Home>Feature>Murphy assumes NGA chairmanship, promises to tackle youth mental health challenges

Gov Phil Murphy. right, with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, and Maine Gov. Janet Mills at the National Governors Association summer meeting in Portland on July 15, 2022. (Photo: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe).

Murphy assumes NGA chairmanship, promises to tackle youth mental health challenges

Governor says there’s still room for bipartisanship despite divisive national issues

By Joey Fox, July 15 2022 1:42 pm

PORTLAND, MAINE – Gov. Phil Murphy assumed the chairmanship of the National Governors Association (NGA) this morning at its summer meeting held this year in Portland, Maine, becoming the first New Jerseyan in history to lead the coalition of 55 state and territorial governors.

“This is an existentially important organization, particularly at this moment in our nation’s history,” Murphy said at the conclusion of the conference. “I think we wear it as a great badge of honor that we continue to be able to find common ground and common cause, and may that be our guiding light in the year and years ahead.”

The position of chair comes with the ability to promote an initiative across the country, and Murphy has chosen to emphasize youth mental health.

“We are all aware of the youth mental health crisis in our country,” Murphy said. “It is a crisis that the pandemic did not create, but exposed more fully. It is one that we must tackle together and tackle now.”

Murphy’s initiative will be built around four pillars, he said: improving resilience building, reducing mental health stigma, improving access to health care, and providing training for educators and caregivers. Alongside Murphy’s main initiative will be another project spearheaded by First Lady Tammy Murphy to improve maternal and infant health, something she has focused on at home in New Jersey.

For Phil Murphy, whose only elected position has been governor of New Jersey, the yearlong NGA chairmanship is a chance to break out of New Jersey politics and onto the national scene. As President Joe Biden wanes in the polls and 2024 speculation heats up, that’s a valuable opportunity to have.

But Murphy insisted that he remains resolutely focused on New Jersey despite whatever national attention the NGA chairmanship may bring.

“New Jersey first, always,” Murphy said. “My first port of call is keeping my nose pressed against the Jersey glass.”

The NGA, founded in 1908, is a bipartisan organization, and the topics the governors discussed – publicly, at least – largely steered clear of divisive national issues. Murphy’s predecessor as chair, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, was a Republican, and his ordained successor, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, is as well.

“We fight about some really stupid shit sometimes,” Cox, who is now NGA vice chair, said at today’s conference. “The things that we have in common, our ability to work together, mean so much more than most of the things that we fight about in this country.”

Some national topics did still seep into the proceedings, like when Hutchinson was asked at a press briefing for his thoughts on the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the story of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who had to get an abortion in Indiana. The question made for an odd pairing as Hutchinson, who is anti-abortion, gave his answer while flanked by Murphy and Maine Gov. Janet Mills, both of whom are pro-choice.

Murphy said afterwards, however, that while he may have fiery rhetoric in New Jersey on abortion and other important topics, he’s able to leave that aside when the time calls for it.

“We’re flat-out not going to agree on some stuff, and abortion and reproductive freedom is high on that list,” Murphy said. “[But] as important as these issues are where you disagree, if you allow that to preclude cooperation on issues that you do agree on, you have a nonfunctioning NGA. And I’m not going to let that happen.”

At the end of the day, the NGA is not an organization that the average American likely knows much about, nor is it as formally powerful as some other national political roles. Murphy acknowledged that, but said he still strongly believes in the work the NGA does.

“I think it’s an extraordinarily important organization,” he said. “Whether or not I can come in on Day 1 as chair and claim that I can bend the trajectory of its brand or its national reputation – I can’t say that… I feel strongly about this organization, and if we can raise the profile, I’m all for that.”

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