More than two years before George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis sparked a national outcry for a crackdown on police violence, New Jersey Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake was fighting to make the investigation of deaths in police custody fair and impartial, unclouded by the often intimate relationship between county prosecutors and law enforcement. At times it seemed like an uphill battle. Timberlake’s proposed bill, A3115, required the state to take charge of police-involved death investigations, moving prosecutions out of the counties where the killings occurred. It faced staunch opposition from the state’s powerful police unions and New Jersey’s attorney general. Because the attorney general was a high-profile appointee of Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, there was speculation that A3115 would be vetoed. But, Timberlake recalls, “Governor Murphy listened to us, even though he was getting pressure from folks who were very opposed. He knew that it was the right thing to do, and he proceeded according to his moral compass.”
The day the legislation was signed, Timberlake hailed Murphy “for proving yet again his dedication to being progressive, not just in words but in action.”
Murphy is getting similar reviews from plenty of left-leaning legislators and activists this fall as he seeks a second term as a Democratic governor who—to the surprise of those who were once skeptical about the former investment banker—has compiled a record as an innovative leader on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to economic inequality and mass transit. “He’s proven to be an extraordinarily progressive governor,” says Sue Altman, the executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Party. In his first term, Murphy began the process of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, guaranteed paid sick leave, implemented a tax on millionaires, and funded tuition-free community college for low-income students. He’s made it easier to vote, issued orders to empower immigrants and refugees, restored state funding for Planned Parenthood, and signed what’s been celebrated as the most sweeping equal pay law in the United States.
Hetty Rosenstein has four decades of experience with New Jersey’s largest state employee union. Shortly before she stepped down in April as the longtime state director of the Communications Workers of America, she said, “There has never, ever been a more progressive [New Jersey] governor, or a governor who’s been more effective on progressive issues. He’s raised so many expectations because of that.”
Rosenstein would eventually join Murphy’s reelection campaign with a title—senior adviser for progressive coalitions—that nods to the governor’s approach and a charge to “create a mandate for even greater change and progress.”
Frustration often accompanies high expectations, and Murphy still gets his share of criticism from activists, especially reformers who fret that he has not done enough to challenge the county Democratic machines—and their legislative allies—which have often been as bad as the Republicans when it comes to obstructing change in New Jersey. But many former critics acknowledge that the businessman turned politician has not merely kept his promises to address economic, social, and racial justice concerns in a state that until nearly four years ago was under the thumb of the bombastic Republican Chris Christie. Indeed, Murphy has often exceeded them.
His record is particularly significant at a time when Democrats across the country are watching President Joe Biden struggle to implement his agenda and when many Democratic governors have earned mixed reviews—or worse. Consider the scandals swirling around Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee, the downfall and resignation of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or California Governor Gavin Newsom’s (now averted) recall scare. Meanwhile, Murphy’s approval ratings consistently hover in the 50s, and polls show him with a lead at or near the double digits over his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, heading into the November 2 election. If Murphy wins a second term, he’ll be the first Democrat to do so in more than four decades—a reminder that, while the Garden State tends to vote Democratic at the presidential level, Republicans have remained highly competitive in state races.
What can Democrats outside New Jersey, who will be facing fierce battles for statehouses nationwide in 2022, learn from Murphy’s approach? The New Jersey governor’s humane response to the pandemic has certainly been a factor in his success. He holds lively press conferences twice a week, where he and other state officials make the case for masks, vaccinations, and state interventions to address economic hardship, and he includes poignant reflections based on conversations he’s had with New Jerseyans who have lost loved ones. But the more pointed lesson may be that Murphy has figured out how to sell progressive policies as common sense. Instead of presenting himself as a bleeding-heart liberal, the governor says he’s a “cold-blooded” manager who can make the case for taxing the rich, legalizing marijuana, and dismissing anti-vaxxers as “knuckleheads.”
Murphy is certainly no radical. He’s a Harvard- and Wharton-educated former Goldman Sachs executive who became wealthy during more than two decades with the multinational investment bank—the governor and his wife, Tammy, also a Goldman Sachs alum, are worth more than $50 million based on older tax records. A “Kennedy Democrat” raised in a working-class Massachusetts family that he says talked about politics at the dinner table, Murphy became a prolific fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee when former Vermont governor Howard Dean chaired the DNC and launched his 50-state strategy. After raising millions for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, Murphy was appointed US ambassador to Germany. His Wall Street background didn’t exactly endear him to progressives when in late 2014 the Murphys launched a think tank, New Start New Jersey, which was widely seen as a vehicle to prepare for his 2017 gubernatorial bid.
Activists had other favorites in that year’s primary race—as did many party insiders—but Murphy outspent them and earned grudging support for running an issues-oriented campaign that outlined plans to raise wages, support teachers, address gun violence, and defend abortion rights. He easily won the nomination of a Democratic Party that was desperate to regain the state’s top job after nearly eight years of Christie’s scandal-plagued governance. In the fall, Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, tried to paint the Democrat as an out-of-touch rich guy. She got no traction. Indeed, with his talk of creating a public bank and requiring New Jersey’s pension funds to divest from hedge funds and private equity firms, along with an outsider’s pledge to put an end to the cozy relationships between New Jersey politicians of both parties and corporate interests, Murphy won praise from Dean, who argued, “Sometimes, it takes someone who knows capitalism to fix it.”
No one is going to confuse Murphy with Bernie Sanders. But, like President Biden, the New Jersey governor has embraced the notion that the proposals Sanders and Elizabeth Warren brought into the mainstream as presidential candidates make sense morally, socially, and economically. While Biden sometimes struggles to communicate that message, Murphy seizes openings to talk about New Jersey’s experiment with actually implementing progressive policies.
“We’re still in the middle of the experiment, but so far it looks like we were more right than wrong,” he says when we meet in his bustling fifth-floor office in Trenton. “When you pay people more money, they spend the damn money. When you make health care more affordable and accessible to folks who heretofore could not access it or afford it, they become healthier. Is it good for them? It’s clearly good for them. It’s good for us. When you give a driver’s license to somebody regardless of their [immigration] status, do they benefit? Clearly. You and I benefit. The research is overwhelming that the roads are safer.”
Murphy calls his combination of compassion and practicality “pragmatic progressivism.” Take S4154, the so-called “clean slate” bill that he signed into law in December 2019, creating a path for New Jerseyans with low-level marijuana convictions to have their criminal records vacated. Since July 1, when the state Supreme Court backed up the expungement strategy, over 362,000 marijuana cases have been vacated or dismissed. Murphy says this has “unleashed” productivity and optimism among those who had “been under the burden of a conviction for marijuana”—especially young Black men, who’ve been disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.
“I think if you have that thread that runs through every one of your actions, it works,” Murphy says. “Are we good guys? I think so. Is this the right thing to do, to reform marijuana convictions? Yeah, it’s the right thing. It’s also the smart thing to do. You have a stronger, healthier, more optimistic, and ultimately growing state. I really believe that.”
What’s striking is how so many former skeptics have come to believe that Murphy really does. When he introduced his first state budget proposal shortly after taking office in 2018, The Star-Ledger labeled it “the very model of a modern progressive budget,” and Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said the plan put Murphy on the “A-team” of progressive governors, adding: “He is as progressive as any governor in the United States.”
More telling, perhaps, are the recent converts. The support Murphy’s won from the Rev. Charles Boyer is illustrative. “Governor Murphy has received criticism from me on multiple occasions,” recalls Boyer, the pastor of the Greater Mount Zion AME Church in Trenton and the founder of Salvation and Social Justice, a faith-based group that advocates for racial justice. “But rather than ignore it, rather than become vindictive or lash out, he has done all he can to rise to the challenge.” A July endorsement of Murphy by the pastor, who rarely weighs in on political races, drew widespread attention in the state. Boyer ticked off the policy breakthroughs under Murphy’s leadership: He has “ended cannabis prohibition, and done so in such a way that the legalization of it has a reparative-justice taxation structure, where dollars are to come back to the communities most harmed by prohibition…. [He has] restored voting rights to over 83,000 people on probation and parole…. The Division on Civil Rights has been restored and means something again. [A] $15-an-hour minimum wage is the order of the day.”
Governors, like presidents, often start out strong. Murphy certainly did, with his bold first budget plan and his support for an investigation into tax incentives benefiting politically connected companies, including some associated with South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross. The challenge is to sustain faith in the prospect that progressive governance can bring real change. Murphy, for his part, has faced criticism from environmentalists for joining regional governors in approving a fracked-gas export facility on the Delaware River and from immigrant rights groups for taking years to sign legislation banning state and local governments from renewing contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And there’s frustration with Murphy’s failure to reform local elections in ways that might weaken the power of the machines, as well as his recent support for business tax incentives that reformers say will be abused.
Still, Altman, the Working Families Party activist who has frequently tangled with old-school party leaders, says Murphy has forced Democrats in the legislature to move in dramatically more progressive directions. “He came in with this refreshing vision that said, ‘I want to be first. I want New Jersey to be the best in the country,’” she recalls. “The Democratic Party often muddles along here in New Jersey. The governor came in and said, ‘That’s not good enough.’ They didn’t react well at first, but if you look at the record, you can see he’s had real success.” In a recent review of the governor’s first term, Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, told The Star-Ledger that Murphy had “fulfilled or started to fulfill virtually all of the major progressive promises he made in his first campaign.” Dworkin suggested that the popularity of the agenda helped explain why polls put Murphy ahead in a reelection race that—like Virginia’s contest on the same day—will measure public sentiment regarding Democrats a year after Biden’s election.
Murphy is a student of history, clearly familiar with Louis Brandeis’s axiom about the states serving as America’s “laboratories of democracy.” He gets cagey when asked about whether New Jersey should serve as a model for other states or for the Biden administration. Yet, if he is reelected in November, especially by a wide margin, Phil Murphy will offer an object lesson in how a governor—perhaps even a president—can implement a progressive agenda and thrive.