“I was so focused on having Phil win, and then I got so focused on having him succeed, that anytime anybody says ‘First lady’ I’m like, ‘What?’” says the wife of Governor Phil Murphy. She peeks over her shoulder in mock disbelief that Mary Pat Christie or some other political wife isn’t lurking behind her.
Tammy Murphy, 52, is hardly the “Who, me?” type. In fact, since her husband took office in January, she’s been accused of being the opposite. In February, a headline at NJ.com asked, “Is Tammy Murphy the most powerful first spouse in NJ history?”—hinting that she might like to be. Other reports have suggested she is Jersey’s first gubernatorial spouse to claim a Trenton office of her own down the hall from her husband’s, where she might craft her own agenda. But Murphy is quick to correct the record. Other first ladies, she points out during an interview at Drumthwacket, the historic governor’s mansion in Princeton, have had offices within shouting distance of the governor’s. What’s more, she adds, her staff of three, including a policy advisor, is typical for the position. “I’ve inherited the same structure.”
Murphy, it’s clear, would like it to be known that she is not out to upend life in the governor’s suite. At the same time, New Jersey should not expect the Virginia native (born Tammy Jean Snyder) to spend the next four years doting on her husband—or, as one former first-lady (turned presidential candidate) she’s been compared to once put it, “sitting here, some little woman standing by her man like Tammy Wynette.”
Before Phil Murphy, the millionaire former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, was elected in November on his platform of raising the minimum wage, lowering property taxes and fixing New Jersey’s hobbled infrastructure, his wife was carving a name for herself in environmental circles. Al Gore picked her to be a founding member of his Climate Reality Project in 2006 and has been re-upping her three-year term as secretary of the organization ever since.
But so far, she hasn’t had much of a chance to piece together an environment-focused battle plan for New Jersey. Instead, “I’m getting pulled in a bunch of directions I hadn’t anticipated,” she says.
Fortunately for her, and maybe for New Jersey, Murphy is used to multitasking, which comes with the territory of being the mother of four children. The Murphys are parents to Josh, 20, a student at Trinity College; Emma, 18, a high school graduate currently on a gap year; Charlie, 16, a junior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; and Sam, 14, who attends the Ranney School. It’s helpful that Murphy has long considered herself a generalist. She tends to do her best work when she wanders into a new field almost accidentally, not quite knowing what to expect.
“When Phil and I first got married and moved to Germany in 1994, it so took my breath away, because everybody recycled and took their own bags to the store,” she says of her awakening to environmentalism. “That was the first moment when I kind of took a step back and said, maybe we should be paying attention.” The moment led to her partnership with Gore. Even her start in banking was a fluke. In college, at the University of Virginia, she studied English and communications. But she ended up at Goldman Sachs because, in the pre-online-networking year of 1987, her job search technique was dropping resumes into random recruiters’ mailboxes.
“There were lots of investment bankers interviewing back then,” she says. She impressed them with a communication grad’s recently acquired skills. “You have to be able to read, write and speak to do anything,” she says. Almost instantly, she went from studying Chaucer and Marshall McLuhan to crunching numbers as a Goldman Sachs analyst. The job also put her on track to meet her future husband. After first meeting at the University of Virginia, the Murphys crossed paths briefly at the company’s U.S. offices in 1987, but sparks wouldn’t fly until several years later, when she was working in London and Phil was heading up Goldman Sachs operations in Germany.
The year was 1993. “He came over to London to have dinner with a mutual friend,” Murphy says. That led to a brief correspondence, and then the kind of romance she describes as “not for the faint of heart.” In January 1994, they went on their first date. “We got engaged 18 days later,” she says. Six months after that, they married.
The Murphys have been jointly advancing their shared Democratic values ever since, from Phil’s 2009 to 2013 service as U.S. ambassador to Germany under Barack Obama to their current posts as crusaders for New Jersey’s fiscally frustrated and otherwise marginalized. Murphy didn’t settle for a seat on the political sidelines during her husband’s run for governor, speaking at rallies and helping head up the fundraising team instead. Her friend Dorothea Bongiovi, wife of Jon Bon Jovi, remembers her tirelessness during the campaign.
“She has incredible energy,” Bongiovi says. “I don’t even know how she kept going. I would have to tell her, ‘Tammy, take a nap. Eat a sandwich.’ She and Phil both are the kind of people where, if they have anything less than 55 things scheduled in a single day, it’s unacceptable.” As for intimations that Tammy may be too involved, Bongiovi says, “How can you live somewhere and not be involved? We’ve known Phil and Tammy for 15 years, and they’re both so committed to their community. You have to be a smart woman to keep up with Phil, and she’s very smart.”
Murphy says her husband has taken to telling people that “it’s a two-for-one deal with us.” In other words, they’re in the governorship together. But she adds a disclaimer: “I just want to help.” She says that if her efforts are “additive,” she won’t care about suspicions that she’s coming on too strong. “But if what I’m doing is going to be a burden to anyone else, I would care.”
It’s hard to imagine that the causes Murphy has embraced since her husband took office would render her burdensome. One issue is the role of race in maternal and childhood mortality. “If you’re a black mother in New Jersey, you’re more than five times as likely to die in your child’s first year as a white mother,” she says. “If you are a black child born in New Jersey, you are three times more likely to die in your first year than a white child is. We’re 47th out of 50th in the country in terms of disparity between black and white infants and mothers who die in the first year. That’s obviously unacceptable.”
So are other problems she’s learning to care about, like the opioid crisis. “I’m starting to realize that your zip code counts a lot in this world,” she says, meaning that poverty can be crippling, if not fatal, for residents of neighborhoods plagued by it.
Murphy’s own zip code, of course, is far removed from the tentacles of poverty. Since 2000, the family has lived in Middletown, in Monmouth County. They picked the town partly for its proximity to the beach—asked what’s best about New Jersey, Murphy quickly replies, “First of all, the Shore”—and partly for its character. “It’s not full of itself, and it’s got a lot going on.”
Still, Murphy is energized by what she sees as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help fix New Jersey. “We have so much potential as a state for economic growth, for workforce development, for infrastructure modernization, for environmental impact,” she says. “We’ve just got to pull together.”
How she can help is something she’s still working out. Role models like Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, whom Murphy identifies as her nearest mentor, are helpful. “She’s got her head screwed on and she goes after things,” Murphy says.
Asked about other role models, she names her daughter first, for what she calls maturity and spunk. “But Phil,” she adds, “is probably my biggest and best role model. He’s the one who really encourages me in life. He says, ‘Go out there and do it.’ He’s always been like that.”
Among first ladies, Murphy says she admires Michelle Obama, who she got to know when her husband was ambassador. “She’s very real,” she says. “I like the way she handled herself. She did a phenomenal job.”
It’s still early on in her own tenure as first lady, but Murphy is already courting admirers among New Jersey’s political heavyweights.
“She seems to have deep passion, and she has enormous impact,” says former governor Christie Todd Whitman. “When you’re first lady, people have to answer your phone calls. If she would take up open-space preservation in the most densely populated state in the nation, that would be a wonderful thing. I think she can really influence that.”
Another former governor, Richard Codey, has known Murphy since his own tenure in the State House from 2004-2006, when he recruited Phil Murphy to help untangle a health-care issue. He compared the new first lady to Eleanor Roosevelt for her commitment to public service. He expects she’ll be remembered for her determination and heart.
“I saw in the Ledger that people are taking a shot or two at her,” he says, referring to the “most powerful first spouse” story. “But she’s someone who understands the issues. She has a right to be involved in certain causes. If New Jersey takes the time to get to know her, they’re going to appreciate her.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor, now known as “the other Tammy.”Click here to leave a comment