Will Democrats Public Brawling Over Budget Hurt the Party Down the Road?

Some pundits say clash was inevitable, the result of an inexperienced governor taking on powerful, ambitious legislative leaders

Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy
Someone from out of state watching the continuing drama over the New Jersey budget, would likely be shocked to find out that the governor, Senate president and Assembly speaker are all members of the same party. For Democrats, these budget battles have become commonplace, although they can leave lasting scars within the party.

An inexperienced governor who thinks he has a mandate, a Legislature that has become more powerful — in particular, a Senate president who wanted to be governor — and an unwillingness, so far, to compromise on key political and ideological issues are the major factors contributing to the current stalemate over plans to spend about $37 billion to keep government running. Who will win is still unclear, as is how much the fight will damage Democratic unity in this blue state.

The eerie parallels between Gov. Phil Murphy’s current fight with the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the one Jon Corzine faced in his first year as governor in 2006 should give Murphy pause, several political observers said, drawing a connection between that fight and the eight-day government shutdown that accompanied it and Corzine’s loss in his re-election bid in 2009.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said the 2006 budget battle and shutdown that Corzine appeared to win in getting a 1-cent sales tax increase “created a deep chasm” between the governor and lawmakers.

“Democrats throughout the state were disappointed with Corzine and dialed back their support for him,” she said, calling that one factor in Corzine’s loss to Chris Christie by less than 100,000 votes. “If you are one of the party bosses and you can’t get what you need done, why are you going to continue to support him?”

Bitter battles leave scars

While Murphy and the Democrats mostly share the same values and goals, lingering animosity could also hurt Murphy’s ability to get his full agenda enacted.

“It seems a lot of Democrats are solidly behind Sen. President (Steve) Sweeney and (Assembly) Speaker (Craig) Coughlin,” Harrison continued. “They have circled the wagons. I don’t think that bodes well for how effective Murphy is going to be at governing.”

His inexperience in dealing with the legislative process and his partial staffing of positions with people from outside state government are at least part of the problem. While he has run into trouble similar as Corzine faced, past Democratic governors who had prior elective experience — Jim McGreevey and Jim Florio — had an easier time negotiating with lawmakers.

“I think most New Jersey governors seem to have a hard time in the first six months,” said John Weingart, director of the Eagleton Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University and a member of NJ Spotlight’s board. “The point is that it’s a new administration. Some significant positions go to significant campaign workers. Sometimes those skills translate, sometimes not. The Legislature had very little change.”

Refusing to forego millionaires tax

Another problem is that Murphy has been adamant in his determination to impose a millionaires tax and says his double-digit electoral margin means he should be able to do so. He won more than 56 percent of the vote, a 14-point margin over former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Republican.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said it has become increasingly clear over the past week that Murphy is unwilling to back away from a millionaires tax and instead accept the corporate tax increase the Democratic leaders are seeking.

“This is not just a revenue raiser, but it really is a core component of his identity as a national progressive, liberal Democrat,” Murray said.

Levying a millionaires tax was a major tenet of Murphy’s campaign and he said yesterday during a budget press conference in Trenton that he considers it the fairest way to raise revenues, certainly fairer than taxing summer rentals at the Jersey Shore.

“We got elected by over two touchdowns with a very clear mandate to rebuild the middle class,” Murphy said yesterday during a budget press conference in Trenton. “There is no ego in this at all for me.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Murphy said he has not discussed the current situation with Corzine. Pundits said that’s something he should have done.

“He does not understand what happened to Corzine,” said Murray, noting the similarities in their situations. “A brand new governor comes in with a double-digit victory and thinks he knows everything New Jersey wants and thinks he has a mandate. Then he finds out New Jerseyans care about a lot of other things.”

But Murphy need not shoulder all the blame for the current impasse.

Plenty of blame to go around

“New Jersey imbues its governor with more power than any other state in the country. How effectively that power is used depends on who is using it,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the new Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “The dynamic right now is that Murphy is facing a very experienced Senate president who clearly has his sights on the governor’s office.”

Many speculate that the genesis of the battle dates back to last year’s elections: Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had set his sights on running for governor but bowed out in the face of Murphy’s millions and his consolidation of support among the county party committees around the state. The New Jersey Education Association waged an unsuccessful multimillion dollar campaign to try to defeat Sweeney. Murphy did not try to stop the NJEA and three days after the election, he spoke at the union’s convention, rather than trying to meet with Sweeney and legislators.

“Party unity is not threatened by Murphy’s agenda but by ambition,” Dworkin said. “Senate President Steve Sweeney wanted to be governor. In the end, he chose not to run. Most people believe that ambition is still there, which means there is going to be continuing tension between them.”

“When he stepped aside and gave Murphy a clear path (to the governor’s office), Murphy didn’t repay that and get the NJEA to call off the dogs,” Monmouth University’s Murray said. “There’s no question Steve Sweeney holds a grudge.”

After he decided not to run, Sweeney maneuvered a coup for the top spot in the Assembly, elevating Coughlin, a lesser-known Democrat from Middlesex County, to the speakership and guaranteeing himself an ally.

State Legislature adds muscle

While New Jersey’s governor is very powerful, the Legislature’s power has grown as well, leading to more of the kinds of battles that are playing out now, said Jim McQueeny, a political consultant who advised the Murphy campaign and worked for former Democratic Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher. He said that before Gov. Brendan Byrne, a Democrat, left office in January 1982, he “cut a deal” with then-Gov.- elect Tom Kean, a Republican, to provide funds to the staffs of both parties in both houses of the Legislature, who previously had relied almost entirely on the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services for support.

“I mark that as the turning point that started down the path to empowering the Legislature to really be able to deal with the governor in a political, media, and financial sense,” McQueeny said. “The Legislature has more and more cemented its power. Then came the Speaker and Senate president PACs, which started to take away from the Democratic State Committee, which used to be the power.”

With their own political action committees, and more recently, independent expenditure organizations, the leaders of the houses can hold more sway over their members by promising — or withholding — financial support for elections, he said.

While Murphy, as head of the party, is able to use the DSC to send out emails and otherwise promote his proposal, Sweeney is sending out his own emails in support of his plan, paid for by the Senate Majority PAC.

“It’s not quite anarchy; I don’t know what you call it,” said McQueeny. “Is it out of balance, or now in balance? It depends on your view. What’s wrong with arguing. Isn’t that the way things are supposed to get done?”

What Democrats don’t want to happen, though, is to have this infighting affect future elections. Political observers say there is virtually no chance that the tussling will affect the upcoming federal midterm elections, in which Democrat Bob Menendez is defending his U.S. Senate seat against wealthy Republican Bob Hugin, and the party reportedly has a good chance of flipping as many as three GOP-held congressional districts.

There could be some fallout next year, when the entire state Assembly is on the ballot and Democrats may be forced to justify voting for tax increases. And if the party does not come together, Murphy could wind up having a tough time — and possibly even face a serious primary challenge — in 2021.

“Some say these are the opening salvos of the 2021 primary,” Harrison said. “That would be difficult, though, as money remains an issue. Gov. Murphy would likely again dump tens of millions of his own money in. Sen. President Sweeney can’t self-fund. But it would be different if he had all the party bosses behind him.”

At the moment, the Democrats are clearly acting more like a divided party, airing their grievance out in the open, which is making some in the party unhappy.

“There’s a lot of tough talk from both sides that normally happens behind closed doors. Rarely do you see it publicly displayed,” said former Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who spent 30 years in the Legislature and gave up his seat to run for governor last year. “That’s not a good thing.”

“What we are seeing is the airing of dirty laundry in public,” Harrison said. “The problem with that is compromise becomes more difficult because it involves one side backing down and it makes it more difficult for one side to save face.”

Still, there are also some signs that the party will remain strong once a budget is struck. For instance, several lawmakers who voted for the Legislature’s budget plan appeared at two of the press conferences Murphy held this week to push for his own budget proposal.

At yesterday’s press conference, with three lawmakers who voted for the Legislature’s budget present, Murphy chided that branch of the government, saying, “Legislators have a choice: We could on the one hand build the state’s future on a foundation of sound policy and smart investments, or bet it on gimmicks and wishful thinking.”

But then he introduced Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and the incoming mayor of Trenton, and the two men shook hands and hugged. Gusciora made a comment on the budget that could be read a number of ways: “I’ll be hanging with you until the end. I will stand by and support a good budget and fair budget process.”

Said Lesniak, “From what I can see, they are going to get over it.”