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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Murphy backs continued existence of senatorial courtesy

Unwritten rule allows senators to indefinitely block gubernatorial nominees from their home county

By Nikita Biryukov, May 03 2021 3:12 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy supported keeping in place an unwritten Senate rule that allows members to indefinitely block gubernatorial nominees from their home county Monday, backing a measure that has been used to stymie the governor’s own nominations.

“I have to say my bias, just being asked it for the first time, is it’s a rightful element of a balance of power, even where it may frustrate you one day or another,” he said of senatorial courtesy. “At the end of the day, I think the notion of having the equal branches of government exercising their rights is, I think, a good thing.”

The unwritten but immovable rule has been used to block some of Murphy’s nominees.

In 2019, Murphy pulled his nomination of then-Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato to former Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin’s seat on the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest) had invoked courtesy to block the nomination, citing questions over Stellato’s residency. As part of a deal to overcome the impasse, Murphy agreed to keep Yudin on the authority’s board for another year and nominated stellate to a seat held by Michael Ferguson, a former Republican congressman.

Yudin is still on the authority’s board nearly two years later. The rule has been used as leverage in a variety of other instances by legislators of both parties.

The governor acknowledged that courtesy has been a source of headaches in the past, though he said he believed it had was still a net-positive for the state.

“That doesn’t mean that one day in time you’re not frustrated by wishing this happened sooner or this happened. But it’s not one that’s high on my list in terms of you say, ‘quick you can change things in this state,’” he said. “I think it’s been largely a good thing over time.”

Courtesy isn’t the only way to stall a nomination. Senators can also withhold a committee hearing or floor vote, though those privileges are reserved for Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), respectively.

Other Murphy nominees, acting New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick J. Callahan for one, have seen their confirmations frozen for months or even years without the invocation of courtesy.

Murphy’s support of senatorial courtesy draws into sharp relief his shifting relationships with Senate Democrats. Much of the governor’s first two years in office were spent in conflict with Sweeney and other South Jersey Democrats.

But those conflicts have ebbed out of public view as the two prepare to seek re-election together.

The governor is running on the line and endorsing candidates who are doing the same, despite progressive campaigns to do away with organizational lines, which they charge lend an unfair advantage to incumbents and other establishment-backed candidates.

His support of senatorial courtesy comes a day after Assemblywoman Valeri Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) backed eliminating the practice during a New Jersey Globe debate for the 37th legislative district’s Senate seat.

Vainieri Huttle is running off-the-line against her former running mate, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood). Murphy has endorsed Johnson, who is making his bid on the Bergen County Democratic line.

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