The biggest inside baseball story of Phil Murphy’s transition is just how badly his relationship with Senate President Steven Sweeney has deteriorated. They haven’t talked much since Election Day. Either Murphy doesn’t understand the role of the New Jersey Senate, or he thinks he’s charismatic enough to advance his agenda without Sweeney’s cooperation.
You can’t blame Murphy for trying. It’s not like he’s spent a lot of time in Trenton before. But if he doesn’t quickly figure out this piece of the political puzzle, he’s in for quite an education.
The next shoe to drop could be when Murphy picks his new Commissioner of Education. Many insiders say the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) will have considerable sway over Murphy’s pick. An education commissioner beholden to the NJEA won’t play well with Sweeney – not after the union spent $5 million trying to beat Sweeney in the last election. Last time I checked, the whole advise and consent thing is still in effect.
For better or worse, and in good times and bad, Chris Christie completely comprehended the role of the Senate President. Sometimes his alliance with Sweeney angered Republican Senators who felt left out. Jon Corzine had an unnatural alliance with Senate President Dick Codey. Codey had served as Governor for fourteen months and never felt quite comfortable with the way Corzine took the 2006 gubernatorial nomination from him. Christie Whitman and Don DiFrancesco didn’t like each other, but they worked fine together. Not great, just fine.
And so like everything for the next week or so, Murphy’s relationship with Sweeney comes back to a story about Brendan Byrne. Byrne was incredibly unpopular through much of his eight years, but he often had legislative leaders who worked on his behalf – at a high cost of massive defeats of Assemblymen in 1975 and 1979.
When Byrne took office, the new Senate President was Pat Dodd, a relatively young, gregarious tavern owner with gubernatorial aspirations. They were both Irish American from West Orange, but they didn’t know each other well. Dodd had backed fellow Essex State Sen. Ralph DeRose in the 1973 primary because that’s what his County Chairman told him to do. Byrne preferred Dodd over the other potential candidates, but Dodd always believed he won the most on his own merits.
In Senate Majority Leader post was supposed to go to Joseph Merlino, but Byrne preferred Matthew Feldman, a former Senator from Bergen who had just won a return to the upper house. The deal was cut when Byrne agreed to back Hudson’s Joseph LeFante for Assembly Majority Leader instead of the man who was expected to get the job, Albert Burstein of Bergen.