Governor Phil Murphy’s second inaugural address on Tuesday marked a turning point in the history of New Jersey governors.
It is now clear that governors in New Jersey’s fabled tradition who wanted to stay on the farm and devote their full energy and focus to their second term are figures of bygone eras.
The last two governors, Christine Todd Whitman and Chris Christie, couldn’t resist the siren song of the national stage.
Whitman left to head the Environmental Protection Agency in former President George W. Bush’s administration, and Christie was mostly an absentee governor while he was vying for the presidency and later as campaign vice presidential surrogate for Donald Trump.
Now we have Murphy, a Democrat, auditioning for the 2024 presidential contest.
“If you want to understand what America can be, come to New Jersey,” Murphy told the pandemic-reduced crowd at the War Memorial in Trenton. “If you want to see what’s right with America, look to New Jersey.”
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A blunt speech in Iowa?
It sounded like the start of a pitch Murphy could make at one of those catch-call events in Iowa where hopefuls pander to party activists and donors.
These events also give potential candidates a chance to refine some of their talking points, such as the predictable “I’m the refreshing alternative to Washington’s gridlock.”
“While some in Washington are literally bragging about stopping progress, we lower our heads and do the hard work,” Murphy said. “While some in Washington cling to the big lie, we believe in a greater truth and reach for big dreams.”
In his unspoken ambition for the big stage, Murphy drew heavily on the playbook of his often acrimonious adversary and predecessor, Christie. At his second inauguration, Christie also offered his first term as a laboratory for success for the nation to emulate.
“Each of those challenges was met by a new, unified force in public life — a New Jersey that sets the tone for an entire nation,” Christie said in January 2014, shortly after the first Bridgegate revelations rained down on him at the parade.
Of course, one could also argue that Murphy was attempting to stem speculation by citing Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party presidential candidate twice defeated by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. Citing a largely forgotten two-time loser — the “Jeopardy!” contestants who didn’t identify themselves on a recent show — is hardly a way to offer yourself as a future Oval Office winner.
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Right and wrong
It’s not the first time Murphy has tried to compare Jersey to Washington. When he first took office, he took a similar approach by targeting the Donald Trump administration.
“This isn’t so much a battle between Democrats and Republicans as it is a battle of right and wrong — between standing up for the people of New Jersey or standing up for failed politics in Washington,” Murphy said in 2018.
And he began his New Jersey-as-a-laboratory-for-the-nation riff in his November victory speech. But on Tuesday he expanded the subject. He was much more insistent.
It’s worth noting that the governor announced some broad-based ambitions for the second term on Tuesday. He shared his desire to actually lower property taxes — which governor doesn’t?
“I want to take us to a place where we can start to see them sink,” he said. “So, this year. Enough already.”
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He pledged to continue his push to expand pre-kindergarten education; Promoting the innovation economy, clean energy initiatives and “high tech”; and support the state’s fledgling cannabis and sports betting industries.
At first glance, that certainly sounds like a governor planning to stay here and plow the 40 acres of his second-term agenda.
But he also sounded a lot like a candidate trying to position himself in the sweet spot of a troubled national Democratic Party, somewhere between progressives pushing for justice and moderates looking for affordability (a word he used on Tuesday used several times). He branded himself a consensus candidate for 2024.
Murphy alerted the national political class to give him a serious look, especially if President Joe Biden continues his current swoop, Vice President Kamala Harris cannot argue as a viable replacement, and others, like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, linger in single digit polls.
It also served as a reminder that the days of a second-term New Jersey governor who wasn’t distracted by national ambitions and truly means business when he says that being governor is the greatest honor and ambition his career are over. And that would be a shame.
While it’s true that second terms can quickly turn into dead ends, fully committed sophomores who stay in Trenton are capable of enduring, consistent work. Democrat Richard J. Hughes enacted the sales tax, New Jersey’s first statewide levy, and modernized and expanded state government.
Brendan T. Byrne, the last Democrat to win a second term, imposed the tree moratorium on the Pinelands, founded NJ Transit, and began development of Liberty State Park. His successor, Republican Thomas H. Kean, won national recognition for his efforts at social reform.
Even Christie overhauled New Jersey’s bail system when he was a candidate, although most of the public resented that his energies were directed toward his national ambitions. They felt he checked out.
Will Murphy check out? He insisted on Tuesday that his plan is to ensure the “American dream – with Jersey flavor and with Jersey attitude – is alive and well.”
The question we all have to live with is: will he try to live his dream here — or on a campaign stage somewhere in Iowa?
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insight into the New Jersey political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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