Carl Golden breaks down budget fight and its political ramifications

It took no small amount of political arm twisting and horse trading for the governor and legislative leaders to agree on the budget. Who won the long and bitter budget brawl and what does it mean going forward? Long time Jersey political insider Carl Golden, press secretary to both Govs. Kean and Whitman, sat down with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: This budget fight, what was it all about?

Golden: What was it all about? It was about power. And who has it, and who can exercise it. Who has it in greater measures than whom.

Aron: Why did it become such a power struggle?

Golden: I think it was, in many ways, Steve Sweeney in particular since he seemed to be the leader here, although Coughlin played a role, Craig Coughlin played a role. It was a reassertion on Sweeney’s part, of legislative authority, that while the Constitution says that you’re a coequal branch of government, he wanted to make sure it was a coequal branch of government policy-wise, as well as politically. And I think that what he did was, in essence, send a message to the governor, over a fairly long period of time, using the budget as a vehicle for the message to say, ‘Your agenda goes through my House, and if you want to get it done you’ve got to a, go through my house and b, deal with me on an equal level.’ He wasn’t so crass as to say, you know, ‘I’m co-governor.’ He wouldn’t do that, but the message was there.

Aron: Why haven’t other Senate presidents and Assembly speakers routinely tried to make the same expression that, ‘We’re equal to you and we’re going to block you’?

Golden: Well, in a way, Sweeney was for eight years a Chris Christie. He just spent eight years dealing with Chris Christie. It never came to this sort of confrontation. The two of them struck all these deals on their own, which irritated and annoyed some people in his own caucus. Not so much his own caucus, but in the Assembly under former Speaker Prieto, who, at one point said, you know, ‘You’re going to cut these deals with the governor, and then you come back and tell us what you want us to do.’ But, he didn’t have to reassert the power. He had it because Christie saw to it that he dealt with Sweeney on that coequal level. So there was never really these sort of serious confrontations; they were all resolved and worked out ahead of time. You know, Tom Kean tells a story when he talked to Chris Christie at one point, early on. He said to Christie, ‘Who’s your best friend?’ And Chris Christie said, ‘My wife.’ And Kean said, ‘No, no, no. It’s the Senate President.’ There’s a lot of truth to that.

Aron: What did Murphy show in this fight? Did he stand up to what was coming at him?

Golden: I think he tried to, but I think he was headstrong in many ways by his inexperience. He never held elected office, as you know. Never used to dealing in the political dark arts, so to speak. And I think there was a certain level of naiveté. He didn’t have himself surrounded by people who were accustomed to that environment, and in working and dealing in that atmosphere, and I think it showed. I think it was highlighted in many ways by those TV ads that was put up by this nonprofit, New Directions New Jersey, I think it’s called. When Sweeney and Coughlin both went to the governor, and said, ‘No, don’t do this because this is going to be interpreted as you, you know, bringing pressure on us in the Legislature to accept what you want in your budget proposal.’ And, even though it turned out that the script was rather benign, the fact that they went ahead and did it over the objections of the two presiding officers was really a slap in the face to them. That should never have been done. It didn’t impact the eventual outcome of the budget negotiations.

Aron: Maybe it was just showing some strength and not wanting to be rolled over by these more experienced politicians?

Golden: But they failed at that, because when they said, ‘Well you know, it’s not an effort to force you to do anything. Look, the script really doesn’t say much other than we’re doing a good job.’ Well if that’s the case, why do it at all? Why take the risk of upsetting them, and annoying them, ignoring what their objections to it were. That was just not a smart move on his part.

Aron: Does any of them — Sweeney, Murphy, Coughlin — pay a price for what’s occurred in the past couple weeks?

Golden: I think the governor may pay a price, eventually, over the next three and a half years because he has a pretty adventurous agenda that’s still left unfilled. And he wants to, obviously, carry it through.

Aron: Parts of it get fulfilled in this budget, or he gets down payments on his various goals.

Golden: Yeah, even the down payment, you want to fund the free college tuition and county colleges, that got cut in half. He still has no $15 minimum wage. And a number of other things. All of those have to, you know, be negotiated out with Sweeney, and with Coughlin to a lesser extent, but with Sweeney primarily. So, it’s not going to be a smooth three and a half years. I mean, right now his agenda is kind of drifting a little aimlessly out there, and with no money coming in via these tax increases that he wanted, because he abandoned those for the most part. No money coming in, fulfilling an agenda is going to be very difficult. He’s not going to get tax increases next year. 2019 when the Assembly’s the top of the ticket? Those Democrats aren’t going to run on defending tax increases.

Aron: So what are the prospects for them being able to work together in the months ahead?

Golden: Oh, I think they’ll be able to work together. A lot of the rhetoric you saw the past couple of weeks and months got pretty harsh at times. You know, I was amazed when Sweeney compared the governor to Donald Trump at one point. It got pretty harsh. I think that in their larger self-interests, you know that always sort of trumps, ‘You know, I really don’t like this guy’ and they see where their interests coincide, where their interests complement one another. You know, they’ll be able to work together. The budget, arguably, that’s the most important legislative piece of the session. And it’s largely a political document, because it lays out, you know, policies and programs, philosophies and principles. So it’s largely a political document, as well as a fiscal document. That’s why it was raised to the level it was. But I think in the future a lot of this will be able to put behind them. They probably never forget what they went through, but they’ll be able to put it aside. They’ll be able to store their snarkiness in the closet for a couple years.

Aron: Carl, thanks for talking to us. It’s always good to talk to you.

Golden: Michael, my pleasure.