Picking NJ’s next lt. governor could be Phil Murphy’s most consequential decisions

For most of the past month, New Jersey’s Democrats have been wrestling with a simmering, behind-the-curtains debate that basically comes down to this uncomfortable question:

How “woke” — or “un-woke” — does Gov. Phil Murphy want to be?

I realize that is a provocative interpretation of what Murphy faces. Few Democrats openly discuss it in such stark terms. So be it.

But consider Murphy’s politically fraught dilemma: His widely admired lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who happens to have been female and African-American, died suddenly last month after a brief hospitalization. Since then, Murphy, who is decidedly liberal, white and male — and who doesn’t want to anger his party’s national progressive and very woke wing as he dreams of his future as a national leader — has been not-so-quietly pushed by his powerful African-American constituency to replace Oliver with someone who is not only female, but Black.

In other words, under this game plan, all men are off the prospective list. The same goes for white women, many gays and all the other members of the variety of ethnic, sexual and racial tribes in America’s most diverse state who are not Black and female.

Some Democrats, in asking Murphy to only consider race and gender, would see this as their governor being “woke” if he embraced this advice. But let’s cut to the essence of this suggested plan of action. By limiting the decision to race and gender, Isn’t this a form of bias?

Gov. Phil Murphy during a memorial service for Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark on Saturday, August 12, 2023.

In practical terms, someone such as former state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. the first Sihh to rise to such a position, would not be a candidate. Not that Grewal, who is male and currently the director of the division of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission, wants the job. But, on paper, he would certainly be qualified — and definitely someone who could step in for Murphy on a moment’s notice as lieutenant governor.

The same goes for another rising star in the Democratic party, Rep. Mikie Sherrill, the former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor who represents portions of Morris and Essex counties in the House of Representatives and has emerged as a leading moderate. Sherrill is white and female — not qualified under this plan.

I could cite plenty of others whose gender and skin color essentially makes them persona non grata under the narrow framework that Murphy is being encouraged to work with.  

Who will Murphy tap?Who will succeed Sheila Oliver as NJ’s next lieutenant governor?

Again, this might seem a harsh assessment. Democrats dislike having their “woke” mirrors turned on themselves. But facts are facts. And I am deliberately tossing a politically incorrect bucket of ice water into Murphy’s decision-making process to make a larger point. Or to put it another way, welcome to the latest swamp of American identity politics.

To understand the tense landscape that Murphy is trying to navigate, try to imagine if the race and gender of his deceased lieutenant governor were drastically different — along with the pressure being exerted by a powerful voting block. Suppose, for example, that a white, male lieutenant governor died and that Murphy was being openly lobbied to appoint only a white man to the job? 

The howling from voters and other critics in politics and the media would be ear-shattering — as it should be. The entire MSNBC line-up of anchors would need mass quantities of Xanax just to get through the day. And let’s not even consider the blood-curling cries of hurt from Fox News.

Is this a different choice in a different time for a different NJ?

So how is this choice different? 

In fairness to Murphy — and to Oliver — it’s important to consider another set of facts.

Oliver, who had recently celebrated her 71st birthday when she died on Aug. 1 after a brief hospitalization, was clearly a trailblazer.

She had been the first Black woman to serve as Assembly speaker. She was also the Black woman as lieutenant governor. Adding to that, she was a key social activist for years, fighting for better schools and housing.

Those are surely important achievements. But New Jersey is no stranger to significant non-white public servants, from mayors to members of Congress to top judges and other officials who have emerged in recent years as voices for progressive change.

Both of New Jersey’s U.S. senators are non-white — no small feat in a state that has long struggled with racial politics. Cory Booker is African-American. Bob Menendez is proudly Cuban and a significant voice for Latino issues as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Voters weigh in:Who should Phil Murphy pick to replace Sheila Oliver as NJ lieutenant governor?

And while we’re considering top non-white public officials, let’s not forget Grewal, one of the most accomplished state attorneys general in decades. Grewal, a Sikh, proudly wore his turban on the job and was widely regarded as a trail blazer for his religion and ethnicity.

Oliver’s place on that list of top, non-white public servants is secure and much admired. But if we are going to assess Oliver’s impact on state politics, we also need to point out that she was not the first woman to serve as the speaker of the state assembly. Marion West Higgins achieved that milestone in 1965. Nor was she the first African-American assembly speaker. S. Howard Woodson held the post in 1974.

As lieutenant governor, it’s certainly important to note that Oliver was the first non-white elected to that office — indeed the first non-white woman elected to state-wide office. But she was not the first woman as lieutenant governor. Republican Kim Guadagno, who is white, won the job as Gov. Chris Christie’s running mate in 2009. And, of course, let’s not forget Christine Todd Whitman, who was elected as the first female governor in New Jersey in 1993.

The point here is that New Jersey politics are far too diverse — far too complicated — to be reduced to a process that limits our choices merely to skin color and gender.  Sadly, bias does that. It forces us to pigeon-hole people in ways that are fundamentally demeaning.

Editorial:Sheila Oliver fought for ordinary NJ residents — and set a remarkable example | Our view

Murphy’s future — and his legacy — could depend on his pick

To his credit, Murphy has made no secret that diversity is a cornerstone of his governorship. So it’s understandable that he would want to replace Oliver with another Black woman. But should that be his only consideration?

A coalition of significant social justice and civil rights leaders in New Jersey certainly thinks so. A week after Oliver died last month, United Black Agenda, proclaimed that “the most fitting tribute to her legacy would be to ensure that a Black woman succeed her and carry on her mission.”

Murphy has not publicly commented on his plans. But with him trying to carve out a future in national Democratic politics after his second gubernatorial term ends in early 2026, he doesn’t want to step into a controversy that could hurt his chances of moving up the government ladder in Washington, D.C. 

Some have even speculated that Murphy might be in line for a cabinet position if President Joe Biden wins a second term — with Murphy resigning from his governor’s job a year early and turning the reins of power over to his lieutenant.

Such a scenario, while merely conjectural at this point, certainly underscores the importance of the choice Murphy will make in the coming days. If he leaves office early for a top job in the Biden administration, shouldn’t New Jersey be entitled to a competent replacement? And with another governor’s race looming in 2025, would Murphy’s choice as lieutenant governor suddenly have a leg up on other possible Democratic candidates?  If so, is that fair?

A recent poll by Monmouth University found that 83% of New Jerseyans thought “race should not be a factor” in Murphy’s consideration of the next lieutenant governor.

Murphy has until Sept. 15 to make his selection. His candidate will not need to be confirmed by the state Senate. So this will be Murphy’s choice alone.

It some ways, it may be one of the most important of his governorship.

It could haunt him.

Or it could cement his legacy as a top leader.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in the Northeast, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com

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