As New Jersey residents soured on Gov. Chris Christie during his last couple of years in office, Phil Murphy campaigned as a leader they could trust. From the decrepit state of NJ Transit to the underfunded public employee retirement system to the Bridgegate political scandal, Murphy pledged to do better.
And he campaigned as a progressive who believed that government could be used as a tool to change people’s lives — to close the pay gap between men and women, for example, and protect the state from the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
This week, Murphy’s credibility took a hit on both fronts, as sworn testimony Tuesday from an official in his administration raised doubts about the seriousness with which he and his top aides confronted allegations of sexual assault in their ranks.
Katie Brennan, chief of staff for the state’s housing agency, testified that she told Murphy’s aides that a high-ranking administration official had sexually assaulted her during the 2017 campaign, but that the governor’s team had surprisingly dragged its feet.
“I thought if any administration could make progressive reforms, it would be this one," she said.
Nearly a year into his tenure, instead of touting a signature legislative achievement, the governor’s office is bracing for subpoenas from a select legislative committee investigating the allegations. The panel, assisted by two high-profile criminal defense attorneys, is expected to call some of the governor’s top aides to testify.
The parallels seem a little more stark now between Murphy and his predecessor, whose derailed political future some trace back to an inquisitive legislative committee in Trenton.
“Moving forward, [Murphy] has almost no leverage. He is at a point where the Legislature is really determining his ability to enact his agenda,” said Brigid Harrison, professor of law and political science at Montclair State University.
If lawmakers find that at the height of the #MeToo movement, Murphy was aware of the allegations and chose not to do anything about them, “that in my view is such an egregious error that I view it as potentially career-ending,” Harrison said, “because he is a politician who has positioned himself to be all about equity and diversity and fairness.”
Brennan’s testimony is also consistent with criticism of Murphy as an aloof governor, inattentive to everything from motorists stuck in a snowstorm (he was spotted dining at an upscale restaurant while the storm raged) to government spending (after awarding raises to state employees, he said he didn’t know how much the new contract would cost) to questionable hires (he defended hiring someone who had been convicted of bribery, though the official resigned when the attorney general found the hire was unlawful).
What’s more, Murphy is still fairly unknown to the public. A November poll by Rutgers-Eagleton found that an unusually high 40 percent of Garden State residents didn’t know enough about Murphy to have an opinion of him.
“People are still forming their opinion of who he is,” said Ashley Koning, a pollster at Rutgers. “If this is latched onto his name and reputation in year one,” she said, Murphy could be damaged politically.
As of now, though, he enjoys positive job approval and favorable ratings.
Of particular interest to lawmakers is a sequence of events in early June 2018. Brennan emailed the governor and his wife on June 1 to request a meeting, citing a “sensitive” matter but not mentioning the alleged assault. Murphy responded within an hour, urging Brennan to “hang on” and declaring, “We are on it.”
It isn’t clear what Murphy meant -- Brennan testified that she didn’t know -- and the governor says he didn’t learn about the allegations until his office was contacted by the Wall Street Journal, which published Brennan’s account in October.
But the day after that email exchange, a lawyer for the campaign contacted Brennan, and about a week later told her that her alleged attacker, Albert J. Alvarez, would be leaving the administration, according to her testimony.
Lawmakers are likely to press the administration to fill in the gaps in that timeline and are almost certain to ask whether the governor knew more than he has let on.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) said Brennan’s testimony pointed to “many questions about systemic breakdowns, certainly a lot in the way of communication, if nothing else.” She also noted that on some levels in the administration, there seemed to be “a curious lack of asking about the details.”
Alvarez, who was chief of staff for the Schools Development Authority, didn’t resign until he was contacted by the Journal in October. Through his attorney, Alvarez has denied the allegations, which are being investigated by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. (A previous investigation by the Hudson County prosecutor did not result in charges. But the allegations were referred to Middlesex after concerns emerged about a conflict of interest in Hudson.)
The dynamic in Trenton also underscores Murphy’s inability to build goodwill in the state capital, even though the governor’s party controls both houses of the Legislature. Christie, too, was dogged by a legislative committee -- one that investigated the September 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge and unearthed emails that ultimately led to a politically damaging criminal prosecution.
But Christie had forged personal relationships on both sides of the aisle. Many of the Republicans on that panel served as effective surrogates for Christie, and even some Democratic leaders held their punches. Few, if any, lawmakers investigating the sexual assault allegations appear interested in defending Murphy or asking questions that could at least portray the administration in a more favorable light.
Things aren’t much better on policy initiatives.
In budget negotiations in June, Murphy failed to win his coveted tax hike on millionaires, instead settling for a slimmed-down version and a temporary hike on corporations.
Since then, he’s expressed frustration over an inability to reach consensus on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and a measure to legalize marijuana remains in flux.