Making her mark: Tammy Murphy talks public life, influence as first lady

She knew that she and her children would be in the spotlight more than ever before. That’s what happens when your spouse becomes a governor.

And she knew she would be in the spotlight even more than usual for a first lady. That’s what happens when you’re accomplished in your own right and your spouse becomes a governor.

Tammy Murphy admits, however, that she may not have been ready for just how personal things would get.

Four days after Phil Murphy was sworn in as the governor of New Jersey, Tammy Murphy told a crowd of thousands attending a Women’s March in Morristown, that she, too, had been sexually assaulted. The assault took place while she was in college at the University of Virginia.

“The stories of the #MeToo movement have humbled the powerful and empowered the forgotten,” she told the crowd that day. “I will add my voice to this growing chorus.”

Earlier this month, Murphy — in a one-on-one interview with ROI-NJ — said the moment was one of the first examples of how she has had to learn to leave her comfort zone.

“That is not something I have done in decades, and so I would say that took a lot of personal strength to do that,” she said. “Many people have subsequently said it has helped them, or helped their family or helped a friend, so I’m happy about that. I’m also really happy it has helped other people stand up and speak for themselves.

“But anything that is really personal, that’s where it takes me to a different space. Those are the moments that are particularly wrenching for me, whether it’s our immediate family or other very personal situations for me. But it’s been OK.”

In an interview from her office in Trenton, Murphy touched on a number of subjects, including her working relationship with the governor (always in tandem), the issues that mean the most to her (the environment and health care) and her role in the administration (to support her husband and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver).

She also explained how she stays true to herself.

“I don’t know how to play poker,” she said. “So, if I don’t believe in something, you will know it. And thus far, to date, I am fully supportive of everything (the governor and lieutenant governor) have tried to do, and that is a very comfortable spot for me.”

Here are her remarks, edited and condensed for space, clarity and flow:

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with your work relationship with the governor. It is certainly different than the relationship previous governors have had with their spouses. You are a true power couple.

Tammy Murphy: I’ve said this ad nauseam. Phil and I have always done everything together. So, for us both, I think it’s been really normal that we are in proximity. Over the years, when one of us is tired, the other one has energy. And when one of us is run down, the other is ready to go. So, we kind of keep one another going.

I am here to back up Phil and Sheila. Phil is the governor and I am the supporting role.

ROI: Your increased visibility — you have an office next to the governor and a four-person staff — certainly has been noticed. Which, of course, means it has been scrutinized. Have you been bothered by any criticisms that you are too involved?

TM: I honestly don’t think about it that much. Maybe I should think about it more than I do.

In this world, there is no one who pleases everyone. As long as I get up every day and just keep plowing forward — as I know Phil does and I know Sheila does — I will feel good about the direction we are trying to take New Jersey.

It doesn’t mean we are not going to listen to other people, people have good ideas. I hear what people who disagree with us have to say, but you can’t please everybody.

ROI: OK, let’s talk about what you are doing. You have taken on a lot — everything from issues involving the environment to health care.

TM: It’s surprising to me that there is absolutely as much to do as there is. I keep thinking, ‘I’ll take this little piece on,’ and then (something else comes up) and I find that we are involved in a lot in our little four-person office.

I would say I’m a convener. Where I can highlight different issues and bring people together, that’s exactly what I can do and will do.

ROI: So, how do you decide which issues to tackle?

TM: First of all, I have an incredible chief of staff in Stephanie Lagos, and Steph is always there and we are always balancing if (something) is the right thing to do, can we fit it in, is it taking us too far where you are not going to be able to be effective in other areas? So, I’d say we definitely try to stay, internally, on topic.

There are certain areas where I feel more comfortable. A year ago, I would have said we’re going to go headlong into environmental topics, but we’ve been sidetracked with the infant maternal health crisis, so I’ve schooled up, and, while I’m not an expert, I am dangerous.

ROI: And, apparently, effective. Leaders in the state were stunned when they learned New Jersey ranked 47th nationally with a mortality rate of 37 deaths per every 100,000 live births (and the rate is much higher for African-Americans). You’ve been vocal about it for several months and there has been both legislation and a strong showing of community support, as well coordination with the Department of Health, on the topic. How did you coordinate this effort?

TM: What I thought would be a run-in, quick fix (was anything but). … I thought it was going to be access, but what I was unprepared for was that it was everything from transportation to education and opioids and lack of access to food and workforce — it’s everything combined.

I went in thinking this is going to be completely Department of Health, maybe Department of Children and Families, but it turns out there are 12 departments involved. The good news is that each of the cabinet members have great programs that are working in their own way on this project, but, like the rest of this state, everybody is working in silos.

So, my real added value, I think, is just that I have the convening power. We have had four interdepartmental meetings with all 12 cabinet members or their immediate representatives trying to figure out how we can all work together and share data and trying to make decisions as a team to move forward. But, in addition to that, I’ve been meeting with everyone from doulas and home health workers to hospital systems and foundations and really anybody who has a stake in this topic. There are a lot of people who really want to fix this.

ROI: What did you learn during this effort?

TM: My biggest surprise has been to learn not only that we have a problem, but that it’s really bad if you dig down. I have talked a lot about the disparity between African-American moms and white moms. But, really, it’s women of color and white moms and children of color and children who are white … there is some either implicit bias or racism — that’s uncomfortable.

ROI: One of the other issues you are focused on is the environment. You have been both vocal about alternative energy and present during the governor’s trip to Germany, where that was a key topic. Where did the interest come from?

TM: It’s really climate change. That’s something that I have been concerned about for a long time. I first started thinking about this issue when we moved to Germany for the first time. I remember, when it came to the trash, there were three different receptacles — and that’s when I learned they were sorting their trash and separating things.

I can tell you I love the Germans, but if you showed up at the grocery store and didn’t have a bag to put your groceries in, you were absolutely embarrassed, because the people would look at you like were the scum of the Earth.

ROI: What can be done?

TM: Working with Al Gore, I’ve been trying to raise awareness for a long time. He has informed our decision-making process and he is willing to come here himself and advise either outright or through back channels. I think that is something that we all need.

I’m thrilled because Phil and Sheila have said that (climate change) is something that is important to them. And with offshore wind and what we are doing with community solar, we are making headway. The Germany and Israel trip really helped advance that cause in a big way.

ROI: Speaking of that trip, what was your role during that time and what have you seen in the aftermath?

TM: I was pretty hands-on. When we were in Germany, after every single meeting, I was writing letters to every CEO and every principal we met in Germany and in Israel, to make sure that they understood how we feel about expanding our shared economic advantage across those two countries.

There’s a lot more to be done, but, subsequent to that trip, we have had more than 30 different conversations that are a direct result. We’ve got universities that are interested, there are the MOUs that we signed with Israel and the Israeli Development Authority and the EDA here, and we are working on a couple of different projects that are coming up this spring.

There are a couple of major companies, 200-plus employees, that are consider New Jersey very seriously. There is a lot of direct benefit from that trip. A lot of it is going to take time, but we are laying the groundwork.

ROI: Let’s return to the #MeToo movement. One result of the effort is a record number of women now serving in Congress. What does that mean to you?

TM: The fact that we now have two women representing us from the state of New Jersey in Washington, D.C., is incredible. I think (#MeToo) has empowered so many people to have a voice and finding one’s voice in that moment is so important. It has enabled people to find a way to step up and step into the conversation, where, in years past, women would hope it would pass and go away.

After a Women for Progress gala, I looked up the number of female congresswomen who have ever represented New Jersey. Bonnie Watson Coleman was our sixth and Mikie Sherrill is our seventh. There was a woman named Mary Theresa Norton, who was our first representative, from 1925 to 1951. She was working on a lot of things back in the day that we are looking at now. The one I’ve recently referenced was the fact she was fighting for a minimum wage of $12.60 a week. And that was in 1940.

Certain women have always stepped in and been fighting, but I think now they are being taken more seriously.

ROI: Speaking of New Jersey politics: The Murphys are new to it, having never held any elected office before. What has surprised you?

TM: I would say probably the fact that we are sitting in this office (while the State House undergoes renovation). I think we knew we would be in this office for a little while, but the executive side is just strewn all across Trenton. That’s been a challenge.

ROI: What have you found is the key to success?

TM: Everybody here, just like everywhere I go, is trying to do the right thing. It’s just finding the common threads we can all pull together and go in that direction.

Phil’s gotten so much done this year, but he wouldn’t get it done without (Assembly Speaker) Craig Coughlin and (State Senate President) Steve Sweeney and everyone who stands behind him and works with him. There’s a lot that’s been done, but as Phil would say, I’m not spiking the football. We’ve got a long way to go.

ROI: Years to go, in fact. It’s hard to believe this is just Year Two. Looking back at Year One, what was the reality compared to the expectation?

TM: Having never done this before, there is no guidebook to say what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. So, in terms of expectations, I was hopeful that I would be able to help in some way.

Looking back, I’d say our four-person office works really hard and has tried in different ways to be there for Phil and Sheila and for anybody in the administration and beyond. I know it’s a great feeling to be able to meet someone who has an issue and somehow help them find a resolution.

I had few expectations. The reality has been pretty rewarding.