Home>Highlight>Stomping Grounds: Rutgers strike; Fulop’s announcement; Jill Mayer’s judgeship; and Brian Thompson’s retirement

Stomping Grounds: Rutgers strike; Fulop’s announcement; Jill Mayer’s judgeship; and Brian Thompson’s retirement

By David Wildstein, April 14 2023 12:36 pm

New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state.  Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation.  Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made.  They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.

New Jersey Globe: Rutgers University faculty members are on strike after almost one year of collective bargaining, and Governor Murphy is trying to negotiate a deal for a new contract.  With the nation watching, how important a moment is this in Phil Murphy’s political career?

Alex Wilkes: This is a test for Phil Murphy that would certainly be revived in any Democratic primary – particularly now that progressive icon Senator Bernie Sanders has gotten involved. Unfortunately for New Jerseyans, the Governor seems to be on the verge of abandoning taxpayers and Rutgers students in favor of the politics of the moment.

The fact that this was one year in the making speaks to Phil Murphy’s continued failure as the chief executive of our state and someone who has never had to exert true management over systems or people.

This is a pattern. During the pandemic, his misguided policies led to devastating fatalities in the state’s long-term care facilities. When both he and his administration learned of enormous health benefit hikes for municipal workers in February 2022, they failed to address it until it became public late last year. During his first campaign, he ignored hostile workplace complaints and Katie Brennan’s personal outreach detailing her horrifying assault by a top-level aide, while promoting the men in question. Even as the owner of a women’s soccer team, Murphy failed to provide the players with adequate housing or a training facility that had running water. Everything he touches turns to chaos.

I’m not saying Democrats care a lot about competent management; after all, they picked an ailing credit card lobbyist to lead their party last cycle, but he will be judged from the left if he fails to accommodate the strikers’ demands.

Dan Bryan: Governor Murphy is answering the call as best he can. He’s leading, not taking sides. He’s calling both sides to sit together in his office and pushing them to come to a consensus. As Governor of all nine million New Jerseyans, he has to care both about a fair deal for labor, and about how much it will cost tax and tuition payers. He’s walked that line masterfully so far, and I have no doubt he will be a big part of bringing this to a positive conclusion.

NJ Globe: Steve Fulop became the first candidate to officially launch a campaign for governor in 2025.  Now that’s he in the race, does that put any additional pressure on other potential candidates to make their announcement earlier?

Dan: I don’t think so. Two other highly anticipated candidates for Governor are members of Congress, and unless they decide not to run for reelection, their timetable was always going to be after the 2024 cycle, and another is a legislative leader preparing his caucus for re-election. This announcement allows Mayor Fulop to formally get a head start on the primary campaign, raising funds and soliciting support. But in a capped race, he’ll have to be extremely judicious about how he spends his money over the next two years.

This will be a strong Democratic field, and getting out this early is not critical to victory. Nevertheless, it was a good start for Mayor Fulop. And by starting so early, he’s not only emulating Governor Murphy’s path in 2016, announcing a full year before the primary, he’s following his playbook from 2012, announcing his candidacy for Mayor almost a full year before his opponent.

But there is a very long road ahead. We’ll see how his decision plays out over time, but I think Democrats in New Jersey are (and should be) far more focused on the 2023 legislative midterms right now.

Alex: I’m not sure that Steve Fulop making the “worst kept secret” in New Jersey politics official will necessarily change the timetable for other potential candidates. Looking at the recent Democratic primaries around the country and the collapse of the Democratic Party in South Jersey, I think the Democrats here will face their most serious challenge yet to nominate a diverse candidate. I believe those candidates have a lot more flexibility to pick their own moment – and, importantly, avoid having to put their political imprimatur on what is sure to be a bad year for Democrats this November.

NJ Globe: The Senate confirmed Governor Murphy’s nomination of Jill Mayer as a Superior Court judge on January 10, 2022.  Now it’s fifteen months later, and she still hasn’t taken her oath of office as she tries to negotiate a plan to collect a $127,000-a-year pension plus a $175,000 annual salary.  In the meantime, she’s taken a job at a politically active law firm and is squatting on a judgeship.  How can the governor, the Senate, and the Courts untangle this?

Alex: This is truly an “only in New Jersey” type problem, and it is a perfect demonstration of Trenton’s unmitigated greed that has flourished under one-party Democratic rule.

If Murphy really wanted to try to take back the narrative for this cycle, I would propose (assuming this could be done without Mayer taking the oath of office) that he move for her immediate impeachment. He could say enough with the negotiations, lobbying, and nonsense (to be polite) while the public waits for a functioning judiciary. He could make a big show of taking down a piggish “public servant” while showcasing it as a win for taxpayers and common decency. He might even look like a leader!

Sadly, distracted by his presidential daydreams and summering at his Tuscan villa, Murphy will have no choice but to kick this over to Democratic pals in the legislature to carve out some special exception for this very self-important person, creating yet another bad vote for vulnerable incumbents this year. Sad!

Dan: I don’t know a lot about this specific issue, and I know Ms. Mayer is still appealing the decision on her pension, so I will reserve comment. However, the opportunity to be a judge is a privilege, and I would hope that everyone who pursues a judgeship is doing it for the ability to honorably serve our judicial system.  Many people who become judges have to take significant pay cuts from their careers in private practice, but are willing to make that sacrifice to serve the public.

Governor Murphy and the Senate continue to make progress in confirming new judges, with 16 new judges confirmed in just the first three months of this year. But the number of Superior Court vacancies, at 58, is still too high. Every new judge helps. I’m optimistic that the 20 Superior Court nominations currently pending, with nearly half of them being nominated to areas where civil and matrimonial trials are currently on hold, will put a big dent in our judicial vacancies issue.

NJ Globe: It’s hard not to notice the genuine outpouring of admiration and respect for Brian Thompson as he announced his retirement after 27 years as WNBC-TV’s New Jersey reporter this week.  What lessons should other journalists learn from this?

Dan: As I said to him this week, I cannot imagine big news happening in New Jersey without it being covered by Brian Thompson. During my time in the Governor’s Office, I knew what we were doing had a chance to connect with the public if we looked out at a press event and saw Brian and his NBC4 camera man staring us down. He’s had an incredible career, and I wish him all the best in retirement.

If young journalists and press staffers could learn something from the way Brian operated, it’s that being respectful and building relationships are critical for both jobs. The relationship between journalist and press staffer is often far too adversarial (of course, maybe I occasionally contributed to that), but it doesn’t have to be. If there is a mutual level of respect, both sides can better explain their stance, and the resulting coverage can be more accurate and more informed. I don’t remember Brian ever doing me a single favor with his coverage, but I also don’t remember ever thinking he was being unfair, or uninformed.

Alex: First, congratulations to Brian on a great career. He will certainly be missed.

I would say as someone who often feels put in the position of having to fight both Democrats and legacy media throughout the cycle, the journalists I appreciate the most are the ones that are responsive, willing to hear me out on a matter, and open to pushback without taking it personally. We all have jobs to do!

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