Why Murphy can get key meetings — and then shine in them

Governor’s foreign policy and business experience (as well his personality) shined in meetings with top political leaders on all 3 stops on East Asia Economic Mission trip to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan

As the clock ticked closer to the end of the 15 minutes that South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol had set aside for the New Jersey delegation last Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy began offering thanks and gratitude for the brief opportunity to talk and take pictures. After all, you never want to overstay your welcome.

As it turned out, Yoon didn’t want the meeting to end so quickly.

In a comment that sent his security team and diplomatic assistants scrambling, Yoon asked the Murphys if they wanted to go upstairs, take a tour of the recently renovated Yongsan presidential office and see its amazing view of the city.

Suddenly, a 15-minute meet-and-greet became a 45-minute visit — one that was conversational and congenial. The governor and first lady Tammy Murphy — as they always seem to do — had made a connection.

Wes Mathews. (File photo)

No one has a greater appreciation of this than Choose New Jersey CEO Wes Mathews, who formerly served around the globe as a State Department official.

“I have seen a lot of governors in several of the countries I’ve served, but I haven’t seen a governor that’s not only able to make the case for the state he represents, but also make a personal connection,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

And no easy feat.

Meetings with foreign leaders are short and ceremonial. Even the most accomplished of political leaders can fumble the moment, Mathews said.

“There’s a lot of pressure there,” he said. “You have limited time and you’ve got to make your case. You want to be able to discuss your state and how it connects to the country, but it has to be more than that.

“You’ve got to make sure the leader feels comfortable with you.”

Mathews said the governor and first lady did just that throughout the 2023 New Jersey East Asia Economic Mission that was sponsored (and fully paid for) by Choose New Jersey and ended Sunday.

In addition to the extended stay in South Korea, there was the first lady speaking extensively in Japanese to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen immediately referenced a dinner they had together earlier this year in the U.S., helping to turn a formal meeting into a more friendly conversation. And one that was conducted entirely in English — showing how comfortable the Taiwanese leader was.

To be clear, Murphy brings a lot of value in the eyes of their hosts.

In addition to being governor of one of the states that is a large trading partner with the areas of Asia the trip visited (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), New Jersey also has a large community from each of the areas.

And, while Murphy’s quick wit and larger-than-life personality are pluses, the fact that he was an ambassador to a G7 country (Germany) means a lot — as does the fact he successfully ran a global business in Asia (making contacts in the Pacific Rim during his time at Goldman Sachs).

There also is a belief that his connection to President Joe Biden is perhaps stronger than many other governors, due to the fact that they come from neighboring states.

These are just some of the reasons why Murphy got some meetings that other prominent governors did not.

Once in the room, Mathews said, the governor excels. He feels Murphy’s experience as an ambassador brings comfort and context to foreign affairs, whether it be specifically the situations in Israel and Ukraine or a big-picture perspective of the support the U.S. gives its allies.

“Having been a U.S. ambassador, he has a deep interest in foreign policy and foreign affairs,” Mathews said. “He understands how this works better than most, and I think that helps tremendously in these interactions.”

When the conversation turns to trade — whether it be Fortune 500 companies or startups — Murphy is able to pivot, too, Mathews said.

“The governor obviously is the best salesman in the state has probably ever had,” he said.

In the end, the meetings are mainly about getting the next meeting — and you have to make a connection to do that.

Mathews said the end of the meetings told the true story of how they went.

In South Korea, Yoon walked the Murphys all the way to the door — or farther than protocol dictates.

In Taiwan, Tsai literally went steps farther.

“She not only walked them to her door, but she stepped outside and basically helped them into the governor’s vehicle as she said her good-byes.

“That is when you know a connection has been made.”