1. Phil Murphy
State of New Jersey
His energy and enthusiasm has been on display from the moment he leaped onto the stage at his victory party in 2017, and the governor hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down since.
A businessman, diplomat, politician and self-proclaimed “head of sales” for New Jersey, Murphy has been everywhere. And he has had his hits.
Murphy was able to quickly achieve many of his progressive campaign promises, but one insider said he needs more than that. “He has picked off the low-hanging fruit of a progressive agenda. He needs bigger victories.” He’s trying. His goal to create a fairer economy is laudable, but the business community and taxpayers may be more interested in tax relief.
Being governor has brought many challenges and criticisms. Insiders note he already has felt the sting of public office in the criticisms of his relationship with the Legislature — whether it’s the tension with Senate President Steve Sweeney or the perceived lack of nuanced Jersey political (and legislative/procedural) knowledge in his front office. And he has seen the downside of public office with his wealth and children in headlines.
The good news: He holds the most power of any governor in the nation. And, with so many issues, he has many opportunities to increase his popularity.
Fixing New Jersey Transit would do wonders. And some say the Gateway Tunnel project will have the biggest influence on his job this year. If he can make it so that he owns the success of the funding of Gateway, or solves the state’s high-cost problem, his administration will soar in popularity, one insider said.
2. George Norcross
Cooper University Health Care/Conner Strong & Buckelew
Anyone who thought George Norcross was losing his influence, even slightly, has discovered they were mistaken. Murphy seems to have picked up on that, as he recently even spent a day at Cooper University Hospital to make several announcements. Norcross, the ultimate political power broker, still holds enormous influence in South Jersey. He can gather support for a bill as well as anyone. And, if something doesn’t have his support, don’t count on it happening. “Why anyone thought they could do an end-around when it comes to George is beyond me,” one insider said. “He has tremendous influence on everything in South Jersey.” Which, another insider pointed out, has been a good thing. “Look at Camden, look at Cooper — both have benefited greatly because of George.” One insider felt the EDA audit was a way to do battle with Norcross by picking on companies he has backed. They also felt it was a bad move. “Why on Earth would anyone pick a fight with him? It’s a no-win.”
3. Steve Sweeney
State Senate president, 3rd District (D)
State of New Jersey
He wanted to be governor. And he may still want to be governor. For now, the second-most-powerful politician in the state has to settle for battling with the governor. Sweeney has done that well, often showing his experience by setting the agenda. “It wasn’t a fair fight, especially early in the Murphy administration,” one insider said. “You could see how Sweeney schooled him on playing politics.” Another insider was more impressed with Sweeney’s other battle: to reform the pension system. “Forget about any fight he has picked with Murphy, that’s just politics. This is a guy who is now openly fighting with unions. Who would have thought that, considering how often he proudly boasts of his union membership? But he knows that the pension problem is out of control and that it will crush the state. He’s not going to be a politician who blindly supports union members to the detriment of the state. He’s clearly felt emboldened after holding off the attack from the teacher’s union.”
4. Craig Coughlin
Assembly speaker, 19th District (D)
State of New Jersey
Coughlin’s quiet demeanor made many wonder how the previous back-bencher could make a mark, and whether he would be a puppet to Sweeney. He has proven to be anything but. “He has grown tremendously in the job,” one insider said. “Anyone who thought he was merely a placeholder is mistaken.” That starts with the state’s top two players. It appears he has convinced both Sweeney and Murphy that he has established a public perception of being a swing vote. This has made each legislative issue interesting to watch and will make for interesting budget negotiations each year. Coughlin already has proven he can get votes — and get bills passed. From getting out-of-network finalized to brokering a deal on the $15 minimum wage, Coughlin already has made a mark. Next up could be finalizing the legalization of recreational cannabis. Of course, his biggest battle may be serving as the liaison between Sweeney and Murphy. How much more he can do while balancing that tension remains to be seen.
5. Tammy Murphy
State of New Jersey
One insider put it this way: “If anything, she is hurt by the fact she is the first lady. If that, for one second, makes someone think she is not qualified — or smart enough — to handle and discuss any issue, it would be a gross miscalculation.” Murphy has an office, a staff and issues she is helping the state on. It’s part of an interesting and progressive dynamic that the state appears to be handling well. Her efforts to decrease maternal and infant mortality in minority communities and the focus on environmental issues are certainly in the spotlight. In Germany and Israel, her prominence and the dynamic duo of the Murphy pair was on full display. The two have long had a reputation for working in tandem, and it is clear the governor operates in sync with her. Others have noticed this: “Always on time, always prepared, always ready to get down to business,” one insider said. “You better be ready when you meet with her.”
6. Jeff Bezos
Founder and CEO
If you are the head of one of the largest employers in the state — one that employs nearly 20,000 people, all making at least $15 an hour; one whose company seemingly creates two to three jobs for every job it has; one that is changing the face of retail, e-commerce, logistics and warehousing simultaneously — you’d be a no-brainer for the list. And one of the top spots. That’s why Bezos is here. Forget the HQ2 search — you know, the one that had every elected official and economic development professional on edge for nearly a year (talk about influence). That’s not why Bezos is so influential in this state. More than any other CEO, his actions have economic implications on so many sectors. And, should he decide to put even a piece of his second headquarters in Newark (or Jersey City, or at The Hub @ New Brunswick), he’ll rise even higher. “In a state where so many are moving jobs out, he’s creating jobs,” one insider said. “What more needs to be said?”
7. Don Ghermezian
Ghermezian, or a member of the Ghermezian family, has been ranked high on lists such as this for years. Mainly on a promise. This year, it is becoming reality. The American Dream project will soon open in the Meadowlands. And, if it matches even part of the hype it has had for a decade (or more) and becomes even half of the engine of economic growth that has been promised for so long, it will be a complete success. And it will do so while setting a new precedent for experiential retail (approximately half will be entertainment) that others will copy in the state and the region. “You can’t view this as a shopping mall,” one insider said. “This is going to be a tourist attraction, one that draws people from all over — way beyond New York City, though there will be plenty from there. That’s why this will be an addition to the economy, not just a shift of dollars.”
8. Ras Baraka
City of Newark
He was co-No. 1 on our ROI Influencers: Real Estate list and No. 1 on our ROI Influencers: People of Color list — so, it only figures that the mayor of Newark would be in the Top 10 here. But, here’s the catch: This time, we’re recognizing him for his impact on others rather than just the rise of his city. Baraka has pushed diversity and inclusion the right way — giving qualified people in underserved communities a chance (which is all they are asking for). “I’ve done business in the city of Newark for 30 years and I can tell you it’s different now,” one insider said. “With (former Mayor) Sharpe James, there was plenty of diversity — but they were there because of patronage. With Baraka, it’s quality up and down the line. He has infused his administration with diversity, but he’s not pandering. These are top-notch people.” This collection of talent is helping Baraka take Newark to new heights. One where all residents — in all areas — are benefiting.
9. Tony Coscia
Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf/Amtrak
How is Tony Coscia influential? Let us count the ways. As the chairman of Amtrak, he is the point person on the Gateway Tunnel project. And he does it, one insider said, as Coscia does best: Orchestrating events behind the scenes. “He doesn’t have to be the spokesman, but don’t be fooled, he’s the most important person on the project.” All of this doesn’t take into account he is a top lawyer at a top firm in the state, Windels Marx (handling a lot of real estate and governance issues), chairman of Suez North America and director of OceanFirst Financial Corp. Then there’s this: He’s usually the smartest guy in the room. “I never heard Tony Coscia say something that anybody didn’t do,” one insider said. “His brilliance is indisputable. So, even when people doubt something he says, they do it, because 99.9 percent of the time, he’s right. So why take the chance?”
10. Sheila Oliver
Lieutenant governor (D)
State of New Jersey
It’s arguably the toughest job in state government. And it’s certainly one of the most difficult positions in which to stand out on your own. Maybe it’s because she is only the second person to hold the job of lieutenant governor — and the extent of the role’s influence is still being determined. “The job is to support the governor, period,” one insider said. “Any success you have will — by definition of the job — go to your boss.” Oliver, a lifelong — and supremely accomplished — politician, knows the way the game is played. And she also knows how to get things done … without fanfare. “She’s very involved in Newark and Atlantic City,” one insider said. “You may not hear about it, but those of whom interact there know it. And we’re better off because of it.” Oliver plays politics, but she’s also eager to speak her mind. “The governor has said he likes this,” one insider said. “Just how much isn’t as clear.”