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Gov. Phil Murphy delivers the State of the State Address in the Assembly Chambers on January 15, 2019. (Photo: Tim Larsen/New Jersey Governor's Office).

No designated survivor when Murphy delivers State of the State address

Sandra Cunningham, who has been absent from Trenton since June and faces cognitive health issues, could be acting governor after disastrous event

By David Wildstein, January 06 2023 8:07 pm

When Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his State of the State address on Tuesday – his first in-person since the start of the pandemic and the protest at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 – he’ll do so without a designated survivor.

A cataclysmic event at the statehouse would make Senate President Pro-Tempore Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), who hasn’t been in Trenton since June after a prolonged hospitalization for cognitive health issues that led to a Superior Court judge appointing a guardian, would be the acting governor.

Cunningham becomes the de facto designated survivor simply because she’s the first person in the line of succession who won’t be at Murphy’s speech.

For Cunningham to become acting governor, the five people ahead of her  – Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, Senate President Nicholas Scutari, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Attorney General Matt Platkin and Commissioner of Transportation Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti – would have to be unavailable to serve under tragic circumstances.

Still, just 731 days ago, the idea that protestors would storm the capitol and occupy the Senate and House chambers, would have been unthinkable.

“It is unlikely.  It is incredibly unlikely,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University.  “If one thing history has taught us is that we absolutely have to pay attention to the line of succession.”

New Jersey governors have traditionally not kept a designated survivor out of the statehouse during a joint session of the legislature, something the White House does every time the President addresses Congress.

If an event akin to the U.S. Capitol breach occurred in Trenton, what would happen?

The governor’s office declined to comment on security issues.  But some individuals with knowledge of statehouse security operations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, suggested that events over the last two years are enough to prompt a discussion of the designated survivor issue.  They say the state ought to act with an abundance of caution.

Rasmussen, who served on Gov. James E. McGreevey’s staff in the early 2000s, agreed.

“It is worth thinking this through so we have a policy in place,” he said  “If we learned anything, it’s not to leave stuff up in the air. It behooves us to have the discussion.”

Right now, Cunningham does not have full legal control of her personal affairs.  But it’s not clear if that would be enough to block her from becoming acting governor, or if her court-appointed guardian would have the legal authority to decline the post on her behalf.

Her status leaves the Senate in a bind.  Cunningham’s colleagues are not inclined to question her ability to complete her current term, or even to remove her from the line of gubernatorial succession.

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