It goes without saying that Murphy is the state’s most powerful elected official. And while he may not be as much as a national household name as his neighbor, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Murphy’s handling of the pandemic has still earned him considerable recognition across the country.
Murphy had something of a mixed record going into the pandemic, having only secured the $15 minimum wage on which he campaigned. Corporate incentives, marijuana legalization and major fixes were elusive. The governor faced lackluster poll numbers, and he had his work cut out for him navigating the personalities and fiefdoms of Trenton.
COVID-19 changed all that, save for the sluggish legalization efforts and long-term fixes to the beleaguered NJ Transit. Murphy was able to push through his millionaire’s tax after two unsuccessful attempts. And he was able to negotiate a major tax incentive program that included many of the features promoted by his administration, including program caps and lower tax break awards for companies. He proposed and secured approval for billions of dollars in loans in order to cover the costs of running the government amid falling revenue from the pandemic.
But his handling of the pandemic thrust Murphy into the spotlight in a way that few public officials have ever experienced. Since the first case of COVID-19 was detected on March 4, the virus has claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people in the state, and infected nearly 650,000 people.
In response, Murphy used emergency powers granted under the state’s constitution in ways that haven’t been seen in generations. During the height of the first wave, which spanned March to early May, Murphy practically shut down the state.
Facemasks were and still are required in public. Public gatherings and non-essential travel were prohibited. And non-essential businesses — casinos, sit-down restaurants, gyms, salons, malls, retailers, many types of construction and theaters — all had to suddenly close. Elective medical procedures were banned for roughly three months in order to funnel resources to the state’s strained health care infrastructure.
“Essential businesses” like grocery stores were allowed to stay open, but with reduced capacity, mask requirements and intense sanitization protocols. Many of those non-essential businesses ordered closed during the first wave have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity, with many of those same requirements in place. More than 2 million people have filed for unemployment in the past year because of the pandemic.
In November, voters will head to the polls to decide whether Murphy deserves another four years in office. Campaigning will pick up in the next few months. The speed with which the state can deliver the COVID-19 shots into the arms of millions of New Jerseyans — the goal is 4.7 million adults by June — and an anticipated economic recovery, are likely to be on voter’s minds when they head to the polls.
Having a Democrat in the White House will at least make Murphy’s job easier this next year. President Joe Biden’s economic stimulus package includes billions of dollars in state and local aid, something Murphy has been vocal in calling for. And the federal administration is indicating increasing support for the multibillion dollar Hudson River tunnel replacement, which was held up under former President Donald Trump.
Moreover, Murphy has secured much calmer relationships with top Trenton insiders this year – Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and oft-times political rival Senate President Stephen Sweeney – thanks to the pandemic, and the fact that all three are facing reelection this year. And his relationship with George Norcross, one of the most powerful unelected officials in the state. “There’s no doubt that Murphy’s change in attitude to Sweeney and for that matter Norcross, is because ‘look… we don’t have to like each other, [but] it hurts all of us in terms of reelection and actually governing’,” said one Trenton insider.