New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has an authority problem.
Days after Murphy violated his own executive order barring large public gatherings by participating in two protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, some local leaders are openly defying his executive orders that restrict certain activities.
On Wednesday night, the City Council in overwhelmingly progressive Asbury Park voted to allow indoor dining with social distancing restrictions in place, even though that’s still not allowed under Murphy’s executive order.
In northern New Jersey, the Republican mayor of Wayne cited Murphy’s own actions in justifying his decision to “facilitate” graduation ceremonies for the town’s two high schools, in violation of another order limiting the number of people who can gather outside.
The defiance by local authorities puts Murphy, a progressive Democrat, in the throes of a political balancing act, having to decide whether to send state authorities in to enforce his executive orders or let them slide, potentially opening the door for more local officials to openly challenge his edicts.
It’s a dilemma other governors have faced over the past three months, but only now has hit New Jersey, which has recorded the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the nation, behind only New York, the epicenter of the virus. It‘s also a problem more governors will likely face as residents, cooped up for months, itch to resume a sense of normalcy as the summer months approach.
The defiance of Murphy’s orders comes as the state is gradually loosening the measures the governor imposed in mid-March to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
During his daily briefing on Thursday, Murphy was critical of the decision by Asbury Park officials.
“The actions of the Asbury Park governing body — a great community in this state — their actions are inconsistent with my executive order,” he said. “We cannot have one set of rules for one town and one set of rules for another town.”
On Friday, Murphy announced that Attorney General Gurbir Grewal will file a lawsuit against Asbury Park to override the city’s ordinance.
“We have worked with the governing body of Asbury Park to try to amicably resolve the issue of their resolution regarding indoor dining. Unfortunately, they have not done so,” Murphy said.
A state judge late Friday blocked the ordinance from taking effect.
Asbury Park Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn said in a statement Thursday that Murphy has allowed indoor gatherings of up to 50 people or 25 percent capacity for some establishments “and we simply decided to extend it to food and beverage service.”
Quinn could not immediately be reached for comment Friday afternoon and Mayor John Moor declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Murphy has said the capacity limits are meant mainly to apply to houses of worship, and while New Jersey will begin to allow outdoor dining starting Monday, the governor has not yet put in place a plan for indoor dining.
In Wayne, Mayor Christopher Vergano said that after two weeks of calls and emails from constituents, he decided to go ahead with June graduations after seeing Murphy participate in two protest marches last weekend.
“We had been talking about this before, but when I saw him on TV on Sunday, that was my inspiration,” Vergano said in an interview. “I saw an elected official who was doing what he was right for his community by marching, and I said you know what, using that same thought process, we should do the same for our kids.”
The state will allow outdoor graduation ceremonies with up to 500 people beginning July 6, but Vergano said Wayne will hold graduation ceremonies at its two high schools on June 18 and June 19.
Murphy has come under intense criticism from Republicans, as well as New Jersey’s second-highest ranking Democrat, Senate President Steve Sweeney, for being too slow to allow businesses that were shuttered in mid-March to reopen.
But other states, such as Texas, Florida and Arizona that were initially hit less hard by Covid-19 than New Jersey and loosened restrictions earlier, have seen recent spikes in coronavirus cases. That’s before taking into account the risk of spread among the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past two weeks across the nation to protest police brutality and structural racism.
“We cannot have communities mirroring the cavalier actions in other states which have not put a premium on making the health of their residents priority No. 1,” said Murphy Thursday.
Murphy said the state has been in touch with officials in the towns that have publicly challenged his executive order, though Vergano said he had not heard from anyone.
“We’re going to do what we think is right for our citizens and we’re going to do what we think is right on Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
Democratic state Sen. Richard Codey and former Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat who served from 1990 to 1994, said Murphy shouldn’t step in with a heavy hand — yet.
“The executive order enforcement mechanism depends upon the viability and the fortitude of the person issuing the executive order,” said Florio in a phone interview. “I think in some respects the governor has done a good job balancing toughness with collegiality. And I think that’s a very big asset he’s got going for him.”
Codey, an ally of Murphy who served as governor for 14 months from late 2004 to early 2006, said Murphy needs to have a “quick conversation“ with the mayor and police chief of Asbury Park, “a very candid conversation.”
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a Republican who’s considering a run for governor in 2021, said he doesn’t know if Murphy’s own decision to violate his executive order on public gatherings inspired towns to take their own action, “but it gives them cover.”
“The governor sent a terrible message. I continue to support the law. I continue to support the executive orders. But I’m deeply saddened that the governor didn’t understand the impact of violating this order,” Bramnick said in a phone interview. “When you raise your right hand up and put your hand on the Bible and say, ‘I’m going to follow the Constitution and the laws of New Jersey,’ and then you say ‘well this is more important than the Constitution of the laws of New Jersey … what do you expect?”
Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman who’s seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2021, said Murphy’s “hypocrisy” in attending a rally “penetrated deeply,” and that Asbury Park is sending a message to Murphy about the state of its restaurant industry.
“What the governor fails to understand is this industry isn’t in survival mode, it’s on its death bed right now,” said Ciattarelli. “And the folks in Asbury Park feel, rightfully so, that a statement needs to be made.“