State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) and Gov. Phil Murphy emerged from a Tuesday evening call between members of the Legislative Black Caucus and the governor’s office in drastically different moods.
In brief comments about the call made at Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing, the governor said the parties had “a very good discussion.”
Rice left the conversation disappointed enough to send Murphy a 350-word-long text message at about 10:30 PM., claiming the governor’s staff sought to deprive the state’s black lawmakers the opportunity to discuss
“Our members were very disappointed in this meeting, which was not a meeting to discuss our issues as Black Elected Officials and Civil Rights Leaders,” Rice said in the text. “We believe, just as we predicted would happen, the staff coordinated the meeting to have the commissioners to repeat what we already know from your daily updates in order to kill approximately 40 of your 45 minutes scheduled for us.”
The LBC chairman told the New Jersey Globe he sent the message, which Murphy responded to, after members of his caucus the raised similar complaints about the call. Rice shared the text with his caucus after sending it to Murphy.
Chief among Rice’s complaints was the belief that the black lawmakers were deprived of the opportunity to push the administration on increased testing capacity for New Jersey’s communities of color and lobby for Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who was on the call, to lead the governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission.
Oliver and other members of Murphy’s administration — Commissioner of Health Judy Persichilli, chief of staff George Helmy, chief counsel Matt Platkin and chief policy advisor Kathleen Frangione — will serve as ex officio members of the commission.
Princeton Molecular President Emeritus Shirley Tilghman, a biology and public policy professor, and Merck Chairman and CEO Kenneth Frazier are set to serve as the commission’s co-chairs.
“We worked hard to ensure that we had an African American lieutenant governor after (former Gov. Chris) Christie left,” Rice told the New Jersey Globe. “And we worked hard to make sure that, when we got them elected, that would be his partner.”
Two other members of the LBC who spoke with the Globe on the condition of anonymity raised similar complaints about the call.
“We really didn’t have a meeting, OK?” Rice said. “We just were given updates, so the members on the call were not really happy, satisfied about the way it went down.”
A spokesperson for Murphy declined to comment on the dust-up.
Rice repeatedly downplayed Murphy’s role in the quarrel, saying his issues lay with how the governor’s staff handled the teleconference and not with the governor himself.
The senator said some of his members had their lines muted by the front office staff. At one point, he even asked whether gubernatorial staffers were blocking his members, though they said they were not.
“I believe we have a governor who’s amenable to working with us. He’s shown that in many cases,” the Rice said. “I believe the problem — I told him this more than once — is his staff folk, who are subordinate to elected officials but they think they’re not.”
Not everyone on the call shared the legislators’ indignation.
Rev. Charles Boyer, the pastor of Bethel AME Church and a community advocate, said he left the teleconference without any complaints.
“The specific issues that I was looking for were addressed. I don’t know what kind of arrangements the senator had with them as far as Q&A with the legislators. I didn’t walk away from the call aggravated,” Boyer said. “I was good as far as questions are concerned.”
The reverend was primarily concerned with updates about testing at the state’s juvenile and adult correctional facilities, both of which he said were addressed.
Black New Jerseyans have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus.
The state’s black residents account for 22% the 3,811 COVID-related deaths in New Jersey for which health officials have reported demographic information.
According to Census figures, 15% of New Jersey residents are black.
Murphy and his administration haven’t ignored those figures. To the contrary, they’ve repeatedly pointed to them as a cause for concern.
“The fact of the matter is the African American fatality number continues to be bouncing,” the governor said at Wednesday’s briefing. “It’s a little less than 50% now, but it’s meaningfully above the representation in the whole of New Jersey, and that’s something the lieutenant governor, Judy and I spoke to that concerns us that we’re focused on not just in the near term.”
The issue isn’t likely to be put to rest anytime soon.
The parties are coordinating future calls, and Rice said the caucus will discuss Tuesday’s teleconference during a meeting early next week.
“I’m trying to be nice about this, and then we’re going to move back on this and the way it went down,” Rice said. “At the end of the day, nobody may care whether I’m happy or not. Nobody may care whether the black elected officials and civil rights leaders and faith-based leaders are happy or not, because sometimes they give us that impression too, but we’re not going away.”