HALE: Murphy’s Slim Victory and Sweeney’s Loss Prove the Governor Must Curb His ‘Progressive’ Instincts

Matthew Hale is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Seton Hall University. This was first published at Advance Media.

Phil Murphy is like a nice watch. You can count on him to perform the basic functions regularly and accurately. He ran as a progressive. He has governed as a progressive. He will always support the New Jersey Education Association, or NJEA. He will always focus on those less fortunate. He trusts that government will get things right. He hasn’t pretended to be anything else.

Phil Murphy won and that is really all that matters. But it was close. It is easy to say “Red Wave” or as Patrick Murray did “Polling is Broken.” True enough. But because it was so close Governor Murphy can’t stick as close to the progressive playbook as he might like. If he does, New Jersey Democrats are in trouble. Unless Murphy listens to other voices in New Jersey’s democratic coalition, his legacy will suffer. Two of those voices come from wildly different places but both want to be heard.

State Sen. Steve Sweeney losing is as big a story as Phil Murphy winning. But there is a similar lesson here. Sweeney’s district has always been more conservative than the rest of the state. However, they have voted for Democrats who they see as keeping those “crazy” northern liberals in check. Pre-COVID, Sweeney and Murphy were fighting, loudly and publicly. During COVID, Sweeney sat back and let Murphy be in charge. Sweeney quietly moderated some of Murphy’s most progressive instincts — instincts that don’t suit the party or the state behind the scenes but publicly was a solid Murphy soldier. It cost him his seat.

The day after the election, State Sen. Ron Rice lambasted Murphy for expecting huge African American turnout without delivering much for the African American community. Senator Rice is a Vietnam Vet, an ex-cop and an anti-marijuana crusader. Rice is part of an older generation of African Americans who are practical, not radical liberals. Senator Rice argued that the “social justice” arguments for cannabis legalization were white liberal smokescreens. He insisted on following the money and bringing it back to the communities hurt by prohibition. Rice shares this practical liberalism with South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who rallied South Carolina’s Democrats around Joe Biden, the practical pick, not Bernie Sanders the progressive pick. Clyburn and Rice both put more emphasis on delivering the goods and less on idealistic promises of a social restructuring of attitudes, and ideals.

Many people assume that African Americans automatically want the biggest spending packages possible. Some do, but for many (people and politicians) getting something done and getting it done fast was a more important priority. As Tom Moran wrote, the Infrastructure Bill is a historic accomplishment, and we have practical moderates like Josh Gottheimer to thank for it. Progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who actually voted against the infrastructure bill) are facing some angry voices in her neck of the woods, voices that sound a lot like Senator Rice. Hopefully, Murphy remembers that in his second term.

Same thoughts, different group

In 2017, the NJEA spent millions trying to oust Sweeney, but he survived because his district saw him as “standing up” against a liberal union that wants to indoctrinate “our” kids. In 2021, parents were furious at Murphy and at teachers for their decisions (or indecisions) on masks in schools and remote learning. They took that anger out on Murphy, but they also took it out on Sweeney for seemingly sitting on the sidelines and watching it happen. Don’t get me wrong, Sweeney’s own complacency hurt him, and he must own that. But the fact that Sweeney stopped publicly serving as a moderating force to Murphy and lost is an important lesson. Murphy is never going to be Steve Sweeney but ignoring moderate and conservative democrats means the right turn they made this time, won’t be the last time.

The wrong instinct

At the end of the campaign, Murphy brought out the big democratic hitters. But the last (and therefore most important) national figure he brought out? It wasn’t Obama or Biden or Harris. It was Bernie Sanders. It is true that Sanders has done more than many expected to move Biden’s agenda forward. But for many practical, liberal African Americans and conservative Southern Jersey democrats, Sanders is still the crazy Vermont democratic socialist who wants to take all your money and give your kids free weed to go with their school-sponsored indoctrination.

To be clear, I am not saying any of that is actually true about Senator Sanders. I am just saying that Bernie scares the heck out of two really important democratic constituencies (three if you count many Orthodox Jews). The fact that Murphy chose Sanders as the coda ending his campaign gave the wrong signal to both. It didn’t cost Murphy the election, but it sure didn’t help and it likely cost the Democrats a few seats in the legislature

As Murphy moves into his second term, his tendency will always be to go the progressive route. You can set your watch by it. But if he wants to have a successful second term and a lasting legacy maybe it is time for a little rewind. If Governor Murphy cares about the future of Democrats in New Jersey, he needs to listen to their more moderate voices.

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