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Murphy’s problem: he only has three, maybe four allies in the Senate

Rival Senate President has a solid lock on his caucus

By David Wildstein, March 21 2018 7:08 pm

Gov Phil Murphy has a historically low number of New Jersey State Senators he can rely on – you can literally count them on one hand and still have some fingers left over.  And it’s no secret that Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney are not getting along.

Start with the history: New Jersey elected a Democratic governor in 1922 and gave him a 17-4 Republican Senate; three years later, the state elected another Democrat as governor – this time with Republicans having an 18-3 Senate majority.  (Both passed their budgets.)  While 20th century New Jersey statewide elections were politically competitive, the Senate was solidly Republican for all but one year between 1900 and 1965 – until the tradition of one Senator for every county ended.

Murphy took office after eight years of a Republican governor and with Democrats dominating both houses of the Legislature: a 25-15 majority in the Senate and a 54-26 majority in the Assembly.

But Murphy is struggling to get legislative support from his fellow Democrats.

Chris Christie had a block of Republican senators who usually supported his legislative initiatives, even if they had to be bullied a little to get them there.  After that, Christie could make a deal with Senate President Steve Sweeney to get the other five or six votes he needed.  Murphy doesn’t have that.

In the Senate, the “Stand With Phil” caucus is generously sized at three: Dick Codey, who is Murphy’s best friend in the Senate; Nicholas Sacco, who has no place to go in the Senate; and Ronald Rice, the ultimate free agent, skilled at getting a vig anytime a governor needs him to cast a critical vote – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On a good day, Murphy can add Nia Gill to his group.  That makes it four – still a long way from 21, the number of votes to pass something, like a budget.

Murphy hasn’t faced any divisive votes yet, but he will at some point.  And right now, it looks like he’ll need to craft individual packages for a lot of different Senators to get to 21 – assuming Sweeney even allows a vote.  Packages are complicated – they usually involve some commitment for an appointment or other government action – and it takes considerable skill from staff that the fledgling administration might may not yet have learned.

Even tougher for Murphy is that it’s not like he’s the pied piper of the three or four senators in the “Stand with Phil” caucus. Most of them are against Murphy’s proposal to legalize marijuana.

Sweeney has a strong hold on his Senate caucus – and his tentacles extend into the Republican caucus too.  With some exceptions, Sweeney has a base of seventeen votes in the Senate.  He can get to 21 usually with relative ease, something Murphy cannot.

There are four Senators that are not solidly in either the Murphy or Sweeney camp: freshman Vin Gopal, who has a strong relationship with Sweeney and a good one with the governor; Nellie Pou, who probably leans toward Sweeney; Shirley Turner, who needs a good package to get her on board; and freshman/veteran Joe Cryan, who has been around the Legislature long enough to know that he can wield his vote without swearing his allegiance to Murphy or Sweeney – at least at this time.

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