Mark Murphy

Later this June Mark Murphy is taking some students on a field trip; similar to the one he has done every year with previous classes. He will take the 52 students to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, a maximum security facility that holds the state’s most dangerous criminals. It is all part of a two-day seminar on criminal justice, and the 52 students are some of the best and brightest leaders in the state’s business, government, and nonprofit institutions.

Murphy is the president of Lead New Jersey, a nonprofit group that has trained senators and CEOs since 1985. Murphy himself is a 1991 graduate of the program. He will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, June 20, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. Tickets are $40, $25 for chamber members. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Lead NJ was created by then-governor Tom Kean and what Murphy describes as “a group of enlightened business leaders.” The fellowship program lasts all year and consists of 10 monthly two-day seminars covering different policy topics, leadership and skill-building exercises, and case studies. The program is for already-established leaders, and every year about 50 fellows are chosen out of around 75 applicants.

“This isn’t for junior people, this is for executives who have proven themselves not only in their professional lives, but in their civic accomplishments,” Murphy says. Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver is a graduate of the program.

But Lead NJ is more than just a training exercise: the policy ideas developed there have made it into state law. Drug Court, which is an alternative sentencing model for non-violent drug offenses, came out of Lead NJ in the early 1990s. The program that combines probation and substance abuse treatment was introduced into the court system and is now standard practice in both juvenile and adult court. Murphy says it has reduced recidivism for drug offenses. Former governor Chris Christie supported the program and current governor Phil Murphy plans to expand it.

Mark Murphy says another Lead NJ idea that has made it into practice was creating higher standards for early education. Thanks to ideas developed at Lead NJ, New Jersey has the country’s most progressive requirements for what used to be called pre-school, or the education of children starting at age three. “We replaced baby­sitting pre-school with a real curriculum of early language acquisition and math, all age- appropriate,” Murphy says. “LeadNJ was instrumental in exploring early on those reforms.”

Both of those initiatives were supported by both Democrats and Republicans, and nonpartisanship is an important part of the Lead NJ philosophy. Currently, Murphy, says, the group is focused on reforming New Jersey’s finances.

“The toughest issue facing the state is our tax structure,” Murphy says. “The two pieces of that are over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools, and the second one is more of a conversation, but a very active one, which is the governor’s reinstatement and expansion of the so-called millionaire’s tax.”

Lead NJ is also examining Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit economic development group.

Aside from the criminal justice seminar, participants will meet with members of the state legislature to discuss the budget, go to Camden for a firsthand look at education, and meet with venture capitalists and incubator leaders about high tech investment. Murphy says the topics of the seminars are reviewed each year to match the issues of the day, kind of like a college course.

The program is funded through a mix of tuition and private fundraising.

Murphy’s own background is in legislation. He is the son of a Navy commander, so he moved around a lot as a kid but mostly grew up in California. He first came to New Jersey in 1985 to study at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he earned a master’s degree in public affairs in 1987.

In the 1980s he was a member of Senator Ted Kennedy’s staff. He has also worked in state government, and worked at the Department of Human Services, where he helped Governor Tom Kean’s welfare reform project. He joined Lead NJ in 2011. Today he is a senior policy fellow at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers in addition to running Lead NJ.

Murphy sees himself as a political pragmatist who wants to solve problems and is disturbed by today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere. He says that in his senate days, he would frequently sit down with his conservative counterparts to hammer out compromise legislation.

As a former member of the state redistricting commission, Murphy blames the drawing of congressional districts for some of the rancor in modern-day politics. Because lawmakers have successfully created “safe” districts for themselves, general elections have become less competitive and primary elections have gone to more extreme partisans who are less likely to compromise in order to get things done. He says this has made the political system dysfunctional. Gerrymandering also makes citizens feel as if their votes don’t count and causes voters to become disengaged from politics.

All this time, Lead NJ has been training class after class of leaders. There are more than 1,700 graduates, most of them still in the state. And Murphy says it us as necessary now as it was in colonial times because New Jersey faces the same fundamental problem when it comes to developing leadership: ambitious people who live in the state are often drawn to Philadelphia or New York.

“In New Jersey we have this phenomenon that’s a term Ben Franklin coined: the state being like a keg that’s tapped at both ends,” he says. “We needed to focus attention on the needs of the state and educate people who are already here, and to connect them to state leaders.”

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