A united front for Trenton’s top three Democrats

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin held a press event Tuesday morning at the Ocean Bay Diner in South Amboy. In two days the Legislature is expected to pass the minimum wage bill they negotiated.

“Needless to say, we’re all excited about having reached an agreement to raise the minimum wage in New Jersey, responsibly over time, to $15 an hour. It’s the right thing to do. It will put a lot more money in people’s pockets and they’ll spend it,” Murphy said.

The bill raises the minimum wage gradually over five years.

“This took some time because there’s some stubborn personalities here — me. But the speaker’s leadership on this has been remarkable, and his leadership has actually led to a compromise and a deal getting done,” Sweeney said.

“I think we’ve gotten it right. It will help with those people who do struggle day in and day out, by raising the minimum wage, recognizes that the glide path needs to not shock the system, and we’ve accomplished that,” Coughlin said.

Ironically, the diner owner, who was sitting with the group, had other ideas.

“The thing is, I’m going to go out of business because diners, they can’t pay 50 percent payroll,” Teddy Lutas said.

Coughlin’s office later put out a news release that quotes Lutas, saying “I was not fully aware that the minimum wage increase will be phased in over five years. That’s why I’m so happy Speaker Coughlin took the time to talk me through the plan …”

Democrats are supposed to get along, but Sweeney and Murphy have a fraught relationship. Last Friday, Sweeney challenged Murphy to a debate on the fiscal future of the state during an “On the Record” interview.

“I would be willing to go anywhere in this state side by side with Gov. Murphy and have a debate on this, to see if there really is a problem or not a problem. We have a financial crisis in this state,” he said.

With the two of them together, we asked Murphy for his reaction.

“The Senate president and I have spoken about this on a number of occasions. He’s got a long list of items on his to-do list, some of which we don’t agree with, many of which we do agree with, some of which are worthy of discussion. I’m working on the early stages of our budget address, which will be in early March, and I think let’s let that play out and we’ll see where we go from there,” said Murphy.

“People are saying I’m blowing out the financial situation in New Jersey disproportionately, that there’s not a crisis. The governor just said he’s going to put his budget forward. I’ll look at his budget. If we disagree then we’ll disagree and we’ll have some more conversations. I feel strongly that we need to address some things financially in the state,” Sweeney said.

Patrick Murray reacted to Tuesday’s event.

“Not sure that it says that this is a new dawn in the relationship, particularly between the senator and the governor, but I think it was telling that you saw the speaker of the Assembly sitting between the two of them because I think that’s basically how any negotiation ends up going now,” Murray said.

It’s a delicate dance Murphy and Sweeney do. They look like they genuinely like each other in public, but in private they take actions that thwart each other. Sometimes it’s a policy difference, sometimes just pure politics.