With threats of special sessions and state-of-the-state addresses looming, polling suggests the public may be having buyers’ remorse about our first-term governors in Connecticut and New Jersey.
Voters were so fed up with political retreads that we ultimately elected millionaire governors. In fact, Connecticut Republicans had a hard time deciding which millionaire novice gubernatorial candidate they wanted to support. In both states, millionaire Democrats won. A year in, it’s time to ask which novice governor is a worse executive official: Ned Lamont or New Jersey’s Phil Murphy?
I worked for New Jersey’s legislature as a non-partisan policy analyst in the Office of Legislative Services before I returned home to Connecticut, and I still follow what takes place in the Garden State (thankful for Twitter). No surprise that I find myself comparing state governments – and lately, governors.
Lamont and Murphy are entirely too similar. They are millionaire white men, nearly the same age, political novices, socially awkward, unpopular according to polling (Lamont is hovering at 28% approval), and thus far they have not demonstrated an ability to work effectively with their state legislatures.
How can two Democratic governors fail to establish effective relations with their majority Democratic legislative bodies?
Politically speaking, it should be a slam dunk for these governors to get legislative proposals and budgets through their state legislatures. But it’s been quite the opposite.
In New Jersey, Murphy’s budget-making and economic growing skills have led many to question his approaches. Like Connecticut, New Jersey’s debt burden and subsequent cost-of-living concerns are an ongoing issue as several major corporations have left the state. But Murphy and the state legislature have not effectively tackled these problems.
Meanwhile, to the north, Lamont has yet to make up his mind about whether to call a special session it’s been on and off the table since the summer, fall, or the end of the year. He’s made himself the Charlie Brown of political punting as his messaging has wavered.
I reached out to a New Jersey public official friend about her governor, whom she supported early politically and financially. I had to ask, what did she think of Phil Murphy now? She pointed out that he ran as, and has remained, the businessman outsider. Similar to Lamont’s, Murphy’s staff and executive agency officials are not from the political bureaucracy. She offered that this makes Murphy “a standout” as opposed to an “insider.” Conversely, it can be “refreshing” but often “confusing” for officials to stay on the same page. That notwithstanding, she rattled off his successes stemming from strong business ties: getting marijuana on the ballot in November, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and voting rights for ex-cons.
I reminded her that Connecticut’s governor had some prior public office experience. Lamont was a selectman in his Greenwich hometown. It might have been decades ago (early 1980s), but he should at least be familiar with the legislative process and working with lawmakers. By comparison, Murphy was a politically appointed ambassador who never held public office before and it’s apparent that he does not relate well to lawmakers.
My political friend reminded me that many lawmakers resent a chief executive unfamiliar with the legislative process. Some Garden State lawmakers (especially longtime Senate President Stephen Sweeney) don’t want to play ball with the new guy because he is an unpopular novice who has been labeled “Phony Phil.” Her point being that many established politicians harbor automatic ill will toward an executive that is new to government, especially if they were seeking the same office like Sweeney.
Could the same be said of Lamont failing to work effectively with the General Assembly and even his own party? Lamont has had some experience in public office. He has to have some skills that helped him get initiatives and proposals through Greenwich’s Board of Selectmen. Granted, being a member of a town’s legislative body is drastically different than being the chief executive of a state.
It’s not that Lamont doesn’t have executive experience. He is, after all, the former CEO and owner of his own successful company. But somewhere along the way, there’s been a disconnect between his executive leadership and his ability to lead state government.
I would challenge Lamont: Be assertive. You’re a political executive now: you have to set the tone. Work with lawmakers, but also lead.
And after all this coaching, I’m still undecided whether my millionaire governor is better than my friend’s.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He also serves on the New Haven City Plan Commission and Republican State Central Committee.
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