New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy Has an Eye on Washington

It was a whirlwind few days for New Jersey’s term-limited governor, Philip D. Murphy.

On a Tuesday in mid-February he publicly chided Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, by name, calling his education policies “shameful.” The next day at noon, he proposed requiring all new cars sold after 2035 to be electric, following California’s lead. By early Thursday, Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, had made an unannounced stop in Ukraine en route to a security conference in Germany.

Back home in Jersey, the message was clear: The governor’s slow-windup romance with Washington was now a full-boil courtship, though his primary audience might have trouble finding Trenton on a map.

“You don’t fade into the woodwork if you have national ambitions,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University, who for decades has watched New Jersey politicians use the state’s quirky off-year election cycle and proximity to New York’s media market as a springboard toward higher office.

“You never know when opportunity might strike.”

The 2024 presidential contest is well underway. President Biden is expected to run for a second term and the list of Republicans who have announced campaigns or are expected to run already includes Mr. DeSantis (who did not respond to Mr. Murphy’s criticism), former President Donald J. Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina.

Mr. Murphy has consistently said he would be Mr. Biden’s No. 1 booster if he runs again, and he recently signed on to an advisory board of Democratic loyalists who are expected to be deployed as Biden surrogates when the campaign ramps up.

Still, Mr. Murphy, a wealthy former Democratic National Committee finance chairman and ambassador to Germany who amassed a fortune at the investment bank Goldman Sachs, has never completely closed the door to running for the White House should the president’s plans change.

And, either way, he appears as intent as ever at cultivating a national image, aware, perhaps, that there are often consolation prizes.

On Saturday, Mr. Murphy will try to spit-polish his résumé with humor when he takes the mic at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, a famously irreverent white-tie-and-tails roast that draws Washington’s top journalists and political insiders. (The other speaker that night will be Mr. Pence.)

Close associates say Mr. Murphy, who declined to comment for this article, is genuinely unsure about the job he might want next, but they speculate that he could be interested in again being an ambassador or perhaps even secretary of state.

A graduate of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania who grew up outside of Boston, he now counts the musician Jon Bon Jovi among his closest friends. But he comes from humble means, the youngest of four children in a working-class Irish-Catholic family. Only his mother graduated from high school; his father worked for a time managing a liquor store near their home.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and His Administration

The Republican governor of Florida has turned the swing state into a right-wing laboratory by leaning into cultural battles.

Legislative Wish List: From immigration to gun rights to education, Florida lawmakers are advancing Gov. Ron DeSantis’s agenda, giving him a broader platform from which to launch a widely expected presidential campaign.A Rare Interview: Mr. DeSantis granted a rare interview to The Times of London. The paper is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire has already thrown its considerable influence behind the prospect of the governor’s 2024 bid.Rift with Disney: In the latest development in a battle between Mr. DeSantis and Disney, the governor has gained control of the board that oversees development at Walt Disney World, a move that restricts the autonomy of Disney over its theme-park complex.

Always social, Mr. Murphy has become a retail-politics pro. He gamely drapes his arm around shoulders when asked to pose for selfies, his grin wide and pointer finger aimed, showman-style, toward the new best friend at his side.

But it is the hundreds of off-camera calls he made to families that lost relatives to Covid-19 that his chief of staff, George Helmy, cites when calling him “one of the most authentic human beings I’ve ever seen.”

Mr. Murphy greets customers on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales at a dispensary in Elizabeth, N.J., last year.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mr. Murphy came to Trenton with few allies, yet has managed a notable share of wins.

During his first term, New Jersey lawmakers increased taxes on income over $1 million, approved a $15 minimum wage, legalized marijuana, strengthened gun-control laws, locked in paid sick leave for workers and reduced long-ignored pension debt by billions of dollars, resulting in several upgrades to the state’s credit ratings.

But after being re-elected in 2021 by a narrower margin than expected, Mr. Murphy has made an overt effort to appeal more to moderate voters, leaving some of his left-leaning base frustrated by what they see as a lack of urgency to finish up strong.

Michael Feldman, a communications consultant and friend of Mr. Murphy, said none of the governor’s policy victories had been “a layup.”

“His ambition now is to try to help advance the agenda that he’s pursued in New Jersey — to help advance some of these issues at a national level,” said Mr. Feldman, who was a senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.

“I don’t know what the job is or will be, but there’s plenty of places that a person with his experience could be helpful in getting some of these things done.”

New Jersey governors cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. And for the past year observers wondering about Mr. Murphy’s next move have taken note of his suddenly youthful hairdo, hip new glasses and shifting rhetoric.

The governor who once suggested that New Jersey was not the best fit for residents or businesses concerned mainly about low taxes now describes himself as a “coldblooded capitalist.” His budget address concluded with an ode to the value of hard work. And his State of the State stressed the importance of bipartisanship, buried in a humblebrag about his friendship with the Republican governor of Utah, the vice chairman of the National Governors Association, which Mr. Murphy now leads.

Mr. Murphy, 65, is also chairman of the Democratic Governors Association — the first governor to hold both leadership posts at the same time. He has leveraged the roles to his advantage.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles for the National Governors Association, he and his wife, Tammy, dined with leaders of film studios to pitch New Jersey’s assets as a moviemaking hub, while also raising funds for the four political accounts they now juggle. Alliances he has formed have led to speaking gigs in Nevada and Florida. And both of the governors’ associations are holding major conferences this year in New Jersey.

There are younger Democratic governors with bigger names or bigger bank accounts, including Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.

But during Mr. Biden’s presidency, New Jersey has been a regular stop for members of the administration, with at least two visits apiece by the president, the first lady, Vice President Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary

If Mr. Biden were to win re-election and tap Mr. Murphy for a job he found enticing enough to take, it could mean leaving Trenton before his term ends in 2026, making the race for governor — already shaping up to be a grab-the-popcorn thriller — even livelier.

Mr. Murphy, alongside Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, during a news conference at the construction site of the Hudson Tunnel Project in January.Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

Still, even among liberals inclined to support him, Mr. Murphy’s second-term reviews have grown increasingly mixed.

Last year he reinstituted a bear hunt he had vowed to outlaw, enraging animal rights activists. He opened the door to private development in Liberty State Park, the state’s largest and busiest public oasis, at the urging of groups funded by the billionaire owner of an adjacent golf club. And there are so many judicial vacancies that some counties have had to halt divorce trials.

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the state to force Mr. Murphy to follow through on ambitious climate-change rules he ordered as part of a 2019 law. “A poster child for actions not meeting the rhetoric,” David Pringle, a leader of the coalition, said.

And residents of communities as disparate as Jersey City, Newark and Gibbstown, in the rural southwest portion of the state, are furious over Mr. Murphy’s support for expanding the turnpike near New York City and failing to stop six new fossil-fuel projects, which are expected to worsen air quality in minority communities already overburdened by pollution.

“The governor has a lot of words for environmental justice but does not actually demonstrate leadership on behalf of our community,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, who lives in Newark and is fighting to block the construction of a backup power plant in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood.

Ms. Lopez-Nuñez is also a member of Mr. Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“I would love to cheer on the governor,” she said. “But I need to see the work.”

A spokesman for Mr. Murphy, Mahen Gunaratna, said some opposition was to be expected, particularly after a first term in which Mr. Murphy delivered on so many of the campaign promises his progressive base held dear. His second-term priorities are hewing closer to the center.

At least part of his change in tone is tied to November’s legislative races. Democratic leaders who control the State Legislature remain jittery over the loss of seven seats in 2021, and Republicans believe that they are in striking range of regaining majority control — an outcome that would undermine Mr. Murphy’s legacy.

A January poll by Monmouth University suggested that Mr. Murphy's popularity was holding steady at 52 percent. But fewer than a third of those surveyed said he would make a good president.

Only one governor from New Jersey has ever been elected president: Woodrow Wilson, whose memory is now so tainted by his racist policies that Princeton removed his name from its school of public and international affairs.

Other New Jersey luminaries have also had designs on the White House in recent years: Senator Bill Bradley was eclipsed in the 2000 Democratic primary by Mr. Gore; Gov. Chris Christie ended his campaign in 2016 before endorsing Mr. Trump; and Senator Cory Booker bowed out of the last presidential contest after a yearlong campaign.

Mr. Booker, 53, a Democrat and former mayor of Newark, appears to be keeping his options as open as Mr. Murphy. “I’m not running in ’24 if Joe Biden is running,” Mr. Booker said in a recent television interview.

“My goal in life is to put more ‘indivisible’ back into this ‘one nation under God,’” he said, adding, “so we’ll see about the future.”

Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic strategist who was director of communications for President Barack Obama, has known Mr. Murphy since 2005 and considers him a friend. She said she did not know what he was hoping to do next. But, she added, “it does not seem like he’s anywhere near done.”