagine that a Democratic Legislature was Christie’s ally considering his personality and political views,” said one lawmaker who blamed the recent discord on an embittered “cabal” of South Jersey pols. “And now you’ve got a guy (Murphy) who shares their views, and they’re (the Legislature) screwing him.”

Critics of the current relationship between the front office and Sweeney’s believe that it’s prevented the Legislature from moving forward on important legislative and administrative plans, some of which may threaten the state’s ability to operate effectively. Most pressing among them is a roster of cabinet appointments that, three weeks into the new administration, have yet to see confirmation from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Only one of Murphy’s picks, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, has been sworn in. Yesterday, hearings for three other nominees, including Secretary of State pick Tahesha Way, were announced, though there are others that have yet to be scheduled or are being held up by senatorial courtesy, a practice that allows senators to block or delay candidates from their home counties.

Way’s nomination is significant in that the secretary of state, along with the attorney general, are the only two cabinet positions afforded special status by the New Jersey constitution, which gives them terms that run concurrent with the governor’s.

“When was the last time a new governor took office, presented all the stuff to the cabinet, and only one (appointee) got sworn in?” added the lawmaker.

Another Murphy administrative pick that has garnered some controversy — and represents another split between the governor and Sweeney — is Tim Sullivan, the current deputy commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). Murphy has chosen Sullivan to lead the state’s Economic Development Authority, though the move has received serious pushback from building-trades groups.

Last month, New Jersey State Building And Trades Council President Bill Mullen fired off a letter in opposition to Sullivan’s nomination, accusing him of being “anti-trade” and encouraging lawmakers to block his nomination. The squabble represents another potential battle line between Murphy and Sweeney, a union guy who has amassed much of his power through private labor connections.

Fundamental disagreements

But there also appear to be real, fundamental policy disagreements underlying the conflicts. Murphy ascended to office vowing to make good on the promises of his campaign, but the truth is that many Democratic lawmakers aren’t yet ready to sign on to some of the more progressive ones. A number of lawmakers, for example, have shown a reluctance to rush to legalize recreational marijuana use in New Jersey this year, something Murphy has been adamant about.

On other major issues, it’s Sweeney himself who’s stymieing Murphy’s agenda. Despite long championing legislation that would raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest earners — at one point even tweeting that it would be the first bill on the agenda in January — Sweeney has since pivoted 180 degrees on the proposal, calling instead for a complete re-evaluation of the state’s tax structure and a halt to any efforts to raise them at the state level.

Sweeney, who has tasked state Senators Paul Sarlo and Steve Oroho with the re-evaluation, has cited recent federal tax-policy changes signed into law by President Donald Trump for his change in calculus. But the switch still puts him at possible loggerheads with Murphy, who has said he will continue to seek a millionaire’s tax to help fund his programs.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, the Democrat reiterated his commitment to the tax, saying they “haven’t changed on any of that, what we talked about on the campaign.”

“Just to take the tax plan for a moment. That makes our job harder, not easier,” Murphy said, referring to the GOP’s bill. “At the end of the proverbial day when we look back on it, a decade or two from now, 83 percent — I think is the number I saw — of the benefits will go to the top 1 percent, so that’s just not the America that I grew up in. That’s not who we are.”

What’s more, Sweeney’s about-face on the millionaire’s tax is causing some political observers to theorize that it’s his first move in a long-term play to position himself as the centrist against a more liberal Murphy in an intra-party fight in 2021. Still, that’s a long time in the future for an administration that has yet to gain its footing.

In addition, Republicans are seizing on the anti-tax sentiment, proclaiming in a letter this week that their party is unified in protecting New Jerseyans from the “liberal agenda of promised tax hikes, cumbersome government regulations, and misplaced priorities.” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said that the GOP is encouraged by recent collaborations between parties, such as Oroho and Sarlo’s, on the issue — and suggested also that Sweeney’s change in opinion on support for costly proposals like a millionaire’s tax isn’t coincidental.

“Realizing that if you start spending money and raising taxes, that that’s not going to be good for your party, is a good thing,” Bramnick said. “But it’s different when you don’t have Chris Christie’s veto pen. They could rely on Christie’s veto pen, and taxes wouldn’t go up, but without that pen they have to take seriously where they raise taxes “

The nuclear option

On energy, a complicated nuclear subsidy proposal has also served as a point of conflict between Murphy and Sweeney. The latter has been pushing the bill (S-877), which was originally designed to prop up economically challenged nuclear plants operated by Public Service Enterprise Group by providing hundreds of millions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies to them. But the bill saw early resistance from Murphy and environmentalists, many of whom reject giving more money to the utility and would rather see greater investments in renewable-energy alternatives.

Sweeney, who has argued the legislation would help prevent 1,600 job losses at PSEG — most of them in in his home territory of South Jersey — had sought to push the bill through the Legislature during last month’s lame-duck session, before Murphy was sworn in. Instead, it was tabled in the Assembly by then-Speaker Vinnie Prieto, a north Jersey lawmaker and Murphy ally.

The legislation has since evolved into a broader overhaul of the state’s energy policy, incorporating new financial incentives for solar, energy-efficiency projects, and other clean-energy initiatives, such as energy storage.

“I think that caused Sweeney’s ire, so this is one of those areas where there’s disagreement,” said the New Jersey Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel, who has lobbied for the legislation to include more renewable-energy alternatives. “But whenever you get a new administration, the Legislature is going to test them. It doesn’t matter if you’re from the same party or different parties — there’s always going to be some tensions.”

Still others contend that, despite some initial awkwardness, there has been nothing much out of the ordinary about these first few weeks. Murphy’s team is still getting familiarized with day-to-day operations, they say, while lawmakers just want to make sure they’re doing their due diligence. For members of the Senate Judiciary committee, that often means scheduling one-on-one interviews with cabinet appointees before an actual hearing.

Weinberg, a liberal but staunch Sweeney ally, sits on the judiciary committee. She called its current pace “reasonable,” pointing to the house’s confirmation-hearing timeline under Christie, who was sworn into office on January 19, 2010 but whose attorney general nominee, Paula Dow, wasn’t confirmed for over a month. She also noted legislation that Murphy and the Legislature have already passed together, including two bills last week that would increase funding and eligibility for family-planning services, as well as issues that continue to enjoy broad consensus between the groups, such as raising the state’s minimum wage.

“Is there going to be some bumps in the road? Yes, but generally speaking, we all have the same goals,” she said, adding that Senate leaders are “trying to keep the communications lines open.”

And Sarlo, who recently convened the first informal discussion on the state’s tax-related policies, said revisiting the issue is necessary following the passage of the Trump’s legislation, which is likely to unduly impact New Jersey residents through its cap on the previously unlimited federal deduction for state and local taxes, also known as SALT.

The re-evaluation has not yet seen participation from members of Murphy’s administration, he said, though he hopes to bring them on board as the budget season approaches.

“Everything is going to be on the table,” Sarlo said. “We want to be able to speak openly and freely in light of what happened on the federal level. We have a new governor coming in who has an open mind, so now’s the time.”

“I don’t think anybody is opposed to having a work session to think outside of the box and make this state more affordable,” he added.

Given the tax problems as well as other challenges facing New Jersey, Hale also suggested that Murphy and Sweeney can’t really afford to not get along for very long.

“As they develop a relationship, both Sweeney and Murphy have a pretty big incentive to figure out how to play nice with each other,” he said.