The good, the bad and the still unfinished of 2018

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

On Inauguration Day, after nearly a decade of Republican Chris Christie, a Democrat was back in the front office, ready to push a progressive agenda. But most of 2018 proved to be a year of fits and starts with a few early victories overshadowed by failures to complete the biggest of those ticket items. That’s not to say that those early victories — dismissed by some as low-hanging fruit — weren’t, in fact, significant. Those accomplishments included equal pay legislation, paid sick leave, a millionaire’s tax, restoring funding for Planned Parenthood, expanding the medical marijuana program, rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, promoting wind energy, expanding pre-K and more.

“To be sure, we have made significant progress this year toward making a stronger and fairer state and to resetting the basic deal of fundamental fairness that New Jersey has had on the table for many years but which had diminished over the past decade,” Murphy said at an event at which he discussed his first year accomplishments.

But campaign promises like legalizing adult use marijuana and creating a $15 minimum wage have eluded the grasp of the new administration. Although bills on both items have made some progress, they still faced significant opposition from Democratic allies. While there are genuine differences on the details of these two initiatives, many see the failure to pass them in 2018 as the result of the ongoing strain in the relationship between Senate President Steve Sweeney and Murphy.

“I don’t consider it a grudge. I like Phil personally, and I think he’d say the same. When we disagree, we’re going to disagree. When we agree, we’re going to agree and we’re going to work together,” Sweeney said on Sept. 20 in Atlantic City.

The relationship — one is the door keeper for new legislation, the other signs it — is critical to moving things along in Trenton. Sweeney and Christie were able to forge a successful working relationship. The same cannot be said, so far, about Murphy and Sweeney, and in 2018 it did more than make for political fodder.

“This point has been made over and over again that by reporters reporting on the three principals — the leaders of the Senate and Assembly and the governor not being able to get along,” said NJ Advance Media reporter Matt Arco. “It’s just frivolous reporting, that it doesn’t have any real merits, it’s just backroom gossip. But, no, look, at the end of the day, if you can’t accomplish your main goals, things that you all agree on, it’s because you’re not getting in the room, you’re not talking, you’re not hammering out and forging a compromise and then that affects the rest of the state. Something as small as minimum wage, recreational marijuana legalization, to ending the bear hunt — something Phil Murphy promised that he was going to do — he’s not able to do because he doesn’t along with Steve Sweeney.”

Murphy won praise for expanding the state’s medical marijuana program to include dozens more eligible conditions and six new dispensaries. But after a year of public hearings by individual lawmakers and in both houses, a package of bills finally cleared a joint legislative committee this year, but not until some of the raw feelings on the issue were aired, demonstrating how not simple getting a legal weed bill passed is going to be.

“You don’t know the underlying reason, but I know the underlying reason, and the underlying reason is their skin color,” Holley said during a joint committee hearing.

Still, movers and shakers in the industry were lining up – some say licking their chops – to get started. They’ve been promoting the business opportunities as vociferously as critics have warned about its dangers. If there is to be legal weed in New Jersey, the enabling legislation will not pass in 2018.

The same with another major campaign promise, a $15 an hour minimum wage bill. As the year ended, the bill was not scheduled for a floor vote, with the governor and members of his progressive coalition expressing opposition.

“I think there are two, broadly speaking, two issues that are concerning — one is that it takes too long, and the cohort is too large. I think it’s over three times as large as the cohort that we were willing to consider, and it’s far too long. Those are the two concerns we have,” Murphy said.

That coalition is also given credit for mobilizing to defeat a controversial redistricting bill, the impetus for which seemed to come out of nowhere. Members of the left said they didn’t care if it did benefit Democrats.

“Gerrymandering is cheating, so it doesn’t matter if your home team is doing it or if your opponents are doing it,” New Jersey Working Families Executive Director Analilia Mejia said at a rally opposing the plan.

The man who’s prone to sports metaphors might say that, as the year ended, his side was rallying, or moving the ball down the field, or had the bases loaded. He still remains popular among voters, even as he continues to battle lawmakers from his own party.

“Stark challenges remain,” Murphy said. “I’m not here to spike any footballs.”

In December, hearings into the aftermath of the alleged sexual assault of Katie Brennan dominated Trenton’s discourse. Brennan’s testimony, in which she alleged that a fellow campaign volunteer – Al Alvares – sexually assaulted her.

“Why did I have to tell my story to The Wall Street Journal for the administration to acknowledge that it should not have hired Mr. Alvarez? I should not have to be here today,” said Brennan.

It was a dramatic beginning into hearings that will take a hard look into the hiring practices of the Murphy administration.

“At least at some levels, there seemed to be a curious lack of asking about the details,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who co-chairs the committee.

Thus far, there has been no testimony to suggest that the governor knew of the alleged assault before October, as he has said repeatedly.

2018 was a good political year for Democrats in New Jersey. Across the country the blue wave may not have been what many expected, but in New Jersey, Dems grabbed four of five congressional seats once held by the GOP, leaving just Chris Smith as the lone Republican in the delegation. Elections have consequences, and Congressman Frank Pallone ascending to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee is one of them. That will put him on the forefront of his party’s battles against the administration on the environmental, offshore drilling, health care, the Affordable Care Act and even net neutrality.

“Things like, stabilize the Affordable Care Act so that insurance is affordable, a major infrastructure initiative, addressing climate change because we have to do something about increase in greenhouse gases. I think it’s a type of agenda that we put forth that elected a majority that you can really sell anywhere in the country, ” Pallone said in an interview in December.

But the biggest winner was probably Sen. Bob Menendez, who capped off a three-year period of legal and political drama with a surprisingly comfortable win over Republican Bob Hugin in a bruising and expensive campaign. By year’s end, Menendez had stared down political mortality and re-established himself as the state’s top Democrat — for now.

On the national level, Year Two of the Trump administration brought more of the political chaos and uncertainty that has become the Trump brand. Remember the Kavanaugh Supreme Court appointment? Or the tax plan that cost New Jersey its SALT deductions? Or his sending troops to prepare for the threat from asylum-seeking migrants? Then there’s the choking off of funding for the Gateway Tunnel project.

“You know what I’ll say? Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other, whether it’s through you [Chuck Schumer], through a military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government. And I am proud, and I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck,” said President Donald Trump in December.

And with the third government shutdown of the administration underway, the president continued to wreak havoc on the very things that many Americans hold dear.

Closer to home, 2018 saw changes to the decades-old school funding formula, promises of changes to the PARCC standardized testing program, the first steps towards a more robust renewable energy plan and reforms to how NJ Transit runs, although those changes mostly affect the board makeup and transparency, not on time performance.

There were signs this year that Atlantic City had finally begun to emerge from the near meltdown that prompted a state takeover two years ago. Legal sports betting was nearing a billion dollars in action after just six months. The Hard Rock franchise returned with a smash of guitars, on the same day that the former Revel – now Ocean Resort Casino – opened its doors. That meant jobs for thousands of former casino workers and an infusion of life for the boardwalk, not to mention millions in economic activity.

“More people are coming, revenue goes up. More people are spending money in various different segments of rooms, and food and beverage, and entertainment across the board. The city is having a very good year,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University.

Developers are looking inland toward a revival of street life on what they’re calling the Orange Loop, a three-block cluster of mostly empty land that they predict will be a hip haven for the younger crowd, with outdoor music venues and beer gardens.

“Obviously going for the hipsters,” said Pat Fasano, a real estate developer.

Other towns are hoping that changes in 2018 will bear fruit in the years ahead. Trenton has a new mayor, who says the sky’s the limit for the capital city, with promises of cheap rents and the cache of urban pioneering.

Paterson, too, is hoping for a rebound with first-time Mayor Andre Sayegh counting on historic preservation as a hook to lure newcomers to the Silk City.

And Newark seemed prepared to turn losing out on the new Amazon headquarters into a solid win.

“Newark and the region, including Jersey City and Hudson County, are like that surprise, talent-laden, upstart team that has made a deep run into the playoffs. The experience will positively inform future competitions. The city’s and the region’s assets are for real,” said Gov. Murphy.

Look up, said the mayor, that’s what we’re doing as new condo and office towers continue to rise.

Across the state, there were many reasons to feel good about 2018, but dark clouds could be gathering in the year ahead. Less than anticipated growth in jobs, a softening of the real estate market and the free-falling stock market, which saw all of its 2018 gains evaporate in the space of a month, are signs that 2019 could be a tough year and that New Jersey’s leaders – from business to politics – will need to start rowing together to keep the ship of state afloat and pointed in the right direction.