Gov. Murphy Names Three Women to Cabinet, Attaining First Female Majority

Colleen O'Dea | February 21, 2018 | Politics
Governor says his three nominations help fulfill campaign promise of building the most diverse administration in state history

Gov. Phil Murphy with the three newest nominees to his cabinet (from left) Deirdre Webster Cobb, B. Sue Fulton, and Zakiya Smith Ellis
With the nomination of three more women to his cabinet on Tuesday, Gov. Phil Murphy has made history, creating New Jersey’s first female-majority cabinet, as well as the state’s most diverse cabinet to date.

The latest nominees are a former education adviser to President Barack Obama, as secretary of higher education; a former U.S. Army captain and West Point graduate as chair of the Motor Vehicle commission; and a long-time employee of the state as chair of the civil service commission. Murphy introduced the three Tuesday at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

“With these three nominations … we are making history,” Murphy said. “For the first time in New Jersey in 242 years, the majority of the governor’s cabinet appointees will be female. It has taken us a short 56 governors to get to this point … (But) it’s not just the number of women. I feel confident in saying New Jersey has the most diverse cabinet of any state in this nation.”

Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, confirmed Murphy’s claim. The past record holder was Democrat Jon Corzine, whose cabinet was 43 percent female. Former Gov. Chris Christie’s cabinet was 29 percent female at its height. CAWP does not track cabinets in other states, since at least some of those positions are elected. But Walsh compared New Jersey to the federal government; Donald Trump’s cabinet is 22 percent female.

‘Good for women’

“It’s good for women, it’s good for the governor of the state as he is making policy,” she said. “In those meetings, he will have a group of people that really reflects New Jersey.”

For Deb Huber, president of the National Organization for Women’s New Jersey chapter, the Murphy administration has been a great one.

“I was thrilled to be able to sit there and listen to Murphy brag about all the women he has named. How could I not have a smile on my face?” said Huber, who attended the announcement. “It’s as if women are equal to men.”

Calling his nominees “standouts in their fields,” Murphy noted that he had pledged during the campaign that he would choose a diverse cabinet and said he is not nominating individuals simply because of their gender, race, or ethnicity, but also because they are “tremendously talented” and committed to serving the state.

‘A different type of administration’

“I pledged … that we would be a different type of administration, we would lead in new ways,” Murphy said. “This commitment includes putting a leadership team on the field that mirrors our state in its diversity, its talent, and its capabilities … In and of itself, it can’t be the only objective but it is one of the core objectives. We are the most diverse state by most measures of any state in this country.”

“It’s important to note that this is a very talented, smart group of people that he put together,” Walsh said.

Zakiya Smith Ellis

The first nominee Murphy introduced was Zakiya Smith Ellis, for Secretary of Higher Education. Smith Ellis is currently director of finance and federal policy at the Lumina Foundation, where she leads efforts to develop new models to help students afford postsecondary education, including working with states to design college affordability initiatives. Prior to that, she was a senior policy adviser for education to President Barack Obama and had held a similar position at the U.S. Department of Education.

“My career in public service has been animated by a desire to improve educational opportunity for those in need, and I believe deeply in the power of higher education to both help individuals and strengthen the economy at large,” said Smith Ellis, who holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

She said she is familiar with the “powerful movement brewing in our nation around the concept of free community college” — a Murphy campaign promise — and would work to develop a “responsible approach” for New Jersey to adopt this.

B. Sue Fulton

The governor also nominated B. Sue Fulton to be chair and chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. A former U.S. Army captain, Fulton currently serves as executive director of the Women in The Service Change Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for women in the armed forces. She was among the first women to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and has also worked for several New Jersey-based Fortune 500 companies.

“At West Point, the ideals of leadership are drilled into you: Duty, honor, country, respect, integrity, personal courage, selfless service,” said Fulton, who lives in Madison. “West Point did not really teach me leadership. My soldiers did. If I was honest and I had their backs, they would always get the job done. No one who has commanded soldiers really loses that responsibility … I bring that sense of duty to the Motor Vehicle Commission.”

Murphy said he is charging Fulton with implementing an initiative that will automatically register a person to vote when they get a driver’s license. She pledged to work hard to put that system in place, as well as, in a nod to the MVC’s past reputation for long waits, “ensure that all New Jerseyans are treated with respect when they come to our offices.”

Fulton is perhaps the first openly gay cabinet member in New Jersey history and her nomination was applauded by Garden State Equality.

“We are optimistic that this is just the beginning of a long line of appointments and decisions made by Gov. Murphy that will positively impact and be reflective of the LGBT community,” said Christian Fuscarino, GSE’s executive director.

Deirdre Webster Cobb

Murphy nominated Deirdre Webster Cobb, who has worked in state government for more than 25 years, to be chair and chief executive officer of the state Civil Service Commission. She is the current equal employment opportunity/affirmative action officer at the Department of Treasury, where she oversees enforcement of state policies prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.

“As a career public servant, I understand the issues that the civil service system has experienced over the last 28 years,” said Webster Cobb, who holds a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “My goal is to implement Gov. Murphy’s agenda by working diligently to address these issues in cooperation with labor and management with a clear and open mind. I plan to undertake a thorough review of the current system to determine the areas that need improvement for the well-being of all government employees.”

Murphy charged her with “righting an agency that like so many over the last eight years veered away from its core responsibility and became politicized, there is no other way to put that. We need to restore a civil service commission that works as an independent commission and unbiased voice in labor relations.”

Labor unions have complained about many of the commission’s actions as trying to weaken civil service protections over the past eight years, including one that had sought to make it easier for department heads to promote state workers by putting them in “job bands,” rather than by competitive testing.

Murphy said Webster Cobb has “built a reputation for honesty and integrity and for following the law in her decisions. Hers is the leadership we need now.”

These nominations leave only one cabinet position open, that of superintendent of the State Police. Murphy is expected to name its current leader, Col. Patrick Callahan, to that spot later this week.

Most of the 21-member cabinet is currently serving in “acting” leadership roles, as the state Senate has not yet taken up most of the nominations, in part due to a reported rift between Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). Among those nominated so far, 11 are women and nine are men.