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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A trip to Ukraine. A jab at Ron DeSantis. What is Phil Murphy up to?

Phil Murphy has consistently said he would be Biden’s No. 1 booster if he runs again.

By Tracey Tully

It was a whirlwind few days for New Jersey’s term-limited governor, Phil Murphy.

On a Tuesday in mid-February, he publicly chided Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, by name, calling his education policies “shameful.” The next day at noon, he proposed requiring all new cars sold after 2035 to be electric, following California’s lead. By early Thursday, Murphy, a Democrat, had made an unannounced stop in Ukraine en route to a security conference in Germany.

Back home in Jersey, the message was clear: The governor’s slow-windup romance with Washington was now a full-boil courtship, although his primary audience might have trouble finding Trenton on a map.

“You don’t fade into the woodwork if you have national ambitions,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University, who for decades has watched New Jersey politicians use the state’s quirky off-year election cycle and proximity to New York’s media market as a springboard toward higher office.

“You never know when opportunity might strike.”

The 2024 presidential contest is well underway. President Joe Biden is expected to run for a second term, and the list of Republicans who have announced campaigns or are expected to run includes DeSantis (who did not respond to Murphy’s criticism), former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina.

Murphy has consistently said he would be Biden’s No. 1 booster if he runs again, and he recently signed on to an advisory board of Democratic loyalists who are expected to be deployed as Biden surrogates when the campaign ramps up.

Still, Murphy, a wealthy former Democratic National Committee finance chair and ambassador to Germany who amassed a fortune at investment bank Goldman Sachs, has never completely closed the door to running for the White House should the president’s plans change.

And, either way, he appears as intent as ever at cultivating a national image, aware, perhaps, that there are often consolation prizes.

On Saturday, Murphy will try to spit-polish his resume with humor when he takes the mic at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, a famously irreverent white-tie-and-tails roast that draws Washington’s top journalists and political insiders. (The other speaker will be Pence.)

Close associates say Murphy, who declined to comment for this article, is genuinely unsure about the job he might want next, but they speculate that he could be interested in again being an ambassador or perhaps even secretary of state.

A graduate of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania who grew up outside Boston, he now counts musician Jon Bon Jovi among his closest friends. But he comes from humble means, the youngest of four children in a working-class Irish-Catholic family. Only his mother graduated from high school; his father worked for a time managing a liquor store near their home.

Always social, Murphy has become a retail politics pro. He gamely drapes his arm around shoulders when asked to pose for selfies, his grin wide and pointer finger aimed, showman-style, toward the new best friend at his side.

But it is the hundreds of off-camera calls he made to families that lost relatives to COVID-19 that his chief of staff, George Helmy, cites when calling him “one of the most authentic human beings I’ve ever seen.”

Murphy came to Trenton with few allies, yet has managed a notable share of wins.

During his first term, New Jersey lawmakers increased taxes on income over $1 million, approved a $15 minimum wage, legalized marijuana, strengthened gun control laws, locked in paid sick leave for workers and reduced long-ignored pension debt by billions of dollars, resulting in several upgrades to the state’s credit ratings.

But after being reelected in 2021 by a narrower margin than expected, Murphy has made an overt effort to appeal more to moderate voters, leaving some of his left-leaning base frustrated by what they see as a lack of urgency to finish strong.

Michael Feldman, a communications consultant and friend of Murphy, said none of the governor’s policy victories had been “a layup.”

“His ambition now is to try to help advance the agenda that he’s pursued in New Jersey — to help advance some of these issues at a national level,” said Feldman, who was a senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.

“I don’t know what the job is or will be, but there’s plenty of places that a person with his experience could be helpful in getting some of these things done.”

New Jersey governors cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. And for the past year observers wondering about Murphy’s next move have taken note of his suddenly youthful hairdo, hip new glasses and shifting rhetoric.

There are younger Democratic governors with bigger names or bigger bank accounts, including Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.

But during Biden’s presidency, New Jersey has been a regular stop for members of the administration, with at least two visits apiece by the president, the first lady, Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

If Biden were to win reelection and tap Murphy for a job he found enticing enough to take, it could mean leaving Trenton before his term ends in 2026, making the race for governor — shaping up to be a grab-the-popcorn thriller — even livelier.

Still, even among liberals inclined to support him, Murphy’s second-term reviews have grown increasingly mixed.

Last year he reinstituted a bear hunt he had vowed to outlaw, enraging animal welfare activists. He opened the door to private development in Liberty State Park, the state’s largest and busiest public oasis, at the urging of groups funded by the billionaire owner of an adjacent golf club. And there are so many judicial vacancies that some counties have had to halt divorce trials.

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the state to force Murphy to follow through on ambitious climate change rules he ordered as part of a 2019 law. “A poster child for actions not meeting the rhetoric,” said David Pringle, a leader of the coalition.

And residents of communities as disparate as Jersey City, Newark and Gibbstown, in the rural southwest portion of the state, are furious over Murphy’s support for expanding the turnpike near New York City and failing to stop six new fossil fuel projects, which are expected to worsen air quality in minority communities overburdened by pollution.

“The governor has a lot of words for environmental justice but does not actually demonstrate leadership on behalf of our community,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, who lives in Newark and is fighting to block the construction of a backup power plant in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood.

Lopez-Nuñez is also a member of Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“I would love to cheer on the governor,” she said. “But I need to see the work.”

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