Transition presents opportunities and potential pitfalls for governor-elect

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Now that the gubernatorial campaign is over, the real fun can begin. Phil Murphy spent 90 minutes with Chris Christie yesterday and would say only that they talked about transition stuff.

This is the critical moment in an administration when the new governor begins to assemble his team. It’s ripe with opportunity and fraught with potential blunders. Tom Kean, Sr., perhaps the most popular former governor of the state, remembers and knows it well.

“You got to have good people if you’re governor of the state, and not only good people, you’ve got to have people who are going to say ‘no’ when it’s required,” he said. “Everybody wants to ‘yes’ the governor, so it’s very hard to get an honest opinion sometimes. They’re trying to think what you’re thinking and then they give you back what they think you’re thinking. What you really need is someone to say ‘no’ you’re wrong.”

Kean, who succeeded Brendan Byrne, said the first thing you have to expect is the unexpected. Problems that crop up that you never thought of during the campaign. Then, there’s people looking for rewards for their work on the campaign. Who you pick to run state departments has to go beyond who supported you.

“He’s got to get some really bright people,” added Kean. “I mean people who can really think deeply about the issues. The state’s got real issues and yet most of them are soluble if you really are willing to have some courage and have people around you giving you advice about the best possible solutions.”

So, what does Kean think about Murphy’s first cabinet appointment, Lieutenant governor-elect Sheila Oliver to head the Department of Community Affairs?

“Sheila Oliver is a very dignified, proud person and she’s going to want some independence, and that’s not always great in a lieutenant governor. But, on the other hand, you got one who’s able and has a lot of experience and who’s going to have her own agenda, and that’s just something he’s going to have to deal with,” he said.

And then there’s dealing with the Legislature: 40 senators, 80 Assembly members, a new Assembly speaker, and a Senate president emboldened by a hard-fought victory. There’s a lot on the plate. The Eagleton Center on the American Governor issued recommendation for gubernatorial transitions.

“One piece of advice that we put in our report is that he needs to take a vacation, if he can, because its been a long campaign and I think being governor is going to be more demanding than I think anyone can imagine,” said John Weingart, who is director of the center. “Not just because he hasn’t been in office before, but each person who has served as governor has talked about it being a job not like any other. And a job that you can prepare, but among other things, unexpected things come along, always.”

And that can be a superstorm, or a political storm. In any case, it’s important, say both Kean and Weingart, for the outgoing governor and the incoming governor to work closely together over the next couple of months.

“Gov. Christie is an institutionalist and he respects government and politics and is experienced in both and respects the office of the governor. So it’s in his interest, really, in terms of both his reputation and in terms of preserving some of what he put in place that he and Governor-elect Murphy get along and have a smooth transition,” he reasoned.

There are about 10 weeks to the inauguration, which is not a lot of time when you consider the holidays, so, ready or not, Phil Murphy is already on the clock.