George Helmy sets the record today as the longest-serving chief of staff to a Governor of New Jersey in state history, even though he had to stay longer than any of his predecessors just to get an office in the statehouse.
Helmy breaks the record held for over 33 years by Edward R. McGlynn, who served as chief of staff to Gov. Thomas H. Kean from December 30, 1985, until he turned the lights off on the Kean administration at noon on January 16, 1990. He tied the record on Sunday and passed McGlynn today.
Coincidentally, Helmy will begin moving into the renovated New Jersey Statehouse for the first time today, with Murphy and his senior staff occupying their new offices on Friday. The Office of the Governor moved down the street in May 2017 so that a $300 million renovation project could commence.
Helmy became Phil Murphy’s second chief of staff on February 4, 2019, following the departure of Peter Cammarano.
“A chief of staff is more than just the right hand of a governor,” Murphy told the New Jersey Globe. “A chief of staff sets the tone for the entire administration. With his calm demeanor, quick wit, and in-depth knowledge on any number of issues, George has set our tone through his example.”
Considering the grueling demands of the job – managing the governor’s agenda, dealing with legislators, party leaders, and government officials from the White House to municipal buildings across the state, chiefs of staff typically move on after a few years.
Murphy said that Helmy’s “leadership has been invaluable to securing countless accomplishments, including tax fairness and delivering record property tax relief, passing adult-use cannabis, rewriting our business tax incentive program, and expanding protections for reproductive freedom.”
Helmy’s tenure included the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis and a re-election campaign that saw Murphy become the first Democratic governor to win a second term in 44 years.
To be clear, Helmy’s service accounts for an 18-day interruption in 2021 when he resigned as chief of staff to spend the last few weeks of the election on Murphy’s re-election campaign.
His time as chief of staff will continue to expand unless he departs at some point before Murphy’s term expires in January 2026. Among the reasons he’s remained for more than four years is a deep loyalty to the governor and First Lady Tammy Murphy; he’s also developed a close personal friendship with them.
Plus, by all accounts, Helmy still loves the job.
Several colleagues and influential state leaders from both parties unhesitatingly praised the Helmy Era, with many calling him a partner in Murphy’s governorship.
“It is a difficult job, and he has been able to thrive in that position,” said Senate President Nicholas Scutari, who is also the gatekeeper for every gubernatorial nomination that requires Senate confirmation. “He’s the person you go to in order to get things done in New Jersey.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said that Helmy “has earned respect and trust with his tireless work in federal and state government.”
“He has been an invaluable partner and resource for the governor, the legislature, and most importantly, the people of New Jersey,” he said.
Parimal Garg, the governor’s chief counsel, credited Helmy with helping the governor “build a remarkable legacy, including managing a once-in-a-century pandemic, (and) appointing three Justices to the Supreme Court.”
“The history of the Murphy administration cannot be written without taking note of George’s historic tenure,” Garg said.
LeRoy Jones, Jr., the New Jersey Democratic State Chairman and the Essex County Democratic Chairman, called Helmy a “fierce policy wonk who has the unique skill set to manage the governor’s politics in 21 counties and across the U.S.”
“George has been a friend, first and foremost, who happens to be an exceptional and talented chief of staff,” said Jones. “When he does exit, it’s going to be a great loss.”
Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho acknowledged that being the governor’s chief of staff is a “tough, demanding job.”
“George is a true professional,” Oroho said. “It’s no secret that the positions taken by myself and my Caucus members are often in sharp contrast to the governor. George doesn’t let that impact the working relationship he maintains with Republican legislators. He is very accessible and always cordial. He is a credit to this Administration.”
Helmy took on the job of heading up the governor’s staff at perhaps the lowest point in Murphy’s term. The fledgling governor was battling the Democratic-controlled legislature and dealing with allegations by an administration official, Katie Brennan, that another Murphy aide raped her while the two were working on the 2017 gubernatorial campaign.
That tumultuous first year prompted Cammarano to announce his departure in January 2019. Murphy picked Helmy, then serving as U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s state director, to replace him.
Kevin O’Toole, a former Republican state senator who serves as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, credited Helmy with putting the Office of the Governor on the right track.
“When George arrived in the front office, with his prior experience with Senators (Frank) Lautenberg and Booker, it paid immediate political dividends,” O’Toole explained. “He slowly repaired battered relationships and allowed the Murphy administration to effectively function alongside an independent-minded legislature. That created political connectivity will be one of his lasting legacies.”
Now O’Toole and Helmy are colleagues after the Senate confirmed his nomination to serve as a Port Authority commissioner.
Mo Butler, who hired Helmy while serving as Booker’s state director, called him “the best hire I ever made.”
“Nobody pays more attention to detail. Nobody is better prepared. Nobody is more dedicated to his principal,” Butler said.
Attorney General Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel from 2018 to 2020, applauded his former colleague and boss.
“George has set the record for serving in one of the most difficult positions in government, not only in New Jersey but anywhere in this country, during arguably the most challenging period in our state’s history,” said Platkin. “I’ve seen his commitment and sacrifice during his tenure firsthand, and I know our residents live in a safer, healthier, and stronger state as a result of his efforts. Governor Murphy has been well served by having George by his side.”
Admiration for Helmy also comes from the political side, with influential Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe calling him a “consummate professional from day one” and pointing to his manager competency.
“During the COVID crisis, George’s professionalism, communication, and unflappable leadership skills were on full display,” McCabe said. “ He is a terrific chief of staff and someone I’m proud to call a friend.”
Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who hired Helmy to work as an aide to Lautenberg, said that Helmy’s ” impressive tenure as Chief of Staff is as unsurprising as it is remarkable.”
“I expected nothing less from him when he agreed to take on this very challenging position. I had the good fortune of hiring George to work in the late Senator Lautenberg’s office, and I have had the honor of being his friend and mentor over the last twenty years,” Gill said. “His tireless work has proven invaluable to Governor Murphy’s administration and the State of New Jersey.”
McGlynn still holds the record for the longest consecutive stint as the governor’s chief of staff since Helmy resigned to spend almost three weeks volunteering on the campaign and was rehired by Murphy. That gives Helmy a Roger Maris-like asterisk.
“It was the greatest four years of my career,” said McGlynn, who took over after Kean was re-elected with 70% of the vote. “I was sure that at some point, the record was going to be broken. Congratulations to George.”
McGlynn was an unlikely candidate to wind up working for Kean at all. In 1981, he helped run the campaign of his brother, Richard McGlynn, a 42-year-old former Superior Court Judge and Board of Public Utilities Commissioner running against Kean in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
Like Kean, McGlynn came from a political family. His father, William E. McGlynn, was elected to the Kearny Town Council in 1939, at age 22, and unsuccessfully ran for Congress against Rep. Peter Rodino (D-Newark) in 1954.
There is a path for McGlynn to reclaim the record if another governor were to bring him back for another stint as chief of staff. Still, McGlynn, who is now affiliated with The Zita Group and, for the last three decades, the general counsel to Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, dismissed the idea of a statehouse comeback.
“I’m 76-years-old,” he said.
The record for the shortest tenure as chief of staff appears to be held by Lisa Jackson, who spent fifteen days working for Gov. Jon Corine in December 2008. She had been named to succeed Bradley Abelow, but President-elect Barack Obama offered her the post of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator days after she started in the governor’s office.
Despite accolades for Helmy, Murphy still hasn’t extended the honorific status that went to another top staffer more than 175 years ago.
In the 1840s, Gov. William Pennington conferred the military rank of Colonel on his young chief of staff, John Kean. He used the title of Colonel for the remainder of his life. The great-grandfather of Governor Kean and one of the founders of the Republican Party in New Jersey, Col. Kean later helped Abraham Lincoln win the presidency in 1860 and was the father of two United States Senators.
One record remains unbroken, at least for now: Brendan Byrne is still the only chief of staff to a governor to become the governor. He served as Gov. Robert Meyner’s executive secretary – the original title of the office Helmy now occupies – from 1956 to 1958.
“If George decides to run for governor, I’m happy to have that conversation,” Jones said.