Murphy talks commission: ‘We need folks who have seen it all, done it all, from a different angle’

File photo Gov. Phil Murphy at a COVID-19 briefing.

When the state comes out of this — when it recovers from the health emergency that only a pandemic can cause — Gov. Phil Murphy wants to make sure all aspects of economic, cultural and social life in New Jersey have been thought through.

It’s why he made sure someone such as Evelyn McGee Colbert, founding board member and president of Montclair Film and vice president of Spartina Productions, is on the blue-ribbon Restart and Recovery Commission he announced Tuesday.

“I could go through and comment about each and every one of them, but Eve’s bias obviously is in the arts,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re not just America’s leading STEM state, but continue to be America’s leading STEAM state, when the dust settles.”

STEM represents science, technology, engineering and math, while STEAM adds an “A” for arts.

Murphy, responding to a question from Daniel Munoz of NJBIZ, gave a deeper explanation for the role he sees the commission playing during his daily COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

“What am I looking for from these folks is wisdom,” he said. “And counsel.

“We’re going through something that none of us have ever gone through before, and we’re doing our best. I think we’ve used an analogy that many have used: We don’t see a light switch, we see sort of a dimmer switch getting turned on gradually. And we need as much input and advice — particularly from a variety of perspectives.”

Such as the ones McGee Colbert brings. Or those of Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“Neera runs one of the most important think tanks in our country and has been explicitly and particularly good herself, not just her organization, at how to deal with this pandemic,” Murphy said. “Everything from how do you shut down to how do you reopen. She and her team have been unusually good on this.”

File photos
Commission co-Chairs Ken Frazier and Shirley Tilghman.

Murphy’s commission, which is co-chaired by Merck Chair and CEO Ken Frazier and former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, has as much gravitas as any commission the state has ever formed.

There’s a former chairman of the Federal Reserve board, Ben Bernanke; a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson; a former head of homeland security, Jeh Johnson; and a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rich Besser. Not to mention a host of other heavyweights from the New Jersey business world (listed below).

Murphy said the group’s collective wisdom is needed.

“I can say definitely we’re not close to having all the answers,” he said. “As great as the team is I’m honored to go to work with every day, we need folks who have — in many cases — seen it all, done it all, from a different angle.

“I would just say each of the members of this commission brings something very specific and very — I would use the word exceptional — to the group.”

Murphy said the group will not be paid. That no one passed on the chance to participate. And that it could have been exponentially larger. Keeping it this size meant leaving a lot of talented people off.

“No one turned us down; I’m honored by that,” he said. “And we could have had a commission that was multiples of the one we have. So, we pick our spots and make sure we felt comfortable not just with the people, but that it was a manageable size.”

The list is absent health care leaders — but that was done by design, Murphy said. He said he and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli meet with the state’s top health care leaders on an almost daily basis.

Those leaders, he said, are part of the first initiative — finding health care solutions.

This group, he said, is to look at the final two steps of his previously announced six-step program: “The Road Back: Restoring Economic Health through Public Health.”

This commission, Murphy said, will be charged with looking at the state’s big-picture future after the health care issues are handled the best they can be.

“We need a lot of help with the, ‘OK, now you get that in place, what does it look like then?’” he asked, then answered. “Not just your economic recovery, but (our) resiliency. How are (we) going to deal with, by example, the lack of capacities that we had or these racial and social inequities that we’re discussing literally almost every day.”

A tough challenge for sure.

Here’s a look at the complete commission:


  • Ken Frazier, Merck chairman and CEO;
  • Shirley Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton University and professor of molecular biology & public policy.

Sitting members

  • Ben Bernanke, former two-term chair of the Federal Reserve and distinguished fellow in residence with the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution;
  • Rich Besser, CEO and president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
  • Evelyn McGee Colbert, founding board member and president of Montclair Film, and vice president of Spartina Productions;
  • Tony Coscia, chairman of Amtrak, partner and executive committee member of Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf, and chairman of Suez North America Inc.;
  • Jessica Gonzalez, founder and CEO of InCharged and founder of Experience VendX.
  • Jonathan Holloway, incoming Rutgers University president;
  • Lisa Jackson, vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives at Apple Inc. and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama;
  • Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security under Obama, and partner at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP;
  • Charlie Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial Inc.;
  • Denise Morrison, founder of Denise Morrison & Associates, senior adviser for PSP Partners and former CEO and president of Campbell Soup Co.;
  • Bill Rodgers, professor of public policy and chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor;
  • Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund;
  • The Rev. Dr. Regena Thomas, director of the Human Rights and Community Relations Department of the American Federation of Teachers and former New Jersey secretary of state;
  • Richard Trumka, national president of the AFL-CIO.

Ex-officio members

  • Sheila Oliver, lieutenant governor;
  • Judith Persichilli, health commissioner;
  • George Helmy, chief of staff;
  • Matt Platkin, chief counsel;
  • Kathleen Frangione, chief policy adviser.

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