Governor Murphy tones down liberal message in candidacy to suburban voters

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Gas prices are soaring. The war in Ukraine shook the stock market. And, months before the midterm elections, voters in major New Jersey suburban neighborhoods are restless, contributing to growing discontent with the state’s Democratic leader, Governor Philip D. Murphy. .

For much of his first term, Mr. Murphy governed as a staunch liberal eager to talk about his successful efforts to protect abortion rights, legalize marijuana and enact tougher gun control laws. .

But on Tuesday, in his first budget speech since winning re-election by just three percentage points in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, Murphy offered a drastically tempered message.

The broad liberal rhetoric that defined its first budget address in 2018 was replaced with a recalibrated definition of progress and a promise to make New Jersey – where the cost of living is among the highest in the country – a more affordable place to live.

Months after the remnants of Hurricane Ida paralyzed large parts of the state, killing at least 25 people, he didn’t utter the phrase “climate change.” There was no overt reference to criminal justice, racial equity or immigrant rights. He cited an iconic first-term victory just once — raising the minimum wage to $15 — and instead opted to talk about tax cuts and refunds and a “costs holiday.” a year that would allow residents to visit state parks and renew driver’s licenses. free.

“If you compare the very pointed messages about racial justice from last year to this year, there’s a very big disconnect,” said Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey, a left-leaning, people-focused coalition. rights of immigrants and workers.

“It seems there is a pivot,” she added.

Instead of the decidedly left-wing budget message that set the tone for his first term, there was 24 mentions words “affordable” or “affordability”.

“The Democratic Party is watching the 2022 midterm elections and knows its message needs to be revamped,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

“A lot of voters, probably most voters, are disenchanted.”

Mr. Murphy is expected to move from vice-president to president of the National Governors Association in July and take the direction of the Democratic Governors Association for the second time next year. Democrats must defend gubernatorial positions in key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, races seen as must wins to avoid Republican restrictions on voting rights.

The governor made it clear he heard the message sent by voters in November in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republican turnout surged and Democrats lost seven seats in the Legislative Assembly, including that of the Speaker of the Senate.

“Quite frankly,” Professor Koning said, “they’re not interested in hearing about climate change and racial justice.”

Democrats fear that the same factors that helped Mr. Murphy be re-elected with narrower-than-expected margins — pandemic fatigue, rising costs and President Biden’s waning popularity — could also cause problems in the New York election. mid-term at the November Congress.

Just before Mr. Murphy delivered Tuesday’s speech, the Eagleton Center released a survey showing that the number of voters with a favorable impression of the governor had fallen to 33% from 50% in November. Of those polled, more than 40% gave it failing grades in relation to New Jersey’s high property taxes and cost of living.

“Governor Murphy has never wavered in his vision to make New Jersey stronger and fairer for all who call our state home,” Murphy’s spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro told Post.

“This year’s budget proposal builds on that progress,” she added, “and continues to open doors of opportunity for all New Jerseyans.”

During his first term, Mr. Murphy achieved many of his most ambitious policy goals: adding an income tax of over $1 million; legalize marijuana for adult use; establishing paid sick leave for workers; and giving undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses.

On Tuesday, he mentioned the millionaires’ tax but did not mention the other victories, contenting himself with evoking “the many steps that we have taken together over the past four years”, before focusing on property taxes.

“This budget tackles two of New Jersey’s toughest and most intractable problems: property taxes and affordable housing,” Murphy told a joint session of the Legislature, in a change marked over comments he made in 2019 downplaying concerns about high state taxes.

“If you’re a one-issue voter and the tax rate is your issue, whether it’s a family or a business – if that’s the only basis you’re going to make a decision on,” Mr Murphy said three years ago, “we’re probably not your state”.

This year’s budget proposal — a record $48.9 billion spending plan — did not appear to stray from the priorities Mr. Murphy set during his first term and would continue to fund programs important to Mr. Murphy’s progressive allies.

The plan, which the legislature must approve by July, earmarks more money for education, mental health programs, health care for children of undocumented immigrants, drug treatment and housing. cheaper. For the second year, Mr. Murphy has offered to make a full payment to the underfunded state employee pension system.

Just as he did in his first budget speech, Mr Murphy cited Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic – someone who knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’. But that’s where the parallels end.

finished on fiery rhetoric from 2018, when he spoke about the state’s high poverty rate, income inequality, and the importance of embracing “the immediacy of the problems before us.”

There was no renewed mention this week of initiatives to narrow the state’s racial income gap using tools like so-called baby bonds, an ultimately unsuccessful budget proposal. he made in 2020 to give most newborns $1,000, payable with interest when they turn 18.

Instead, a plan to set aside funds to build 3,300 lower-cost housing units has been described as a victory for the working class, not the working poor.

“Let’s not lose sight of who really benefits when we build more affordable housing,” Murphy said of available housing for people with disabilities. low to moderate income. “It’s the educator or first responder who can finally live within the community they serve. He’s also the waiter at the local restaurant, the cashier at the grocery store.

Julia Sass Rubin, Professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy said the speech represented a change in messaging, but not a “major retraction” of Mr. Murphy’s left-wing priorities.

“If you keep walking, maybe they think they can adjust the conversation a bit, without substantially changing the direction,” Professor Rubin said.

“It’s a way of trying to shore up what could be a vulnerability — both for the midterm elections and for Democrats more broadly,” she added.

Jack Ciattarelli, Mr. Murphy’s Republican challenger who nearly unseated the governor, said the budget speech showed that Mr. Murphy “definitely felt the pressure of the proximity of the race and the themes that we discussed at several times, which so far it has been deaf.

But the contents of the plan, he said, were “the same old, the same old.”

“There’s never been a better opportunity to completely reform the way we administer property taxes,” said Ciattarelli, who plans to run for governor again in four years.

Officials from left-leaning advocacy groups said they found some interesting elements in the draft budget, as well as missed opportunities.

Ms Cullinane, of Make the Road, hailed the roughly $100million the Governor has set aside for undocumented immigrants and working families who have not been eligible for federal pandemic assistance.

Andrea McChristian, director of law and policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, applauded Murphy’s efforts to expand college access and fund a pilot program designed to prevent minors from entering prison. But she questioned the absence of any discussion of closing juvenile prisons, paying reparations to black residents harmed by slavery or a new push to introduce baby bonds.

“It’s definitely a missed moment,” Mrs. McChristian said.

The missing focus on social justice is particularly worrisome in a year when New Jersey is teeming with money from sales tax collections, revenue generated from robust housing and stock markets, and federal stimulus funds, said Ms. McCrian.

“Now is the time to be bold,” she said, adding, “We have huge racial disparities here.”

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called it a “status quo” budget that continues to provide vital support for offshore wind power, but does not take other meaningful steps to address the climate crisis or establish a guaranteed source of funding for the public. transit.

“New Jersey should be investing in climate change solutions,” Mr O’Malley said, “not fighting this fight with one hand behind its back.”

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