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Opinion: Murphy-Sweeney Tensions Put Damper on Dems’ Progressive Agenda

Victory was sweet for Democrats when Phil Murphy easily won election a year ago. But rancor between the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney threatens to splinter the party

carl golden
Carl Golden

When Phil Murphy coasted to victory in last year’s gubernatorial election, Democrats rejoiced that after eight frustrating years of failing to override a single veto by Gov. Chris Christie, they would at last enjoy unified government — control of the executive branch and the Legislature — smoothing the path toward enacting a progressive agenda.

As Murphy’s first year in office draws to a close, it increasingly appears the election night celebration was a tad premature. The path Democrats so eagerly sought has been strewn with potholes, threatening not only dreams of writing a progressive agenda into law, but splintering the party into competing factions vying for power.

It began early on with a major confrontation over the governor’s proposed budget and tax increases and, despite periodic lulls in overheated rhetoric, has entangled the governor and legislative leadership — most notably Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) — in contentious public disputes that jeopardize such high-priority agenda items as legalization of recreational marijuana, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and, most recently, a move to amend the constitution to dramatically alter the process through which legislative districts are established.

Abolishing criminal sanctions for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use while creating a statewide network of production and commercial sales and reaping a tax windfall from it was a major part of Murphy’s campaign platform and one which enjoyed strong popular support.

His confident prediction that it would be accomplished in his first 100 days collapsed as deadline after deadline passed in the face of unexpectedly strong opposition.

Sweeney blames Murphy

When it became clear the proposal was in danger of failing, Sweeney, a supporter of legalization, blamed Murphy for failing to move aggressively to bring recalcitrant legislators into line.

Even now, passage of the legislation approved by committees in both houses is uncertain as is the reception it would receive in the governor’s office.

Murphy, for instance, wants a tax rate of 25 percent — double that in the bill — and is concerned that creation of an independent commission to oversee all aspects of a legalization process would unnecessarily limit the administration’s influence over such crucial questions as licensing production and sales facilities, where they would be located, how many would be allowed, who would qualify as investors or license holders.

The governor would appoint three members of the five-person commission subject to Senate approval, while Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) would appoint one each, a sharing arrangement seen by some in the administration as a power-play attempt to curb executive authority.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour — another key pillar in Murphy’s campaign — initially appeared to be all but assured. Both Sweeney and Coughlin were supportive, but the issue lingered without action for the better part of this year, until the governor took it upon himself to hold a news conference to call for immediate consideration and implicitly blamed the Senate President for the delay.

An enraged Sweeney accused the governor of “grandstanding” and conducting “showboating” news conferences rather than working with the leadership to resolve their differences. The major point of contention involves coverage under an increased minimum wage, with Murphy wanting a blanket program while Sweeney has recommended exemptions for farmworkers and teenagers working part time. He is concerned also over the potential economic impact on small businesses.

They haven’t spoken in how long?

In the rancorous exchange between the two, Sweeney said he hadn’t spoken with Murphy in nearly two months — a startling revelation and an indication of just how badly relations between the two have deteriorated.

The effort led by Sweeney to amend the constitution to dramatically revise the process for legislative redistricting drew cries of outrage from a broad spectrum of academics, government scholars, editorial writers and columnists.

Murphy, while stopping short of outright opposition, was critical of the last-minute rush to approve the legislation for the proposed amendment before the end of the year, again taking a less than subtle shot at Sweeney by suggesting the entire idea came out of a backroom deal. The process, he said, was “completely unacceptable.”

While the rushed process may be concerning to the governor, he is acutely mindful that the proposal would seriously diminish the influence of the state party and, by indirection, the governor in the redistricting effort.

The existing 11-member redistricting commission would be increased to 13 under the proposal, but the crucial point is the recommended apportioning of the membership.

Taking a shot at the party establishment

The chairs of the two state parties would receive two appointments each, down from five, while two appointments each would be made by the Senate President, Speaker and minority leaders in the two houses. A-tie breaking 13th member would be appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as is the current practice.

The proposal is, without question, a direct shot at the party establishment while dramatically elevating the legislative role in drawing legislative district boundaries.

Sweeney’s relations with Democratic state chair John Currie have been frosty at best, reaching back to the 2017 gubernatorial primary season when Currie struck a deal with Murphy to line up the support of county chairs and award the favored ballot position to him in return for Murphy’s generosity toward the county and local party organizations.

The deal dashed whatever hopes Sweeney had of mounting a credible primary challenge to Murphy and he withdrew from consideration.

The two have clashed on other occasions as well, notably during this year’s budget deliberations when a political action committee aligned with Murphy aired a series of television ads touting the administration’s budget proposal and implicitly taking a swipe at the legislative leaders for opposing portions of it.

Budget impasse not forgotten

The budget impasse was resolved only after it became clear that speculation about a government shutdown was creating a public relations nightmare for Murphy and fears that the administration would bear the bulk of the blame if the first thing unified government accomplished was closing government.

The consensus that emerged was that Murphy conceded more than he gained, losing his recommendations for increased income and sales taxes, for instance, while Sweeney’s view that government taxed and spent more than was necessary prevailed.

The budget policy conflict was by no means put to rest, though, and is likely to be repeated in a few months when Murphy submits his fiscal 2019-2020 budget and, as widely anticipated, calls for the tax increases he failed to secure this year.

Sweeney and Coughlin have been adamant anti-tax advocates, pledging to oppose any broad-based revenue raising suggestions the governor may submit.

The hard feelings from the budget confrontation have lingered, never very far from Sweeney’s thoughts. And, the divisions that have opened over the marijuana legalization, minimum-wage increase and redistricting amendment are continuing manifestations of how quickly election night euphoria can come crashing down to earth under political pressures involved in actually governing.

There remains some hope that recreational marijuana possession will be legalized eventually and that workers will receive $15 an hour minimum, but the controversy surrounding them and the public swapping of derisive comments will not be forgotten.

The progressive agenda Democrats felt was on the verge of reality little more than a year ago hasn’t changed, but fully realizing it has proven far more difficult.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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