National News

New Jersey Emerges as a Liberal Bulwark Under Murphy

Posted May 16, 2018 7:32 p.m. EDT

A recently adopted equal pay law has put New Jersey at the forefront of national efforts to narrow the gender wage gap. The state’s new automatic voter registration law ranks among the most sweeping in the country, while its funding of Planned Parenthood, package of gun control laws, renewable energy legislation and a measure to provide state financial aid to immigrants who came to the United States as children are all part of the progressive playbook.

In a state whose political profile has been marked by scandal and dominated most recently by a bellicose Republican governor, the first few months of Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s Democratic tenure have seen an abrupt ideological makeover as New Jersey lurches to the left, joining the ranks of the most liberal states in the nation.

His aggressive steering reflects the mandate Murphy believes he was given last year by his lopsided victory.

But his policies have also left Republicans and even moderate Democrats with a case of whiplash and raised serious questions about how Murphy will pay for his agenda in a state saddled with severe financial difficulties. New Jersey owes its state-run pension system $119 billion,according to Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings, one of the largest debt obligations in the country, which has contributed to 11 credit downgrades in the past decade. The state also has the nation’s highest property taxes, with many residents facing higher bills under the recent federal tax overhaul, while it has consistently underfunded local school districts.

At the same time, Murphy’s $37.4 billion budget comes with $2.7 billion in new spending, including proposals to make community colleges tuition-free for many families, to expand prekindergarten and to significantly increase funding for the state’s beleaguered public transit system. But to pay for all this, Murphy is counting on initiatives that so far have been coolly received by some leaders in the Democratic-controlled Legislature — notably $1.7 billion in new taxes, including a levy on the wealthy, and the legalization of recreational marijuana, which would also add to the state’s coffers.

Murphy defended his blueprint, saying it was motivated not by politics but by a desire to make New Jersey a fairer state. “You can’t make economic progress without social progress and social progress can’t be achieved without economic progress,” he said in an interview, adding, “I don’t wake up every day to be liberal for the sake of being liberal.”

But Murphy’s approach has provoked fierce backlash from many Republicans.

“He’s not liberal, he’s extreme,” said Jon Bramnick, the Republican minority leader in the state Assembly. “I don’t even have a problem with people who are somewhat liberal, though I may disagree with them. But this is not a liberal agenda. This is an extreme left-wing agenda that is sending people out of the state who might have stayed.”

The state’s shifting political winds extend beyond Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who campaigned on a raft of progressive promises. Four of the state’s five Republican-held congressional seats are considered competitive in this year’s midterm election. The state Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a stricter separation of church and state. And the mayor of Hoboken, Ravinder S. Bhalla, the first Sikh to be elected mayor in New Jersey, issued an ordinance that public and private single-occupancy restrooms be gender-neutral.

Gurbir Grewal, who achieved a milestone as the first Sikh in the country to become a state attorney general, has joined numerous lawsuits against the Trump administration, including challenges to the travel ban and a prohibition on transgender people in the military.

Taken together, the state is undergoing a rapid transition from eight years of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and a friend of President Donald Trump who clashed often with the Legislature. It is becoming, much like California and New York, a liberal bulwark to the White House.

As the Trump administration and congressional Republicans sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act and then slashed the budget for advertising enrollment periods, Murphy signed an executive order to promote enrollment in New Jersey.

After Trump signed an executive order to open nearly all coastal waters to offshore drilling, Murphy signed a law banning offshore drilling in New Jersey.

And as federal officials have intensified immigration arrests, Murphy has sought to protect the state’s immigrant population, signing the bill to provide in-state tuition and financial aid to unauthorized immigrants. While he has no authority over federal immigration officials, he said that if they encounter a law-abiding unauthorized immigrant in New Jersey, “I expect them to keep driving” and not make an arrest.

“Governor Murphy is a gift from the heavens, from my vantage point,” said Bhalla, a Democrat. “He has taken the reins from day one on everything from protecting residents from the inimical policies coming from Washington, whether it’s related to tax policy or a host of civil rights issues that impact this highly diverse state.” Murphy’s ability to drive the state in a more liberal direction is partly driven by the ascendancy of Democratic voters — Democrats make up 36 percent of registered voters, while Republicans represent 21 percent — and an electorate that soundly rejected Trump at the polls.

But Bramnick, who at times has been critical of Trump, believes that the shift to the left could help boost support for the Republican Party and has been trying to appeal to moderate voters and the state’s significant number of independents under the banner of “rallying the reasonable.”

“Is this kind of extreme politics good for Republicans?” he asked. “It is." While New Jersey has become increasingly blue over the years, it has tended to be more moderate than other Democratic-leaning states with wide swaths of the state, including counties along the shore, remaining Republican strongholds.

At the same time, it is reliably progressive on social and environmental issues, with residents favoring the legalization of recreational marijuana and embracing climate change as an irrefutable fact at a higher rate than people nationwide, according to a Yale University study.

Still, even as the state veers left, there are some measures that New Jersey residents simply will not stomach, particularly if they are forced to pay even more in taxes. And without new revenue or painful cuts, Murphy will be hard-pressed to realize his far-reaching goals.

“The reason why Phil Murphy can make this a liberal laboratory here in New Jersey right now is because there’s no strong organized opposition to him,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “But he could be in for a rude awakening when we get to the issue of core taxes and property taxes.” Murphy said he was willing to negotiate any part of his proposed budget, which must be signed by June 30, but he believes government is essential to the lives of his constituents. Having grown up in the 1960s, Murphy said that the era of his childhood, when “the government put a lot of wind in your sails,” helped cement his view that raising taxes and investing more in government was the best use of people’s money.

As an example, his office estimates that raising the sales tax from 6.875 percent to 7 percent will cost a family with annual income between $70,000 and $120,000 an additional $85 per year, a relatively small amount that Murphy says can be used to improve people’s lives.

“I’m not making light for those $85, or any one of those $85, but I will say this: I do believe with all my heart that if we get towards fully funding public education, pre-K, community college, triple our investment in New Jersey Transit,” he said, “that’s money really well spent and that family will benefit multiples of that $85.”

Still, the budget negotiations are likely to be contentious, and Murphy may well have to make compromises that could anger his base or run counter to campaign promises.

“Phil’s got a lot of goodwill,” said Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who recruited Murphy to be the finance chair for the party. “That’s a big deal because he’s going to need all the political capital he can get.”

Murphy’s team believes that his victory margin of more than 14 percentage points gives him potent political leverage.

The governor also plans on using the momentum that his early tenure has generated to help the party in the midterms by raising money for candidates or by energizing voters. He hosted one of the first fundraisers to support the re-election of Sen. Robert Menendez, seeking to ensure that no credible threat to Menendez’s seat emerges despite the ethical cloud hanging over the senator’s head.

And while some party leaders have started traveling the country to support Democratic challengers, Murphy said he does not plan for now to throw his political weight or hefty personal fortune behind many candidates outside New Jersey. He did endorse Levi Sanders, the son of Sen. Bernie Sanders, for Congress in New Hampshire — but only, Murphy said, because of his friendship with the younger Sanders, who campaigned for him for governor.

He was emphatic about not paying attention to an increasingly acrimonious contest across the Hudson River between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon, the actress challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary. “I haven’t thought about it for one second,” he said.