9 min read

Interview with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

Wake Up To Politics: Exclusive interview with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy
Interview with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Thursday, September 8, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 61 days away. Election Day 2024 is 769 days away.

In this morning’s newsletter: What I gleaned in an exclusive sit-down interview with Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey.

As always, if you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it always means a lot when you share the newsletter and tell your friends to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

Interview: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on the midterms, 2024, and youth mental health

(Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

With a president, vice president, former president, and 535 members of Congress swirling around town, it can sometimes be hard for governors to grab attention here in Washington — even though they probably wield more power than most lawmakers.

Which is why it’s always notable when one of the 50 governors pops onto the Beltway radar. Lately, a crop of Democratic executives — from California’s Gavin Newsom to Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker — have been making plays for eyeballs, seeking to contrast themselves with their party’s aging leadership in Washington by proving they can get things done on issues like legalizing marijuana and protecting abortion.

Another such governor has been Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who has rated national attention this summer for bolstering abortion rights, trolling red states, reportedly sounding out donors about a presidential bid, and visiting Israel (a time-honored testing ground for presidential aspirants).

Murphy boasts a gold-plated résumé: Harvard degree, 23 years at Goldman Sachs followed by a stint as Democratic national finance chair, then four years as U.S. ambassador to Germany under Obama. Even his new haircut has sparked a round of speculation that he’s running for president.

I took the Acela down to Newark on Tuesday to speak to Gov. Murphy and ask him for his thoughts on the national political environment, what Democrats can take away from what he’s doing in New Jersey, and whether he might one day seek the White House.

Murphy represents the Democratic Party’s rapid shift in fortunes as well as just about anyone not named Joe Biden. Almost a year ago, he came within three-and-a-half percentage points of losing re-election in his deep-blue state, a result which many Democrats felt augured doom for them this November.

Now, Democrats believe they’ve managed to stem a midterm “red wave” and D.C.’s premier insider tipsheet, Politico, says Murphy’s name is “on the lips of Democrats around the country as a potential 2024 candidate.”

“Let’s say in a phrase: It got worse, and it’s now got somewhat better,” Murphy told me Tuesday, wearing no tie but adorned in two pins, one with the American and New Jersey flags and another with the American and Ukrainian flags.

“I feel better than I did, say, if you and I were sitting down two or three months ago. I’m not sure we are where we need to be,” he continued, referring to national Democrats, “but with 60 days to go, I’d rather be playing our hand than their hand.”

To get across the finish line, Murphy recommended that Democrats remain “at the kitchen table on affordability” and “be absolutely unequivocal as it relates to value.” He added: “I’m not patting ourselves on the back that we’ve got all that figured out in New Jersey, but we are doing both of those.”

One issue he’s successfully pushed in New Jersey that I wondered if he wanted to see emphasized more by national Democrats was legalizing marijuana, one of the best-polling issues among young voters, who will be a critical electoral bloc in November.

Murphy said that his support for the issue was “not a natural act for me, at least initially,” but he was convinced that the move would not only expand the economy but also “address the wrongs of the war on drugs, particularly among young black and brown persons.”

“That, to me, is the Democratic Party, right? We should be holding onto that with both hands and singing from the highest mountain,” he said.

Murphy will only be spending more time on the national stage in the coming months, as he will soon be chairman of both the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) — the first person ever to simultaneously hold both posts.

Each NGA chief selects a “chairman’s priority” that they focus on during their tenure; Murphy’s is youth mental health.

“Our efforts are really focused explicitly on mental health as we emerge from pandemic to endemic,” he told me, examining “how learning loss, isolation, lack of sports, lack of activities, lack of being in a classroom with others” exacerbated the crisis of depression among young people.

By the end of his year as chair, Murphy said that he plans to publish a “playbook that all American states can use” to help identify, prevent, and treat youth mental health problems. A few hours after our interview, he told me, he’d be having dinner with “a bunch of experts” to discuss the issue further.

Asked if he and other officials bear some responsibility for the mental health crisis after ordering Covid-era school closures, Murphy stood by his decisions. “When you’re faced with a public health emergency about which you know so little, you have no choice,” he argued. “You have to accept the fact we’re going to pay a price. And one of the prices we paid...is learning loss and mental health challenges. And so it’s our job now not to deny it, not to debate how we got here...but to dive in and close these gaps and fix it.”

Although some experts have expressed concerns about the developmental and emotional impact of masking for school-age children, Murphy said that he didn’t feel that schools continuing to require masks was contributing to the problem. “I don’t think attending school with your buddies and classmates or college wearing a mask — I’m not a mental health expert — I don’t think that’s a big movement on the mental health needle,” the governor explained.

New Jersey no longer has a mask mandate in place for schools, although systems such as Newark public schools and Rutgers University, a public college, still require masks. Murphy declined to criticize their choices. (“Please note for your article that you and I are not wearing masks,” he did add, though. Noted.)

On the topic of the pandemic, Murphy also repeated his promise — almost two years old — to launch a “full soup-to-nuts review” of New Jersey’s Covid response “sooner rather than later.”

It’s something he hopes the country will take on as well: “I would like to see Congress do what it did with the 9/11 Commission,” he said. “I think that’s something that, if I had a higher pay grade in this country, that’s something I’d probably support.”

A higher pay grade, you say? Although Garden State political circles are abuzz about the possibility that the governor could seek the White House in 2024 — “President Murphy?” a recent headline mused — Murphy offered a full-throated endorsement of President Biden’s re-election.

“He’s said it clearly privately, and he’s said it publicly: ’I’m running.’ I take him at his word,” Murphy told me. “I assume he will run and, as I said to him privately and I’ll say it publicly, he’ll have no stronger backer than yours truly.”

What about if Biden doesn’t run in 2024? Once an aspiring musical theater performer, Murphy deftly danced around the question. “I’m not getting into the hypotheticals,” he answered. “I don’t think that’s going to be relevant because I think he’s going to run and I think he should run.”

Asked if Biden’s age worries him at all — the president would be 86 at the end of a second term — Murphy evinced no concerns. “If his next period of time is like the last three months, man, it doesn’t,” the governor said.

Amid Murphy’s denials, though, it’s notable that his wife has set up a PAC and a 501(c)(4) to promote his agenda, a step you’d expect more from a presidential candidate than a term-limited governor. “Yeah, what’s she up to?” he joked. “First I’ve heard about this.”

Murphy likened the 501(c)(4) to a “sales force” for the state, saying that the group stemmed from advice he received from legendary Democratic consultant James Carville at a dinner nine months ago. “He said, ‘Murphy: the good news is you’ve done a lot. The challenging news is when you’ve done a lot, stuff gets lost, and you need a sales department to go out there.’”

Murphy is not the only New Jerseyan said to be eying higher office. There’s also his predecessor, Chris Christie, a Trump rival-turned-ally who now appears to be planning a 2024 run against the former president.

“I think he’s trying to either be in a different lane [than Trump] or create a different lane,” Murphy observed of Christie, whom he said he texted on Tuesday to wish him a happy 60th birthday. (“He responded graciously.”)

Curious to hear his take on the role in general, I asked Murphy if he felt that governors make better presidents. Although he said there are senators who make “great presidents,” Barack Obama and Joe Biden included, Murphy did allow that there was a certain overlap between his current job and the one in the Oval Office.

“I do think being a chief executive — balancing a budget, the buck stops with you, Democrat or Republican — is a fraction of the responsibility of a president,” he said, “but it’s got more than a fraction of similarity.”

What else you should know

Breaking: Queen Elizabeth II has been placed “under medical supervision,” Buckingham Palace said in a statement this morning, and “the Queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health.” The Royal Family is reportedly rushing to Scotland to be with the 96-year-old monarch.

Congress: Backers of the House-passed bill to codify same-sex marriage rights are “increasingly optimistic” that the bill will be approved in the Senate soon, according to Politico. Lawmakers are currently working on fixes to assuage Republican concerns, including religious liberty protections and a clarification that the measure does not apply to polygamy.

  • “A vote on marriage equality will happen on the Senate floor in the coming weeks,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) promised on Wednesday.

A poll that caught my eye: According to a CBS News poll out this morning, 73% of Americans believe there should be maximum age limits for elected officials. The idea has bipartisan support: it’s backed by 71% of Democrats, 75% of Republicans, and 75% of Independents. Interestingly, the least supportive age group is 18- to 29-year-olds (68% support); 74% of those over 65 are on board.

  • The most popular age limit suggested was 70.
Queen Elizabeth II with Prime Minister Liz Truss on Tuesday. (Buckingham Palace)

Today at a glance

All times Eastern.

President Biden: Receives the daily intelligence briefing (9 am). Delivers remarks on the updated Covid-19 vaccines (1:45 pm). Participates in a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Montgomery County, Maryland (7 pm).

VP Harris: Delivers remarks at the National Baptist Convention in Houston, Texas (1 pm).

Second Gentleman Emhoff: Attends and delivers remarks at the opening of a new exhibit at the Kennedy Center, “Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy” (11 am).

White House briefing: Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds the daily briefing (12:30 pm).

Senate: Votes to confirm Andre Mathis’s nomination to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit (11:30 am). Votes to advance Salvador Mendoza’s nomination to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit (1:45 pm).

House: On recess until September 13.

Supreme Court: On recess until September 28.

Before I go...

Here’s something interesting: No state has ever simultaneously had a female governor and a female lieutenant governor.

But political parties in four states have nominated women to both posts this year: Republicans in Arkansas and Democrats in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Ohio.

The Massachusetts nominations came this Tuesday, as Democrats tapped state attorney general Maura Healey for governor and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll to be her No. 2. If elected, Healey would also be the state’s first female and first openly gay governor.

Read more via Axios.

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Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe