These were the factors in picking a NJ Lt. governor
By Mike Kelly, NorthJersey.com,2023-09-06
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column was published on Wednesday, Sept. 6. This column has been updated to reflect the announcement of a new Lt. Governor for New Jersey.
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 did Gov. Phil Murphy want to be?
I realize that is a provocative interpretation of the dilemma Murphy faced. Few Democrats openly discussed it in such stark terms. So be it.
But consider Murphy’s politically fraught situation: His widely admired lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who was 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 progressive 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.
On Friday, Murphy was to appoint Tahesha Way, a highly qualified African American woman, who also happens to be New Jersey's secretary of state, as his new lieutenant governor.
For Murphy, the choice of Way was not only smart but politically astute. Way is immensely talented — no doubt about it. But what about the process to replace Oliver?
Murphy appeared to be placed in a difficult political box by some New Jersey African-American leaders — that he should replace his Black, female lieutenant governor only with a Black female.
Such a demand is understandable in these days of identity politics. Murphy's choice of Way is solid.
But, consider Murphy's problem. Under the game plan he was offered by African American leaders who demanded someone who was Black and female, all men were off the prospective list. The same goes for white, Asian and Native American 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, wasn't this a form of bias?
In practical terms, someone such as former state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the first Sikh 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 was 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 mirrors turned on themselves. 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 lineup of anchors would need mass quantities of Xanax just to get through the day. And let's not even consider the blood-curdling 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 the deceased Oliver — it’s important to consider another set of facts.
Oliver, who had recently celebrated her 71 st birthday when she died on Aug. 1, was clearly a trailblazer.
She had been the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly. She was also the first 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.
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 proudly wore his turban on the job and was widely regarded as a trailblazer 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 statewide office. But she was not the first woman as lieutenant governor. 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 allegedly "woke" choices merely to skin color and gender. Sadly, bias does that. It forces us to pigeonhole people in ways that are fundamentally demeaning. It ignores the essence of our souls and characters.
Murphy's future — and his legacy — could depend on this 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 — like an able candidate like Tahesha Way. 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, 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 did not publicly comment on his plans before choosing Way. But as he tries to carve out a future in national Democratic politics after his second gubernatorial term ends in early 2026, he did not 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 underscored the importance of the choice Murphy made. But under the distressing cloud of racial politics, Way, an otherwise immensely qualified candidate, will be tainted as someone who rose to the top of Murphy's list only because of her gender and skin color. Is that fair? To her? To Murphy?
This may be one of the most important of his governorship.
It could haunt him. Or it could cement his legacy as a top leader.
Sadly, the politics of race and gender has clouded this decision.
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.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: These were the factors in picking a NJ Lt. governor