In Democratic Bastion, Liberal Rhetoric Is Out. ‘Affordability’ Is In.

Gas prices are soaring. The war in Ukraine has rattled the stock market. And, months ahead of midterm elections, voters in key suburban swing districts in New Jersey are restive, contributing to increased dissatisfaction with the state’s Democratic leader, Gov. Philip D. Murphy.

For much of his first term, Mr. Murphy governed as a steadfast liberal eager to talk about his successful efforts to protect abortion rights, legalize marijuana and enact stricter gun control laws.

But on Tuesday, in his first budget address since winning re-election by just three percentage points in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, Mr. Murphy offered a radically tempered message.

The sweeping liberal rhetoric that defined his first budget address was replaced by a recalibrated definition of progress and a promise to make New Jersey — where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation — a more affordable place to live.

Months after remnants of Hurricane Ida crippled large parts of the state, killing at least 25 people, he did not utter the phrase “climate change.” There were no overt references to criminal justice, racial equity or immigrant rights. He cited a signature first-term win — lifting the minimum wage to $15 — just once, and instead chose to talk about tax cuts and rebates and a one-year “fee holiday” that would allow residents to visit state parks and renew driver’s licenses for free.

“If you compare the really sharp racial justice messaging from last year to this year, there is a really big disconnect,” said Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey, a left-leaning coalition focused on immigrant and worker rights.

“It seems that there’s a pivot,” she added.

Instead of the unabashedly left-leaning budget message he offered in 2018, which set the tone for his first term, there were 24 mentions of the words “affordable” or “affordability.”

“The Democratic Party is looking down at the 2022 midterms coming and knowing that its message needs to be revamped,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

“Many voters, probably most voters, are disenchanted.”

Mr. Murphy is scheduled to move from vice chairman to chairman of the National Governors Association in July and to take over leadership of the Democratic Governors Association for the second time next year. Democrats must defend governorships in the key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, races seen as must-wins to stave off Republican attacks on voting rights.

The governor has made it clear that he heard the message voters sent in November in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republican turnout surged and Democrats lost seven seats in the Legislature, including the Senate president’s.

A Guide to the 2022 Midterm Elections

  • Midterms Begin: The Texas primaries officially opened the 2022 election season. See the full primary calendar.
  • In the Senate: Democrats have a razor-thin margin that could be upended with a single loss. Here are the four incumbents most at risk.
  • In the House: Republicans and Democrats are seeking to gain an edge through redistricting and gerrymandering, though this year’s map is poised to be surprisingly fair
  • Governors’ Races: Georgia’s contest will be at the center of the political universe, but there are several important races across the country.
  • Key Issues: Inflation, the pandemic, abortion and voting rights are expected to be among this election cycle’s defining topics.

“Quite frankly,” Professor Koning said, “they’re not interested in hearing about climate change and racial justice.”

Democrats worry that the same factors that contributed to Mr. Murphy’s re-election by smaller-than-expected margins — pandemic fatigue, rising costs and President Biden’s waning popularity — could also spell trouble during November’s midterm congressional elections.

Just before Mr. Murphy delivered Tuesday’s address, the Eagleton Center released a poll showing that the number of voters with a favorable impression of the governor had dropped to 33 percent, down from 50 percent in November. Of the people surveyed, more than 40 percent gave him failing grades in connection with New Jersey’s high property taxes and cost of living.

During his first term, Mr. Murphy accomplished many of his most ambitious policy goals: adding a tax on income over $1 million; legalizing adult-use marijuana; establishing paid sick leave for workers; and giving undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses.

He talked about the millionaires’ tax but did not mention the other victories, referring only to the “many steps we took together over the past four years,” before focusing on property taxes.

“This budget attacks two of New Jersey’s most difficult and intractable problems: property taxes and affordable housing,” Mr. Murphy told a joint session of the Legislature, in a marked shift from comments he made in 2019 minimizing concerns over the state’s high taxes.

“If you’re a one-issue voter and tax rate is your issue, either a family or a business — if that’s the only basis upon which you’re going to make a decision,” Mr. Murphy said three years ago, “we’re probably not your state.”

This year’s budget proposal — a record-high $48.9 billion spending plan — did not appear to veer from priorities Mr. Murphy set during his first term and would continue to fund programs important to Mr. Murphy’s progressive allies.

The plan, which the Legislature must approve by July, sets aside more money for education, mental health programs, health care for children of undocumented immigrants, addiction treatment and lower-cost housing. For the second year, Mr. Murphy has proposed making a full payment to the state’s underfunded public-employee pension system.

Just as he did in his first budget address, Mr. Murphy quoted the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic — someone who knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” But that is where the parallels end.

Gone was the fiery rhetoric from 2018, when he talked about the state’s high poverty rate, income inequality and the importance of embracing “the immediacy of the problems before us.”

There was no renewed mention of initiatives to narrow the state’s racial income gap using tools like so-called baby bonds, an ultimately unsuccessful budget proposal he made in 2020 to give most newborns $1,000, payable with interest when they turned 18.

Instead, a plan to set aside money to build 3,300 units of lower-cost housing was depicted as a win for the working class, not the working poor.

“Let’s not lose sight of who actually benefits when we build more affordable housing,” Mr. Murphy said of units available to people with low to moderate incomes. “It’s the educator or first responder who can finally live within the community they serve. It’s also the server at the local diner, the cashier at the grocery store.”

Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at theEdward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said the speech represented a change in messaging, but not a “major retraction” of Mr. Murphy’s left-leaning priorities.

“If you keep walking the walk, maybe they think they can adjust the talk a little bit, without substantively changing the direction,” Professor Rubin said.

“It’s a way of trying to shore up what could be a vulnerability — both for the midterm elections and Democrats more broadly,”she added.

Mr. Murphy emphasized “affordability” in his speech and played down progressive themes.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

Jack Ciattarelli, Mr. Murphy’s Republican challenger who came close to unseating the governor, said the budget address showed Mr. Murphy was “definitely feeling the pressure from the closeness of the race and the themes that we hit on repeatedly, which up until this point he’s been tone-deaf on.”

But the contents of the plan, he said, were the “same old, same old.”

“There’s never been a better opportunity to completely reform the way we do property taxes,” said Mr. Ciattarelli, who plans to run for governor again in four years.

Officials with left-leaning advocacy groups said that they found things to like in the budget draft, as well as missed opportunities.

Ms. Cullinane, of Make the Road, praised the roughly $100 million the governor set aside for undocumented immigrants and working families who have been ineligible for federal pandemic-related aid.

Andrea McChristian, law and policy director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, applauded Mr. Murphy’s efforts to expand college access and to fund a pilot program designed to keep juveniles out of prison. But she questioned the absence of any discussion about closing juvenile lockups, making reparation payments to Black residents harmed by slavery or a renewed push to implement baby bonds.

“That’s definitely a missed moment,”Ms. McChristian said.

The missing emphasis on social justice is particularly worrisome, Ms. McChristian said, in a year when New Jersey is flush with cash from sales tax collections, revenue generated by the robust housing and stock markets and federal stimulus funds.

“This is the moment to be bold,” she said, adding, “We have huge racial disparities here.”

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called it a “status quo” budget that continues to provide vital support for offshore wind energy but fails to take other meaningful steps toward addressing the climate crisis or establishing a guaranteed source of funding for public transit.

“New Jersey should be investing in climate change solutions,” Mr. O’Malley said, “not fighting this fight with one hand behind its back.”

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