“There is no shoe about to drop”

December 3, 2020

Exclusive Interview with NJ Governor Phil Murphy on Pressing Issues Relevant to the Garden State

Duvid Berry

We live in times of uncertainty and volatility, with much constant change, much at stake, and much risk for loss or gain. Many of the decisions in the current climate are concentrated in the hands of the few. The Voice of Lakewood presents an exclusive conversation with New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy on the issues of the day.

TVOL: There is great fear in this community that schools or houses of worship may close again due to COVID-19. You have been very deliberate and cautious in your steps regarding the second wave, and the community is very appreciative of that, but we wonder if the other shoe is about to drop. You were also conservative in the reopening. Is there a specific metric or formula you use to make these determinations?

Governor Murphy: I wouldn’t hang my hat on any one number. We watch all this stuff like a hawk—cases, hospitalizations, intensive care patients, and even fatalities—sadly, we had another awful day today—although that is a lagging indicator of where there is a flare-up. We worked successfully with the Lakewood community leadership, with faith leaders, after the hot period following the High Holidays. We did that together successfully, and that is a model that we are using elsewhere.

I would say we were among the most conservative states to reopen. Even today, Rhode Island is making a big deal about taking a two-week pause, but one of the elements of their “pause” is limiting restaurants to 33 percent capacity; while we are still at 25 percent, we never went above that at any stage!

We have special rules for houses of worship. The school experience is filled with anxiety—I salute our educators, parents and kids—but it has generally been a good experience so far. I can’t promise anything, because this thing is back among us and we are going to have a rough couple of months, but it is my very strong hope that we can keep schools and houses of worship open safely and responsibly throughout. We do look at it every day. There is nothing imminent, there is no shoe about to drop. The regional governors with whom I speak often, and our teams confer as well, are of a like mind. It is bad and going to get worse, but the spread seems to be mostly in private transmission.

With regard to the upcoming holidays—whether it is Thanksgiving, Chanukah, or New Year’s, please, please celebrate and observe responsibly.

There has been a lot of pushback against the way Governor Cuomo handled the hotspots in largely Jewish areas, and lawsuits brought by Jewish umbrella groups and a Catholic group have gone to the Supreme Court. Do you understand Governor Cuomo’s position, or do you sympathize with the complaint that his restrictions do not accurately reflect the numbers?

I cannot speak for Governor Cuomo, obviously; but I would be remiss if I didn’t say he has been an outstanding partner at every step of the way. I can make observations about the way we have managed the virus here in New Jersey.

Regarding schools, kids overwhelmingly go to school in the community in which they live. That is not entirely the case—there are some kids who travel from one community to another, but the vast majority of kids in a school are from within that community. That allows us to have the district-by-district approach that we have with schools. We worked with each and every one of them when they closed in the spring and when they reopened in September, and we monitor each and every one of them day in and day out. That is a very different reality from other non-school services and gatherings.

If you and I want to go to dinner, we have a choice. We don’t have to go to dinner in Lakewood, we could go to Jackson or Toms River or Brick, or out here where I am, in Red Bank or Rumson or wherever. When you have a habit that is a choice—not a requirement and not pinned in your community—you’ve got to be aware of unintended consequences. So if I shut restaurants in Middletown, people will just show up in droves in Red Bank. In New Jersey, we can have it both ways. We can deal with school districts locally, as we do, but other than that—with some flexibility—for the most part, the executive orders apply statewide, and that is the way it will continue to be.

The legalization of marijuana for recreational use is very concerning to this community, in which the education of our children is of primary importance. Marijuana use hinders young people’s ability to concentrate, focus and learn to grow into mature and responsible adults. How do you plan to mitigate that concern, and does it counter the social justice aspect of legal marijuana?

Yes, it is very much a concern. If this would be about inventing marijuana, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m not a marijuana guy—this has never been a vice of mine. Quite the contrary, I have four kids and I share the concerns that any parent would have. But we are not inventing marijuana. It exists, and is run by and profits criminal interests. Our kids are completely exposed to it and we have no ability to regulate it as long as it is illegal. There is no social justice—only social injustice, as persons of color are overwhelmingly the ones incarcerated for low-line drug offenses. As long as we are not inventing it, as long as we have to accept that it is in our society, whether we like it or not, let’s regulate it. Let’s put the right people in charge of this.

Isn’t that a bit like saying, “If we can’t beat ’em, we may as well join ’em?”

There is no history anywhere that suggests anyone can be successful in running something like marijuana to the ground. Look at what happened in the US experience regarding alcohol and Prohibition. I would far prefer to regulate it so we can limit its use—remember, it will be limited to people over age 21. Not everyone will get this: it is adult-use cannabis, you have to be over age 21 to get it, and we will regulate and enforce that aggressively. We will also achieve, thank G-d, at long last, righting some of the social injustices that have been committed in the name of the war on drugs and the like.

Age limits haven’t worked overly well with alcohol and tobacco; and wouldn’t you agree that the social injustices are caused by the people who commit them, not the tool they use to discriminate? If you hit someone with a stick, the stick is not the problem—you are!

We inherited the widest gap between the number of white and non-white persons incarcerated in America, and it was because of low-line drug offenses. I do not accept that we can’t enforce the 21-and-up reality. The key will be to price this, regulate it, and enforce it so that you drive the black market out of business. When you do that, you have a much better chance of sticking to your guns and enforcing it in the way that it is meant to be enforced.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is the nation’s top children’s hospital in many departments, and includes units and specialists not available elsewhere; yet it is no longer in contract with any New Jersey Medicaid HMOs. This may seriously impact health outcomes for children in low- and middle-income families. Is there anything that can be done to remedy the situation?

I don’t have any insight on that, I apologize. I will have my team research it and get back to you, but I have no insight on it other than the broader insight that we ought to be opening up access to health care across the board, particularly to folks who need it most, not restricting it.

You have been at the forefront of the battle against anti-Semitism in New Jersey, even foreseeing some problems before they have arisen, such as those caused by the COVID virus. Demographics are changing in the state, with reports of an outward migration of the general population while clusters of Orthodox Jews are moving to New Jersey. How do you think this will affect rates of anti-Semitism, and what can we do about it?

Thank you for your kind words about pre-empting some of what we sadly knew was almost certain to happen, such as targeting communities, and specifically the Orthodox Jewish community, in regards to COVID. We will continue to do that—my job is to keep us ahead of the curve as best as we can.

Your question is a very good one. We are the most diverse state in America by many measures: race, ethnicity, and religion would be the top three. I hope that the issues you are referring to will not happen. People are not actually leaving New Jersey right now, and there are a lot of people coming from urban environments, not just Orthodox Jewish communities. We are the most dense state in America, which means we live on top of each other; we are the most diverse, and our job—beginning with me—is to make sure we celebrate that diversity and find peaceful, respectful ways to live within our community across the whole spectrum of diversity.

You have really fought hard, calling out anti-Semitism wherever you have seen it, and the community is very grateful for your efforts.

I have always been vocal about pushing back on anti-Semitic behavior, but my time spent living in Germany on two occasions has forever impacted me, and G-d willing we can stay ahead of the curve.

There are a number of townships that seem to view land use ordinances as a potential tool to legislate who is allowed to live there and who is not. That is a violation of a federal law and the DOJ has intervened in several places. What is the state’s role, if any, in preventing the weaponization of land use laws?

Our chief counsel will follow up with you on the specific question of what our legal authority is. As a general matter, I don’t like it, and it is not who we are as a state. We have seen certain communities try to stack the deck against those they don’t want, and for those they do. We celebrate diversity and are stronger because of it, and we find ways to live under the tent together.  We don’t have to worship the same way or have the same habits, but we do have to be respectful. I say emphatically that I don’t like it when locales try to put laws in their books to limit access.

You are obviously a religious man: you have invoked the name of G-d many times in your press conferences, and have spoken in the past about your own religious convictions and how you separate that from your public policy decisions. How is public policy distinguished from the way your belief system defines right and wrong?

Firstly, there are many people who are far, far more religious than I. I don’t want to give people a false impression. I am a Roman Catholic and I am proud of that, and I do believe in G-d’s blessings, particularly as it relates to the souls that have been lost and the families they left behind, which we speak about almost every day.

But just because I practice a particular faith, in my case, Roman Catholicism, does not mean that I am unable to call balls and strikes as it relates to public policy and what is best for the state of New Jersey. I don’t take it lightly when policies may be against the beliefs of my religion, but if that is what is in the best interests of the state, that is the oath that I have sworn and that is the path that I have taken and will continue to take.

Thank you for everything you have done.

Thank you, G-d bless you and happy holidays!