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How Covid-19 made New Jersey’s Phil Murphy the most powerful governor in America

TRENTON — New Jersey endows its governors with the most executive power in the nation. Chris Christie knew it and used that broad authority to become a hero of the Republican Party — a state-level strongman who forced Democrats to do his will or face his wrath.

Few thought Phil Murphy, his Democratic successor, would consolidate that power even further. Murphy struggled early on to move his progressive agenda through the solidly Democratic Legislature. Rival factions formed to oppose him. His signature proposal — a new tax on millionaires — was rejected twice.

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Now, six months into a global pandemic that’s shattered the state’s economy and killed roughly 16,000 residents, Murphy has become one of the most popular governors in New Jersey history — and discovered just how much say he has over the state and its government.

The question is, how long can it last?

With immense emergency powers afforded under New Jersey’s constitution, the one-time Goldman Sachs partner has almost unchecked sway over how the state navigates the most complex public health and economic challenge in a century.

Every 30 days for the last six months, Murphy has re-upped a public health emergency order that’s allowed him to bypass the Legislature and normal rule making procedures. Businesses were directed to close. Evictions and foreclosures have been suspended. Should it come to it, the state could confiscate privately held medical supplies.

Covid-19 will remain a public health threat for the foreseeable future. And now, six months into the pandemic, few expect Murphy to give up his powers, even if they’d like him to.

“We shut the government down to get control on this. Clearly, the administration has a good handle on this now and we need to go back to how we were governing prior,” state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat and Murphy’s main rival in Trenton, said in an interview. “You don’t stay in a state of emergency forever.”

In the coming weeks, the limits of Murphy’s newfound political muscle will be put to the test as he tries to negotiate a state spending plan and fill a $ 5.6 billion revenue hole. The governor has loaded his new budget proposal with big-ticket policies, some new and some old, the administration has cast as tools to rebuild the state’s broken economy and resolve racial inequities.

Unlike previous budget cycles, when his attempts to utilize the bully pulpit failed to make a dent in the public consciousness or move opposing lawmakers, Murphy’s grip on New Jersey’s political scene has tightened to a point where it’s almost all-consuming.

Administration officials and Murphy insiders believe the pandemic — and his accompanying popularity — burnishes their ability to execute on a vision legislators once batted aside. And while lawmakers have given no indication they’ll roll over, they may have little choice but to go along with his plans.

“Would you give up any of the power?” Jon Bramnick, the Republican minority Leader in the state Assembly who’s rumored to be exploring a run against Murphy in 2021, said in an interview. “None of the governors I knew, I don’t think any of the governors, would do that. That goes for Democrats and Republicans.”

Prior to the pandemic, there was little sense Murphy would translate his gubernatorial power into political capital.

Even after leading an intraparty war against a deeply-entrenched South Jersey Democratic machine, the governor’s public profile cast a relatively faint shadow, particularly compared to larger-than-life characters like Christie or Sen. Cory Booker. A Monmouth University poll, taken almost a year ago, pegged Murphy’s approval rating as hovering just above water. More than one-in-five residents said they held no opinion of him.

The pandemic catapulted Murphy’s easygoing public persona into the forefront of public consciousness. New Jersey recorded its first case of Covid-19 on March 4, the same day Murphy underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his kidney. As the health crisis exploded and Murphy imposed a statewide lockdown — spinning off related calamities around rising unemployment, schools, a chasmic budget hole and a dearth of medical resources — the governor’s daily press briefings became appointment television.

By April, a Monmouth University poll had his approval rating above 70 percent.

Murphy’s growing national profile dovetailed with a much more aggressive use of his public platform.

Covid-19 ate into every facet of the state’s economy and government and, as the curve flattened, Murphy began utilizing his daily briefings — and frequent appearances on national media platforms — to highlight efforts around criminal justice reform, climate change and vote-by-mail initiatives. Presentations regularly incorporated shout-outs to corporate partners in the recovery, good Samaritans and small businesses that qualified for state relief programs.

He hammered the state Senate over a borrowing proposal, which Sweeney looked askance, to shore up the state’s crumbling balance sheet. That legislation, which included important oversight provisions giving the Legislature some power over how that debt could be utilized, eventually passed and withstood a court challenge by Republicans.

In late-spring, with the state still in lockdown, lawmakers like Sweeney and Republicans had grown increasingly pointed in their criticism of Murphy’s handling of the pandemic. But those critiques didn’t appear to land. By late May, Murphy’s full-court press had carved away the lanes by which his rivals could advance their own agendas.

The assumption in Murphy world — which is supported by a Fairleigh DIckinson University poll from late June — is that New Jerseyans generally consider Murphy’s pandemic response and accompanying policies to be credible.

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“That credibility has given him considerable power not just with the people, but within Trenton,” one senior administration official told POLITICO in August. “When you’re polling at 90 percent within your own party and you’re a year-and-a -half away from when members are going to want to be lined up with you [for the 2021 election], of course it gives you tremendous credibility on many of these issues,”

But the summer has been far from smooth sailing. Plans to open restaurants for indoor dining were pushed back after fresh outbreaks exploded across the U.S. A sudden surge of new cases, largely linked to house parties, prompted the governor to scale back indoor capacity limits.

After six months, Murphy’s embrace of the spotlight, coupled with his unshaking control over the state through emergency powers, has fueled increasingly public displays of frustration.

Interviews with more than 20 lawmakers, elected officials, lobbyists and political operatives paint a complicated portrait of the governor’s stance at the top of New Jersey’s political heap.

Praise for his early handling of the lockdown is often couched in resentment over the administration’s glacial unwinding of those restrictions. Recognition — both begrudging and reverential — for his use of emergency powers to flatten the curve fades into frustration when topics like school reopenings, indoor dining, gyms or long-term care facilities are raised.

Many of those critiques come with an acknowledgment of the impossible choices Murphy’s had to confront over the last six months; weighing livelihoods against lives.

Even now, with gyms, schools and restaurants set to reopen within days of each other, New Jersey’s rate of spread is hovering close to a dangerous benchmark. Hundreds of new cases are still being reported daily.

“This is not a situation the Legislature can deal with. It’s a rapidly moving situation and the numbers change day-to-day,” Carl Golden, who served as a spokesman for Republican governors Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, said in an interview. “He’s taken executive authority to lengths and to a degree that it hasn’t been taken before, but it’s in response to a situation that we’ve never been in before.”

That’s of little consolation to those used to having their voices heard on political, economic or policy matters, many of whom sought a much more aggressive reopening timeline.

Several members of Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Council, an amassing of influential activists, advocates, and business leaders tasked with helping in the state’s recovery effort, claim their recommendations often went unheeded as the administration proceeded with its reopening framework.

Though that perspective was hardly universal among participants interviewed by POLITICO — and one administration officials pushed back on — there’s little sense of the degree to which outside input translates into administrative action.

“Without a report, you don’t know what’s informing decisions,” said the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s Michele Siekerka, who served on one of the council’s subcommittees.

Despite whatever feedback is solicited or received, it’s Murphy who decides what businesses can reopen. The disbursement of personal protective equipment and federal relief funds flow through his office or those of his cabinet members. Even in a state that ascribes almost complete control over schools to local authorities, it’s Murphy’s state Department of Education that must sign-off on remote learning plans.

The latter represented the greatest single challenge to Murphy’s authority.

The governor’s initial plan for the school year, rolled out in June, required districts to develop plans for in-person instruction. By early August, the state’s teachers union — Murphy’s base — was vocally opposing the plan and local leaders in Jersey City, Elizabeth and Passaic were preparing remote-only instruction plans, bucking Murphy’s orders.

The governor eventually relented.

“We had hundreds of teachers saying they weren’t coming back to work, regardless. He would have been forcing a situation with no beneficial outcome to it,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said. Had Murphy forced the issue, he would’ve found himself “in a situation very much like” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was forced to push back the start of his school year amid escalating tensions with the teachers union.

If the past is prologue, New Jersey voters don’t keep their governors on a pedestal for long. Multiple sources noted that Christie’s meteoric rise in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy was followed by an equally spectacular crash following Bridgegate.

For Murphy, the landscape is dotted with land mines that have yet to fully detonate politically.

More than 7,000 nursing home residents and staff have died during the pandemic and, while Murphy’s targeted “bad apples” among the industry’s for-profit operators, outbreaks at state-run nursing homes were among the deadliest.

State prisons also struggled to contain the virus. Statistics compiled by The Marshall Project ranked New Jersey as having the highest prison mortality rate of any other state.

Though Murphy’s repeatedly said there would be a full accounting of his administration’s handling of the crisis, he’s provided no timeline for when that will occur. And despite efforts by Sweeney and Republican leaders to call the administration to the carpet, they’ve had difficulty finding Democrats willing to criticize Murphy over his performance.

It’s also unclear what, if any, lasting political damage may come from the persistent and stifling delays in the delivery of unemployment benefits. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority moved forward with unpopular fare hikes at the height of the pandemic, a move Murphy approved. The state Treasury recently increased the gas tax by 9.3 cents per gallon at a time when unemployment is firmly entrenched in double-digits. After being closed for months due to the pandemic, the rollout of services at the Motor Vehicles Commission proved cumbersome.

For now, New Jerseyans are standing behind the governor. But it’s those problems that can chip away at Murphy’s power. A difficult start to the school year, a second wave of the virus, a bruising battle over the state’s budget or a growing dissatisfaction with the economy — particularly, as even Murphy allies point out, if President Donald Trump is defeated in November — could weaken the governor’s standing.

Covid-19 hit New Jersey like a tsunami. The recovery, by design and by statute, lands entirely at the feet of the governor.

“What you’ve seen is poll after poll showing people are still trusting him,” said one member of Murphy’s inner circle. While there’s hope within the administration that Murphy’s public support will hold, “the obvious answer is, who the hell knows? Hey, the governor has a lot of hard choices coming up. Don’t you think it’s going to weigh on his popularity?”

CLARIFICATION: This report has been updated to clarify the type of emergency Gov. Phil Murphy re-upped. He continued a public health emergency.


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