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Democrats won 6 more state governments. New Jersey shows what they can do.

The party won back control of the Garden State a year ago. Here are their successes — and troubles — that have ensued.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Democrats won full control of governments in New York, Illinois, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Maine in the midterm elections — meaning that, at least theoretically, the party can enact its own agenda. So what will they do with this power?

For one possibility, we can look toward New Jersey, where the blue wave came one year early — when Democrat Phil Murphy won the governorship after Chris Christie’s eight years in office.

Combined with longtime Democratic state legislature majorities, the party now had full control of state government. Murphy had campaigned as a staunch progressive, and he had the opportunity to govern that way.

Then-New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy gives a thumbs-up with supporters behind him as he files a petition to run on April 3, 2017, in Trenton, New Jersey.
Mel Evans/AP

Murphy has indeed signed many liberal bills into law. Democrats passed legislation on equal pay, paid sick leave legislation, automatic voter registration, gun control, energy, and restoring funding to Planned Parenthood. A Murphy aide told me New Jersey was “the ultimate progressive laboratory” right now, and said there’s a case that Murphy was “the most progressive governor in the nation.”

But governing isn’t easy; there have been disappointments and challenges as well. Marquee campaign promises like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, hiking taxes on millionaires, and legalizing marijuana have been scaled back or shelved — at the request not of Republicans but of Democrats in the state legislature.

“I think there was a feeling in the governor’s office, initially, that with unified government, all we have to do is run down the hall with our legislative agenda and we win,” Carl Golden, a former Republican operative in the state, told me. “That didn’t happen.”

Indeed, much of Murphy’s first year so far has been dominated by clashes with the state Senate president, Steve Sweeney. And recently, an ugly scandal broke as a Murphy campaign volunteer went public about another campaign aide she accused of sexually assaulting her getting hired for a top state job.

So far, Murphy’s approval numbers remain decent — but he could have a tough second year ahead.

What New Jersey Democrats did

Murphy certainly has a long set of accomplishments — he’s already signed several noteworthy new bills into law, combining an agenda of economic and social liberalism.

Women’s health funding: Democrats moved quickly to restore millions of dollars’ worth of funding Christie had cut to family planning and women’s health clinics, including Planned Parenthood.

Equal pay and paid sick leave: Democrats passed a law requiring equal pay for women, minority, and LGBTQ employees who do “substantially similar work” to other employees — and allowing them to sue for discrimination. Michael Diamond has a good roundup of the law’s provisions, and quotes an employment lawyer calling it “the most progressive equal pay legislation in the country.” Murphy also signed a law requiring employers to give “one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked,” per the Bergen Record.

Legislators and supporters gather around New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy as he signs measures aimed to lessen gender pay disparities on April 24, 2018, in Trenton.
Mel Evans/AP

Automatic voter registration: Federal law has long allowed adult US citizens the option to register to vote when they visit the DMV. But in recent years, Democrats in various states have hit upon a new idea to make this process even easier: making that voter registration automatic, unless the person chooses to opt out.

Fifteen states have adopted such measures since 2015, according to the Brennan Center. New Jersey is one of them, with Murphy signing the new law in April. And though several states only implement automatic registration through the DMV, New Jersey’s law does it through at least a dozen other social service agencies as well. That makes it “one of the most expansive automatic voter registration programs in the nation,” per Politico.

Energy: New Jersey Democrats also passed a set of new energy laws that tried to both reduce carbon emissions and keep electricity prices from jumping too much. Vox’s Dave Roberts characterized this as a policy suite that “jacks up renewable energy and saves nuclear” — and wrote that though some environmentalists have criticized the nuclear aspect, he thinks the laws as a whole “vault” New Jersey “into the ranks of top US climate leaders.”

Gun restrictions: New Jersey Democrats passed a set of new gun control laws, including banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, raising standards for handgun permits, and creating new processes by which the government can seize the guns of people deemed a threat.

Obamacare mandate: Finally, Democrats also passed a law intended to help stabilize the state’s health insurance exchanges — by imposing an individual mandate on the state level after Trump and Republicans repealed the national one. It may not be the most popular part of the policy, but it’s intended to prevent an insurance market “death spiral” in which healthier people opt out of coverage.

Taken one by one, these achievements may not seem all that dramatic. But taken together, it’s a solid (if not quite transformative) liberal agenda.

What Democrats haven’t done: minimum wage and marijuana

But progressives have also faced their fair share of disappointments in Murphy’s first year in office. Murphy has so far come up empty on two of his most prominent campaign promises: a $15-an-hour minimum wage and legalizing marijuana possession in small amounts.

In 2016, Democrats in the state legislature passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill that Christie vetoed. So activists had hoped the party would be able to quickly get this done under Murphy. But so far, the legislature hasn’t acted — due to some combination of resistance from business groups, wrangling over the policy details, and fear of the economic effects.

Service workers march asking for $15 minimum wage pay during a rally at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 29, 2016.
Julio Cortez/AP

“In 2016, the bill they passed was a clean bill, meaning just cleanly raising the minimum wage over five years,” says Brandon McKoy of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank. Now, though, legislators have disagreed over whether certain sectors, like farmworkers and youth workers, should be carved out — and how quickly the sizable increase from $8.85 (as of the new year) to $15 should be phased in.

A Murphy aide professed optimism to me that Democrats would get this done in the next few months, but for now, it’s in limbo.

Then there’s legalizing pot. The legislature hasn’t acted there either, because, state Senate President Sweeney said, he simply doesn’t have the votes. NJ Advance Media’s Matt Arco and Susan Livio reported that Democrats particularly disagreed on how high a sales tax on marijuana should be, and on “the level of power that would be given to a newly created cannabis commission.”

So while both these ideas were popular, simple, intuitive-sounding promises on the campaign trail, they’ve both gotten bogged down in wrangling over details and political trepidation from Democrats who wonder if they really do want to go this far.

Democratic dissension on the budget and taxes

The budget — and the surrounding debates around taxes and spending — is another problem that has bedeviled Murphy already, and similar issues are sure to trouble Democrats elsewhere.

The crux of the disagreement has been that Murphy wanted to raise more taxes, while powerful Democrats in the legislature prefer spending cuts instead.

Gov. Phil Murphy unveils his 2018 budget in the assembly chamber of the New Jersey statehouse on March 13, 2018.
Mel Evans/AP

For instance, Murphy promised a millionaire’s tax (specifically, raising taxes on income over $1 million a year) during his campaign, and tried to pressure the legislature to make it happen. But Democratic leaders refused, instead saying they’d only raise taxes on income over $5 million a year (a measure that affected very few people and raised far less revenue). A tense showdown ensued — and the legislature won.

Murphy also wanted to reverse one of Christie’s sales tax cuts, of about one-third of a percentage point. But the legislature prevented that too. And Sweeney has laid down his marker that when it comes to the state’s serious budgetary issues involving public employee pensions and health benefits, the solution will be spending cuts — not more tax hikes.

“From the legislature, there’s been a lot of focus on cutting spending. They said next year we’re not gonna raise taxes,” says McKoy. “But we just came out of eight years cutting every tax you could cut.” And Christie, he continues, “left few stones unturned” when it came to cutting spending.

“There’s a conservative, old-school element within our legislature,” the Murphy aide says.

Then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shakes hands with a member of the statehouse assembly after delivering his budget address for the 2016 fiscal year on February 24, 2015.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Sweeney has been a key figure here. He had his eye on the governorship, but Murphy — a very wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive — locked up support in the Democratic primary, and Sweeney didn’t end up running. Whether because of ambition, differing political judgments, or just differing views in general, the two have had a tense relationship all year.

“Sweeney is more centrist,” says Carl Golden, the former Republican operative. “And Sweeney also has a much more capable political feel than the governor does.” Sweeney understood, Golden says, that Murphy risked getting state legislators painted as “here we go again, the tax-and-spend Democrats.”

The disagreement points to a larger problem for the Democratic agenda across the country: The tax increases they need to fund big new spending priorities (or, often, to just avoid big spending cuts) remain a very tough sell. “It’s hard to raise taxes,” says Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Voters, understandably, aren’t inclined to unless you can convince them that the revenue is really needed and you can use it for things that will improve their lives.”

Leachman argues that it’s possible to make that case. But many of the Democrats in New Jersey’s legislature seem to have little interest in doing so.

A scandal and investigation

Another problem that can befall new administrations once they take power is scandal, and one major scandal for Murphy’s team broke last month. That’s when one top administration official went public to accuse another of sexually assaulting her — and to raise questions about why Murphy hired him for a top job after that.

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks to reporters after a top New Jersey administration official was accused by another employee of sexual assault on October 15, 2018.
Seth Wenig/AP

Katie Brennan says that after a bar outing with Murphy campaign staffers and volunteers in April 2017, Albert Alvarez offered her a ride home. When they arrived, she says, he asked to use her bathroom, and once inside, he sexually assaulted her. (He denies this.) Brennan quickly reported the alleged assault to the police.

Yet Alvarez was never charged. Instead, he ended up with a high-ranking job in the Murphy administration. Brennan tried to bring her concerns about him to people around Murphy at various points, but Alvarez remained in his post. It was only once the whole matter was about to become public — once Brennan decided to tell her story to the Wall Street Journal’s Kate King — that Alvarez finally resigned.

Murphy has since said that Alvarez shouldn’t have been hired, and that the transition’s hiring process “did not reflect our values or the seriousness with which we believe allegations of assault should be taken.” And his team casts the scandal as merely a matter of bad judgment in a personnel hire.

But the Democrat-controlled legislature has formed a special committee with subpoena power to investigate who knew what when — to look into, it seems, whether there was more of a cover-up going on. “There’s some nervousness about it in Trenton,” says Golden. “People don’t know who it will ensnare.”

Some suspect certain Democrats in the legislature even hope the investigation will weaken Murphy politically. But regardless of whether that’s the case, Democrats have become the party of #MeToo, and with that comes the responsibility of taking issues like this seriously.

So, yes, New Jersey Democrats have had their fair share of disappointments and troubles since their victory one year ago. But they’ve gotten a fair amount done too. Which means the Garden State can serve as a useful model for those other newly Democratic state governments on what can be achieved — and what should be avoided.

Then-New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial Phil Murphy speaks during a canvassing event on October 19, 2017, in Newark, New Jersey.
Julio Cortez/AP
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