For the fourth time in two years, Gov. Phil Murphy emphatically promised last week an unflinching post-mortem of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t have a date for you, but we’re committed to it,” he said.
The governor wasn’t just resetting the bar of expectation on a must-do probe of a catastrophe that swept away lives, upended the economy, and exposed deep flaws in the state’s disaster readiness.
Murphy was also putting his legacy on the line.
The issue will test just what kind of second-term governor New Jersey has on its hands. Will he unleash a no-holds-barred review, a potentially painful truth-and-reconciliation examination of the state’s missteps — especially the horrors that swept through the state-run homes for veterans?
Will he be the nothing-to-lose governor — who worked so furiously and spent millions to earn the distinction of becoming the first Democrat in 40 years to win a second term — best remembered not only for guiding the state through its bumpy journey through the pandemic but as one who laid a blueprint of preparation for the next, inevitable airborne menace?
Or will he simply slink out of town, swept up in the undertow of national politics, first preoccupied with the fundraising and D.C.-scheduled meetings at two national governor’s associations he’s now leading, and eventually drawn into the undertow of the 2024 presidential sweepstakes?
Will the “New Direction New Jersey” governor of the first term ride out of town as the “New Look, D.C. Direction” governor, sporting a shaggy new mane and financed by his secret dark-money donors?
There are reasons to doubt the depth of his commitment. And there is reason to believe he has no choice but carry it out.
‘We still have about 1,000 people still in hospitals’
First, the doubts.
One reason to question Murphy’s devotion to conducting a deep dive is rooted in his remarks after his opening of a new Passaic city school last week.
Pressed about his repeated promises to carry out a post-mortem — the first came in October 2020 after Murphy fired top officials overseeing veterans homes, the second dropped amid a televised debate last fall, and the third came during a coronavirus briefing earlier this year — Murphy noted that his administration launched a $500,000 “rapid review” of the administration’s response during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020.
“We already proved that we are willing to throw a mirror in our faces right in the throes of this thing,” he asserted.
Yet Murphy also noted that there were still 968 people with COVID-19 in New Jersey hospitals. He seemed to be arguing that now is not the right time. Better to wait until the pandemic further recedes.
“Unfortunately, we still have about 1,000 people still in hospitals,” he said. “It is clearly something that we are living with, which is a good thing, but we’re clearly not out of the woods.”
But if it was OK to “throw a mirror” amid the chaos and trauma in the pandemic’s first wave, why not launch a comprehensive probe when the public and state have managed to resume guarded normalcy while still facing — at least for now — a less deadly strain of the virus? When is it ever going to be a good time?
‘The state may never be out of the woods
State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, who co-led a failed attempt earlier this year to prompt a Senate probe of the state’s veterans homes, said the remarks cast more doubt on Murphy’s resolve.
“The state may never be out of the woods when it comes to having some number of hospitalizations, which the governor is using as an excuse because COVID-19 is now endemic, and he knows that,” Pennacchio said. “Any person of reason can see if he hasn’t done a review after two years; it ain’t gonna happen.”
Political considerations might cause the governor to slow-walk a complete study. Suppose Murphy is truly considering an early exit from Trenton, possibly as a 2024 hopeful or as a surrogate for Joe Biden. In that case, unearthing potentially damaging accounts of his administration’s management might be the last thing he wants in the headlines.
The governor also has a willing partner in the Democrats who lead the Legislature, who would rather not be prodded by the findings of any Murphy-initiated probe into holding extensive hearings on the crisis before the 2023 elections. Moreover, the leadership’s sweep-it-under-the-rug strategy helped keep it out of the campaign crossfire last year.
The Murphy administration has also kept down the outcry by settling 190 claims made by victims’ families at the state’s veterans homes for almost $69 million, including a recent $15.9 million settlement.
That is hardly the end of the administration’s legal troubles. Earlier this month, dozens of veterans homes employees filed lawsuits, asserting that a series of misguided decisions — including the prohibition of wearing masks in the earliest days of the pandemic — led to illness and one of the nation’s highest nursing home death tolls.
But there is an argument that it is in Murphy’s best interest to deal with the matter sooner, rather than later.
Suppose he is to seek some spot on a national stage; better to conduct the probe now. It would allow Murphy to get ahead of the issue, initiate a set of reforms, and cast himself as a battle-tested leader who learned from his mistakes.
And it would put Murphy in a stronger defensive position if probes by the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Justice Department, or the state Commission of Investigation produce a damning portrait of his administration.
“At some point, you are going to have to take your medicine,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Center for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Would you like it be in the middle of a presidential campaign? Get it over with.”
Second terms have been a mixed bag for New Jersey governors since 1947 when the newly adopted state constitution expanded the powers of the governor but kept the job limited to two consecutive terms. As a result, second-term New Jersey governors are often tagged as lame ducks the minute they finish dancing at the inaugural ball.
Alfred E. Driscoll, a Republican, oversaw the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike in just 23 months in his second term.
Democrat Richard J. Hughes believed his landslide 1965 reelection — and Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature — gave him the mandate to enact the first statewide income tax. The measure never made it to the state Senate floor, but Hughes later succeeded in pushing through a 3% state sales tax. However, after Republicans reclaimed the Legislature in 1967, they restrained some of Hughes’ other ambitious plans.
Democrat Brendan T. Byrne’s second term was best remembered for the long but successful slog of a fight to preserve some 1,500 miles of the Pinelands.
And then there is the recent model of Republican Chris Christie, who spent much of his second term chasing the dream of the presidency. It made him unpopular, and the public howled with derision when he was caught sitting on a state beach during a government shutdown. He was deemed to have “checked out.”
We should know this year whether Murphy is a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-stay governor or one who simply checked out.