Phil Murphy Brings Race Into Dispute With Steve Sweeney Over Cabinet Nominees

Gov. Phil Murphy.
Gov. Phil Murphy. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy brought up the issue of race on Thursday when asked about Senate President Steve Sweeney’s decision to block the confirmation votes for two of his cabinet nominees, noting both are African-American.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester) rejected the suggestion, saying his move to stop confirmation votes on Thursday for Lamont Repollet, the acting education commissioner, and Zakiya Smith Ellis, the acting secretary of higher education, were strictly about education issues.

The dispute could further strain the already rocky relationship between the state’s top two elected Democrats.

Murphy, asked in Montclair about Sweeney’s move to hold up the nominations, said Repollet and Smith Ellis are “two extraordinary individuals” and “there’s no reason not to confirm these folks.” He then reminded reporters that the country recently celebrated Black History Month and noted the two nominees are African-Americans with PhDs.

“Folks need to look up Lamont Repollet and Zakiya Smith Ellis because we have two African-American PhDs on our nominated cabinet,” Murphy said. “It is the most diverse cabinet ever nominated in our state, and it’s the most diverse cabinet in the country.”

Sweeney was shocked when told of the governor’s comments.

“Wow, you’ve got to be kidding me. I can’t believe he said that,” Sweeney said. “Either he was confused—there’s no way he could possibly have said that. Honestly. We had a couple nominations today who were African-Americans. It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with school funding.”

Along with Murphy’s proposed tax hikes, school funding is at the center of debate over the governor’s $37.4 billion budget. Murphy wants to boost state aid for K-12 schools by $283.6 million and add $57.6 million in new money for preschools.

Sweeney wants to make changes to the way the state aid is distributed across the state and said he was disappointed when Repollet recently said it could take six to eight months to negotiate such adjustments. Sweeney wants to reach a school funding agreement before the fiscal year ends in June.

“There’s a lot of things we agree on, and we’re going to agree on,” Sweeney said. “But I am not going to compromise and fold and run away when it comes to school funding. It’s out of whack, it’s been out of whack too long, and it’s been unfair to too many people.”

As for Smith Ellis, Sweeney said he wasn’t satisfied with her answers to his questions, though he declined to elaborate.

“I am entitled, just like every other senator, if you send a letter to these commissioners, to be answered. And I didn’t think the questions were answered properly,” Sweeney said.

The full Senate is not scheduled to vote again until June. Repollet and Smith Ellis can stay on the job in an acting capacity until their nominations are voted on.

The Senate president said his staff was scheduled to meet with Murphy’s team on Friday to discuss the school funding issue, “unless they cancelled again on us.”

Phil Murphy Brings Race Into Dispute With Steve Sweeney Over Cabinet Nominees