Exclusive interview with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy
Photos: AP Images
When Phil Murphy ascended the stage at his victory party in November of 2017, it wasn’t just a sprint, but more of a flying leap, perhaps a throwback to his days as a musical theater performer at Harvard University.
But there was something more in the dance move.
Phil Murphy’s story is one of boundless energy, ever since he took a job washing dishes to earn extra money as a high school student in Boston. His parents were “middle-class on a good day” by his own retelling, but they wanted their children to be educated, and all the Murphy children got college degrees. In Phil’s case, it was an economics degree from Harvard and then a master’s degree from Wharton, after which he interned at Goldman Sachs, where he would make his career for the next two decades.
Even back then, he gained a name for his deal-making skills, which he attributed to his willingness to work with people. “Two people may not get along,” he explained, “they don’t like each other and can’t work together. But their mutual dislike is their problem and I don’t let it become mine. I’ll be the man in the middle and the three of us can work something out that everyone is happy with.”
That approach to business — and to life — explains how the Democratic governor with a progressive agenda has a high approval rating in the religious community, and how the man who framed his victory in November 2017 as New Jersey’s answer to Donald Trump found a way to a good working relationship with the 45th president, never devolving into the personal feuds and insult-tossing contests that so many other governors did.
Murphy was heavily involved in Democratic politics during his years at Goldman Sachs. His first governmental position was as President Obama’s ambassador to Germany. His stint there was largely successful, if unremarkable. The closest thing to a whiff of scandal — and if the governor does decide to run for president, the rival campaign’s opposition research team will find it difficult to locate enemies — was when Wikileaks publicized some private, in-house comments the ambassador had made about German government personnel.
It was embarrassing, perhaps a mild diplomatic flap, but Phil Murphy showed a side of him then that would mark him later, as a politician. He went on television, apologized, and made it clear that he didn’t blame his staff or anyone else for the comments getting out. “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me,” he said.
It was the leadership, the candor, and the smile.
A former Goldman Sachs executive recalls his own training, when Phil Murphy addressed the new hires. “He was funny, and refreshingly candid. He had lots of personality, and was clearly interested in politics. It was 1999, but I remember thinking that there was a good chance he would be governor of New Jersey.”
After completing the ambassadorial term in 2013, Phil and Tammy Murphy, parents of four children, moved back to New Jersey. Along with the consultancy business he started, the Murphys launched New Start New Jersey, a nonprofit progressive policy think tank. Together, they would establish several charitable organizations, with Mrs. Tammy Murphy emerging as a champion of disadvantaged teenagers in particular. Rather than just donate money, the couple made it personal, getting deeply involved with the causes they supported.
He was the first announced candidate in the 2017 gubernatorial election, despite having less name recognition than other candidates. He wasn’t the immediate front-runner, but there was the smile — and the sneakers.
“When I first met then candidate Phil Murphy,” recalls Maury Litwack, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, “he was unassuming — he wore white sneakers to our meeting and was affable, funny, and very warm. But individuals running for elected office are typically very friendly when running and then impossible to get hold of once elected. At his inauguration party I went to greet him and there were those sneakers! Since then he’s been responsive and truly vested in our community and his state. He’s sincere and genuine with a real record of helping the community.”
In time, both front-runners dropped out and endorsed him, and in November of 2017, he was elected New Jersey’s governor.
After eight years of Republican leadership, conservative voters were slightly skeptical of the self-proclaimed progressive, but early on, Murphy gave them reasons for hope.
A committed family man, he worked hard to make New Jersey a state in which families could be comfortable. He doubled funding for security in schools — his way of combating anti-Semitism — and offered extra funding for special education in all schools.
The “sneakers” style would mark his leadership: energetic without being manic, determined but with a smile.
“I don’t think I ever saw him lose his cool,” says Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America. “I’ve seen him face hecklers and protesters, in stressful meetings and at tense moments, but he’s always positive. It makes a big difference.”
(The closest Murphy will get to a testy exchange is telling an infuriated heckler, “I listened to you, now please listen to me.”)
“On a personal level, he is very engaged. If I text him with an issue, he’ll always answer, and within the hour, someone will call back from the relevant department to deal with the problem,” says Rabbi Schnall. “If the governor, who is running a large state, is answering texts from Avi Schnall, not the most important guy in the state, he is clearly doing so to others as well.”
There was a period in 2019, the second year of the governor’s tenure, where his relationship with the Jewish community was put to the test. On December 10th, New Jersey faced a domestic terror attack on its own soil, in Jersey City.
“The governor was right there, his justice department calling it a hate crime and treating it as such from day one,” recalls Rabbi Schnall.
But even as they dealt with the immediate threat and its aftermath, thoughts turned to the Siyum HaShas, planned for just three weeks later. It was to be the largest gathering of Orthodox Jews in American history, and it was to take place just a few miles away from Jersey City.
There was pressure on the governor to cancel the event or postpone it to a calmer time, but “Governor Murphy understood that we fight hate with love, darkness with light, and not only did he support the Siyum HaShas, he actually came,” says Rabbi Schnall, who served as the governor’s guide that day. “And he loved it!”
In the governor’s personal life, things got tricky just after that.
A routine medical check-up for a gastrointestinal issue yielded an unexpected diagnosis: The 62-year-old patient had a malignant tumor on his left kidney. Days before the State of the State address, the news of the governor’s cancer broke, and at the address itself, the Democrat was greeted with a sustained standing ovation from both Democrats and Republicans, a telling response.
On March 4th, 2020, the governor underwent serious surgery, with the plan of taking several weeks off to recover. He was still in the recovery room after the successful surgery when a text message came in, confirming the first positive case of the novel coronavirus in the state of New Jersey.
The next few days allowed for little rest, and by March 13th, Governor Murphy held his first coronavirus press conference, the daily briefings that would offer guidance, information, and eventually, comfort.
But his state was hit hard. Its death count surged. Nursing home deaths escalated. Along with that, unemployment numbers climbed too, lending an added measure of bleakness to the Jersey landscape.
But somehow, Governor Phil Murphy would not just survive, but rise, emerging as a leader during the crisis. His approval ratings continued to go up and now, he seems poised for an easy reelection. Who is this man and how does he manage relationships so well? How is it that his future seems bright while so many of his Democratic fellow governors are under fire?
The hoped-for chance to catch his breath hasn’t yet arrived, but the intense pressure and pain of the early months of COVID-19 are easing somewhat, allowing for a candid conversation with Mishpacha.
On one hand, you’re a progressive politician, yet somehow, you’ve threaded the needle between safety and religious freedom. How did you manage that?
You’re very gracious to say that. Over the last year, I haven’t at any point thought that I was running in a popularity contest or election campaign, and we’ve been doing the best we can. The faith communities have always been important to us, not only since the virus struck, and we have weekly calls and meetings with representatives of all religions. We see them as true leaders, and consider them partners.
When it came to vaccinations, to restrictions, to capacity limits, we worked hand in hand. Look, I always say that even the inevitable disagreements can be dealt with in the locker room, rather than out on the field. We had conversations, they understood where we were coming from and we understood where they were coming from, so we were able to partner at the end to respect both safety and religious freedom.
Last October, at the time of the Jewish holiday season, there was a higher COVID rate in Lakewood than in other locales, yet you continued to work with the leadership there to enforce restrictions and capacity limits rather than shut down houses of worship and schools. Was there pushback to your position?
Oh, of course, there’s always pushback from one direction or another, whatever position you take. But along with the data we had — and we know the community was testing and doing what was necessary to prevent the spread — there is also trust. It helps that we had those relationships in place before the crisis, so the trust was already there. Rabbi Kotler, Rabbi Abe Friedman, Rabbi Schnall — Avi — we were able to work with the community and the numbers went down.
There are several Orthodox “capitals” in your state, not just Lakewood — Deal is a Sephardic hub and Teaneck a center of Modern Orthodoxy. Passaic is rapidly growing. Many of the people who settle there originally came from New York. What’s your plan to retain that growth?
These are great communities — I’m familiar with all of them. Look, I never tried to steal residents from other states, it’s not my job to do that. New York State is a partner. All I try to do is present a compelling case for our state. We have quality healthcare, quality schools, quality infrastructure, and if people see that and come, we’re thrilled.
But what about the high property taxes? Do you worry it will drive people away?
It’s an issue that has been around for a long time. Since I took over, we had three of the lowest property tax years on record, and I aim to continue to bring them down. One way we’re doing that is by increased funding for public education so that local municipalities don’t have to invest as much in schools, bringing down the property taxes on home-owners.
To some, New Jersey is a punch line. It doesn’t have the magic and culture of New York nor the upscale elegance of Connecticut. Do you care?
I’m laughing. It doesn’t bother me. It’s also not true. You know what? We’re an incredible state. I believe that we are the single best state in which to raise a family. It’s a state where people have character and backbone. This is where you want to build your family.
It’s inevitable that people will compare your leadership with that of your neighbor, Governor Cuomo. Early on, he singled out faith groups and houses of worship, and also said that “G-d didn’t bring the numbers down.” It’s been suggested by some that he was asking for trouble, which found him. What are your thoughts on that?
I have to disappoint you; I have no comment on that. I have my nose pressed to the glass looking at New Jersey, I’m not thinking about New York.
Informal data shows that many Orthodox Jews who voted for Trump will be voting for you in the upcoming election. Do you find that ironic?
It’s an interesting piece of information, but we always found common ground with everyone, including President Trump. I never made it about fighting with him. In the worst days of the pandemic we communicated to help the residents of New Jersey. I am grateful for what you’re suggesting, though.
Today, Axios reported that your predecessor as governor, Chris Christie, is planning to run for president in 2024. Any thoughts on that?
All I would say is that I’m not surprised. Not surprised at all.
There are reports that you, Governor, are planning to run for president.
I have no interest in running and no plans of running. My dream job is the job I have now, and implicit in my desire for public service is the desire to do this job as best as I can.
Looking back at the last year, are there are any regrets? Things you wish had been done differently?
There is something that bothers me. Bob Woodward wrote that the president told him that they’d known about the virus, but wanted to play down the panic. I wish we would have known earlier and been even better prepared, but as for regrets? Look, it’s not time for the post-mortem yet, we’re not there. You can be sure a 9/11 style commission will be formed in our state and we will take a long, hard look at how it was handled.
Early on, your appeared on Fox News, where Tucker Carlson challenged your commitment to faith groups and houses of worship. Why did you go on the show in the first place when many Democratic politicians won’t go on the network at all?
We were still at the very beginning of the pandemic, and I felt that as governor, I had to communicate with every citizen, to speak to them and reach them at all costs. I don’t care how and where. It was my job. You know who called me as soon as that show ended? President Trump. He had seen it, and he wanted to compare notes and discuss the ideas.
Does your administration see the “Lakewood model” — how COVID was handled in that community — as a success?
It was a success and it was a great partnership between us, the health department, the leaders on the ground in Ocean County, people like my friend, Ocean County Commissioner Joe Vicari, who’s a Republican. We all worked together with respect for each other’s values.
Looking back at the year no one could have ever predicted, how did the pandemic change you as a person?
It underscored the value and importance of family. We spent a lot of time with the family. That has been the silver lining of this whole experience.
In my daily briefings, I try to speak about victims of COVID, to memorialize real people. I call the families and learn a little about the deceased, so that we don’t lose sight of the human toll, the great people of the state of New Jersey. My personal lesson over the last year has been how many incredible people we have in this state.
It’s now more than a year that you’ve been holding emergency powers. There are those who say that the government will never fully ease up restrictions and won’t let go of power. Do you have a projection for life going back to normal in your state?
Mask-wearing while indoors in public spaces will probably be around for a while. The virus is tough and we don’t want to let it back in, but if the numbers continue to go down, we would love to be all open by summer, we have our great beaches, our lakes, we would love to be out there.
THE LAKEWOOD MODEL
In mid-September of this year, just before Rosh Hashanah, the COVID rate in Lakewood, New Jersey, was 29 percent. The COVID rate in the rest of the state was just 2.5 percent.
Many governors would have contemplated an immediate lockdown of the town. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, a conference call between Lakewood community leaders and the governor’s office was held.
“We have a problem,” State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said, “and we need to find a way to get the numbers down.”
Rather than closing schools and shuls, the state — led by Persichilli and the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Deborah Cornavaca — negotiated with the understanding that the Jewish community has its own values and standards. It became less about “do this,” and more about “how can we achieve this goal?” recalls a participant in those conversations.
The state wanted increased testing, so that they could identify carriers of the virus, who would then quarantine. The Beth Medrash Govoha leadership along with Avi Schnall and Meir Lichtenstein got to work, asking local rabbanim to encourage mass testing among the Lakewood community.
The strategy had its detractors from both ends. The governor faced pressure from those who wanted to simply lock down all institutions in Lakewood. On the other side, the askanim faced resistance as well: Opponents of the plan insisted that it was a government power grab and that mass testing would effectively be conceding to increased government control.
But testing would carry the day, with over three thousand tests administered at a site in the BMG parking lot alone, and very quickly, the town’s numbers began to go down. The ability to identify carriers and take the necessary precautions would turn the tide, and in early October, Lakewood reached the state average.
Governor Murphy and his staff touted the “Lakewood model,” as indication that health concerns don’t have to impede freedom of religion, and proof that with mutual respect and understanding, a solution can always be found.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 858)
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