by Justin Racioppi, Trenton Bureau
Gov. Phil Murphy still is raising money from secret donors for the “dark money” group that’s now airing ads backing his call to raise taxes on millionaires, he acknowledged Friday.
Those ads hit cable stations and the internet after the group secured a $2.5 million donation from the New Jersey Education Association, which became public only through meeting minutes provided to Politico New Jersey by a nonprofit called the Sunlight Policy Center. And the powerful teacher’s union is the only publicly known supporter of the group publicly pushing Murphy’s agenda as he and Democratic lawmakers are deadlocked over increasing taxes, legalizing marijuana and changing public employee pension and health benefits.
Murphy did not directly answer whether he solicited that donation to the nonprofit group run by his closest advisers, New Direction New Jersey. But Murphy said he has “spoken to the NJEA constantly” in the last five years, “including around New Direction, but far more often on policy.”
Murphy acknowledged earlier this year that he had raised money for New Direction, a 501(c)(4) that reversed a pledge to disclose its donors because of a “toxic political environment.” But the political toxicity has intensified after Murphy conditionally vetoed a bill that would require groups like New Direction to name their donors and then started appearing in ads for the group to promote his millionaires tax proposal that Democratic leaders oppose.
At a cost of $1 million, the ads started airing shortly after Politico first reported the education association’s $2.5 million donation.
“The last time I raised money (was) probably some weeks ago,” Murphy said, responding to a reporter’s question following an event to announce the introduction of bills to codify provisions of the Affordable Care Act. “And as a general matter I was a aware of the NJEA support. I can’t recall when I became aware of it.”
he union did not respond to a message seeking comment, but a spokesman told Politico last week that since Murphy has been working with the union to support a public education agenda, “NJEA members choose to support New Direction New Jersey because we want to help bring that agenda to fruition.”
That has raised questions among his adversaries about what Murphy has done, or may do, for the union in return. And Democratic lawmakers were upset after New Direction started airing the ads featuring the governor advocating for a millionaires tax.
A legislative aide said Friday that Murphy’s continued fundraising is precisely why the bill Murphy vetoed is necessary.
“I am disappointed that allies of the governor continue to spend money from undisclosed donors, for the purpose of dividing legislators. It is especially concerning when there are legitimate policy differences in the most highly taxed state in the union,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said last week.
Coughlin, who declined to comment Friday, has a dark-money group backing him called NJ United, which will disclose its donors by the end of the year, an adviser said.
That’s the same pledge New Direction made when it formed shortly after Murphy was elected in 2017, saying that “transparency will be a key part of the agenda that we’re going to promote.” The group’s senior adviser is Brendan Gill, Murphy’s former campaign manager, and his former campaign media consultants, Steve DeMicco and Brad Lawrence. A spokesman for the group, Phil Swibinski, declined to comment.
But the group took transparency off its agenda at the end of last year, prompting lawmakers to revive a dormant bill requiring transparency for such groups. The legislation’s breath of life was seen as an attempt by Senate President Stephen Sweeney to target Gill, who had attempted to replace Sweeney, D-Gloucester, as the top Democratic lawmaker. Gill said he had conversations with senators but denied trying to remove Sweeney.
Though it never materialized, the coup plot sowed resentment by Sweeney, which deepened after Murphy failed to step in when the education association’s independent group funneled historic sums of money into defeating his re-election.
Sweeney declined to comment on the governor’s continued fundraising. Sweeney is still considering whether the Senate will vote to override Murphy’s veto of the “dark money,” and told reporters Thursday that he is frustrated by the governor’s legislative rejections and may start posting overrides in response.
Murphy said Friday that his staff had analyzed his vetoes against those of Chris Christie, his Republican predecessor, and found that at the same point in their respective terms, Murphy had vetoed two fewer bills but signed 90 more.
As far as a potential override of the dark money bill, Murphy said he has “nothing new to add on that.”