Are Democrats about to hand First Lady Tammy Murphy a U.S. Senate seat?

by Terrence T. McDonald, New Jersey Monitor

First Lady Tammy Murphy’s not-so-quiet campaign to become a U.S. senator makes me nervous.

It’s not that Murphy isn’t qualified. She ticks the constitutional requirements, and by many accounts, she has the policy smarts to join the Senate without embarrassing us.

“This woman is very, very bright,” Jeannine LaRue, a lobbyist and former deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Jon Corzine, told me. “I’ve sat in a room with her as she talks about policy. She knows her stuff and she cares about her stuff … She has some really deep thoughts about the direction of not only New Jersey but also where she believes the nation should be headed.”

But here’s what worries me: New Jersey has a long history of politicians who would rather be coronated than participate in a competitive primary. And Murphy’s presence at the very center of power in Trenton makes it likely that she and her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy, will wield their considerable influence to put a finger on the scales as she tries to succeed the indicted Sen. Bob Menendez.

I’d say they’ve already started. Take Gov. Murphy’s press conference in Glen Rock last week, where he touted a new law requiring the state to create a website with information for people seeking abortions. The lieutenant governor, a state senator, and an assemblywoman were all on hand, but aside from Gov. Murphy, Tammy Murphy got the most speaking time.

She’s not a lawmaker and she has no official job in state government, but she snagged about five minutes in front of news cameras at the precise time that she needs to introduce herself to Democratic voters as an abortion rights champion. Convenient.

Now, it was not uncommon for Tammy Murphy to get the spotlight before she decided she might want to be a senator. But last January, when Gov. Murphy signed the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act in Teaneck — inarguably a more important piece of legislation for abortion rights supporters than the one he signed in Glen Rock — his wife was not among the speakers.

Another worrying sign: In a recent Politico story about Rep. Andy Kim, who has announced he’s running in next year’s Democratic primary for the Senate, someone identified only as a “confidant for Murphy” noted that Kim doesn’t have the support of Democratic Party county chairs in North Jersey.

“If the chair doesn’t like you, they can put you in ballot Siberia,” this person warned.

That’s Jersey for “f— around and find out, Andy Kim.”

Tammy Murphy’s coziness with Democratic Party county chairs — helped, no doubt, by the hundreds of thousands the Murphys gave local and county Democratic Party organizations before he ran for governor — is one reason why Essex County-based progressive group SOMA Action voted this week to endorse Kim over Murphy. The group’s Amy Higer told me its members worry that the first lady’s popularity with county chairs will get her enough county lines, i.e., better ballot placement, to essentially clear the field for her.

“Our organization is very much into pushing democracy with a little d, making New Jersey more democratic. We’ve been opposed to the line for a long time,” Higer said.

Murphy’s last name doesn’t help either.

“We’re not happy with nepotism replacing corruption,” Higer said.

I asked LaRue whether New Jersey, which will have one Murphy as its governor for eight years, should put another Murphy in D.C. for the next six. Isn’t two terms in power enough for one family? LaRue — whose son is a Mercer County commissioner and daughter-in-law is the Trenton City Council president — scoffed.

“I say, get over it, don’t judge me by my bloodline,” she said. “If she feels that she brings something to the table and she wants to run for public office, I don’t care where Phil Murphy has been for almost eight years. That should not be her problem.”

Our first lady certainly has the right to run for the Senate if she wants. My fear is there are backroom deals taking place right now that are an attempt to rob voters of a fair fight between her, Kim, and anyone else who wants to replace Menendez. And, considering the alleged backroom deals that have put Menendez’s career in jeopardy, is that how we want to find his replacement?

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