For Phil Murphy, does a landslide come with a mandate?
ASBURY PARK – On the one hand, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy handily won the election Tuesday, with the largest share of the vote for a first-time gubernatorial candidate since Brendan Byrne in 1973, more than 55 percent.
But on the other, it appears that more than three-fifths of registered voters skipped the race – so what kind of mandate can the Democrat claim for the progressive overhaul he’s promising?
Murphy said his first task will be a stronger and fairer economy – including a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, tax hikes for the rich and corporations and more spending on education, infrastructure, clean energy and workforce development.
“We will rebuild our state from the bottom up and the middle out. And we’ll ask those at the very top to do their fair share,” Murphy said.
Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray said voter turnout set a record low and that Murphy doesn’t have a mandate – beyond not being Chris Christie.
“When he takes the governor’s chair in January, he’s going to get a wakeup call, which is that New Jerseyans are going to be taking a fresh look at what he actually proposes, for the first time,” said Murray.
Murphy bounded onto the stage at Asbury Park Convention Hall for his victory speech with a celebratory jump kick, the song ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry & The Pacemakers blaring.
After reiterating his campaign platform, he pledged to reach out to lawmakers in the Republican minority – although minutes later pivoted into an attack on President Donald Trump, repeating themes already emphasized earlier in the night by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
“We will reach across the aisle to stand on common ground. After all, we will go much further working together than we ever could by pushing each other away,” Murphy said.
Murphy doesn’t take office until mid-January, but his transition office can open immediately. It receives a quarter-million dollar state appropriation, office space and a short window for ramping up to take control of state government.
“Over the next 70 days, we will pull together an administration that looks like our state in all its great diversity, experience and intelligence,” Murphy said. “We will seek the right people going into public service for the right reasons, trying mightily to do the right things.”
Rutgers University political scientist John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, which published a paper on gubernatorial transitions in July, said by now Murphy probably has decided on a chief of staff and the structure of the Governor’s Office and narrowed down at least some Cabinet posts to a few top prospects.
Weingart said a successful transition is important for a number of reasons, including to influence the lame-duck legislative session over the next nine weeks.
“That could range from making sure that bills are not passed that conflict with priorities of the governor to perhaps making sure some bills are passed to get them out of the way, so they’re sort of handled so the new governor doesn’t have to worry about them,” Weingart said.
A successful transition also illustrates competence to the general public, which will be paying attention to Murphy in ways it hasn’t before.
“That can go a long way toward instilling confidence in the governor-elect,” Weingart said. “And on the other hand, if done badly, can set an image that’s very hard for a governor to break out of, if they start out being seen as somewhat bumbling or disorganized or making clearly flawed decisions.”
Even though Murphy has often criticized Gov. Chris Christie, who even before the election was urging business groups to stand up to the Democrat over the next four years, Weingart said he isn’t worried the transition of power will be rocky.
“It’s clearly in Gov.-elect Murphy’s interest to have a smooth transition, and I think Gov. Christie is, independent of his views on particular issues, is an institutionalist who respects the office of the governor,” he said.