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NJEA Flexes Its Muscles, Takes on Sweeney

The teachers union faults the Senate president for his stand on public-employee pensions and school funding — and they want to make him pay

sweeney
Senate President Stephen Sweeney

What has 200,000 members, a deep-pocketed super PAC, and one of the most powerful presences in all New Jersey politics?

It’s the New Jersey Education Association, and it’s not to be trifled with.

That’s the apparent message being conveyed by the relevant-as-ever group this election season, as it continues to wield its influence in several state and local races following a hard-fought primary and ahead of a November general election. Through special-interest spending and public endorsements, the group has sought to advance its agenda by aligning itself with both Republicans and Democrats, ultimately making itself known in nearly every corner of the state.

The organization has issued endorsements in 37 out of 40 legislative districts, including one for Democrat Phil Murphy in the state’s high-profile gubernatorial election.

Sweeney’s sin

This year, though, the NJEA initiated a major battle with the state Legislature by taking on its most powerful member, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3). Sweeney’s sin? Relations between them have been rocky for some time, but last year Sweeney refused to put a question on the ballot that would have enacted a constitutional amendment requiring the state to quickly ramp up funding the public-employee pension funds along actuarial calculations.

The NJEA has also faulted Sweeney for his more recent proposal to address the state’s long-unbalanced school funding formula, which would add $125 million in state aid to districts for next year. But it would do so partly by cutting money from overfunded districts and passing it to underfunded ones. The group has rejected any such plan, preferring instead to keep funding as it is.

To get back at Sweeney, the NJEA has thrown its support behind Republican hopeful Fred Grenier in his longshot bid against Sweeney. Both camps have dumped hundreds of thousands into the race in ad buys and other attacks, putting it on track to be one of the most expensive in New Jersey history, with some observers estimating it could hit almost $8 million by the time it’s all over. Grenier is GOP chairman of Salem County and as the Democrats like to point out, a Trump supporter.

Indeed, the fight started out nasty. Garden State Forward, a 517 group funded by the NJEA, spent $317,800 on ads attacking Sweeney in his unopposed primary. Sweeney has his own resources, a super PAC called New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, that was founded in anticipation of Sweeney’s now-defunct gubernatorial run. It has spent $600,000 on broadcast and cable ads since July.

A vicious fight

The battle continues to escalate, and now has become so vicious — and expensive — that it sparked a scathing column by the Star Ledger’s Tom Moran this Sunday, in which he calculated the union leaders’ average compensation at $764,000 and that of its executive director, Ed Richardson, at $1.2 million.

And the fight has now embroiled many members of the Legislature, as 16 of 24 Democratic state Senators earlier this month signed a letter to the NJEA taking issue with its endorsement of Grenier and opposition to Sweeney, saying it is putting state Democratic candidates in jeopardy, as well as its own agenda.

“It’s inappropriate, which is the most positive word I can think of,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a close ally of Sweeney’s and one of the state’s most popular and liberal representatives. She said the group’s grievances are unfounded and Sweeney has ably led the house on many progressive causes, and that the compromises made on things like pension were necessary given Christie’s presence in the front office.

She also added that the group’s move has caused her to lose some respect for its leadership.

“Really to me it’s against Democratic progressive values,” Weinberg said. “They can phrase this anyway they want, but they are working against a centrist to progressive Democrat, a leader who has done a tremendous amount, from marriage equality to supporting a $15 minimum wage to protecting union rights to a whole long list of progressive causes.”

Republican Senator Mike Doherty, who sits on the upper house’s education committee, said that he’s also been encouraged by Sweeney’s recently proposed school-funding reforms, and characterized the NJEA’s actions as obstructionist in nature.

“To the extent that Sen. Sweeney is working toward those issues, I support that,” Doherty said, pointing to what he called an inequitable funding formula, as well as outdated tax abatements in places like Jersey City. “The NJEA doesn’t like some of these changes that have to be made in New Jersey. It looks like they just want “yes” men in the Legislature.”

A big footprint

It’s not out of the ordinary for the NJEA, the state’s largest public union, to play such an active role in political elections. Founded in 1853 to represent teachers’ interests in Trenton, the union has since grown in size and scope to encompass most public school employees in the state, including everyone from custodians to lunch workers. As a result, its financial commitment toward its mission has also grown, to the point at which the group routinely tops the list of special-interest groups in terms of spending in the state.

Between 1999 and 2014 for instance, the organization donated over $57 million to political campaigns, which was more than any other group over the same period, according to an analysis by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

"The NJEA always ranks very highly with regard to interest group spending,” said Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC. “For the last several years we’ve been analyzing that pretty closely, and NJEA is always pretty much at the top of the pack in terms of direct spending, school elections, as well as spending through independent groups.”

“What is different is that they’re getting so involved in specific legislative districts,” Brindle added of the NJEA’s tactics in recent years. He noted the group is backing a host of candidates in the upcoming general, including ones in a few battleground districts.

For example, in the 11th district, the NJEA earlier this summer endorsed Monmouth County Democratic Committee Chairman Vin Gopal, who is looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Jennifer Beck in what could be a close contest. It’s also gotten behind incumbent Assemblyman Chris Brown in the 2nd, where the Republican is gunning to replace late Sen. Jim Whelan.

No easy task

But unseating Sweeney is not going to be easy. The former iron worker has amassed plenty of goodwill among his constituents in the blue-leaning district, which he’s represented since 2002. He has the support of many private- and public-sector unions, most of which — including the electricians local where Grenier used to work — have vowed to supply funds and Get Out the Vote manpower come Election Day. And he has a strong political patron in George Norcross, the South Jersey powerbroker who plays a major role in financing Democratic races in the region.

Grenier, meanwhile, is a Republican who has vocally embraced Gov. Chris Christie and President Donald Trump, two figures whose approvals rating have fallen among New Jersey voters in recent months. He also has considerably less name recognition in the district than Sweeney, though the NJEA is working to change that.

“Steve Sweeney is going to have plenty of money to compete,” Matthew Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall, said. “The amount they’re putting in with Grenier is not going to change his ability to go dollar for dollar with him. He has lots of sources, and as a result I think it’s going to be an ineffective ploy.”

“For an incumbent who is not as connected to and entrenched in his district, like Sweeney, this would be a major problem,” added Ben Dworkin, professor and director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “As it is, this is just a serious problem, because he has to spend millions of dollars defending his seat. He should win, but he has to work harder for it than he has since he first got elected.”

Instead, Sweeney’s struggle is more likely to suck crucial attention and resources away from competitive races in other parts of the state, Hale said. That includes Gopal’s bid in 11th, but also Assemblyman Troy Singleton’s effort to succeed retiring Republican Senator Diane Allen in the 7th.

So what’s the endgame for the NJEA? “The NJEA's strategy is beyond Steve Sweeney,” said Dworkin. “It is about sending a message to everyone in the Legislature that if you cross them, as they believe Sweeney has done, they will come after you.”

Political retribution

While it is unusual, this isn’t the first time the NJEA has targeted a high-ranking politician in an effort to either unseat or inflict some sort of retribution on them for perceived offenses. The most famous example is Senate President John Lynch, who drew the ire of the NJEA after moving to cap teacher salaries in 1991. The union dropped thousands of dollars against the Democrat, though he still wound up winning by a slim margin of 1,800 votes.

There was also their refusal to support Gov. Jim Florio for proposing to limit teacher salaries and benefits two years later, as well as a spat between the group and then-Sen. Matthew Feldman over the public funding of school buses in the ‘60s.

And Sweeney isn’t the only would-be ally the NJEA snubbed this year: they also withheld an endorsement in the 29th district, where state Senator Teresa M. Ruiz is running for re-election against Republican Maria Lopez. Ruiz chairs the Senate education committee, but is also a close Sweeney associate.

“You look back to ‘91 and the John Lynch race, and see he had to spend huge amounts of money, work hard as he's ever worked to retain his seat,” Dworkin said. “But this is politics, it's a full-contact sport. We should not be suprised that these kinds of fights happen.”

Breach of trust

Still, the top Democrat’s battle has perhaps been more public than any of those. The NJEA took Sweeney’s action on the ballot question as a breach of trust, and responded by threatening to withhold campaign contributions to Democratic candidates across the state. That led Sweeney to accuse the organization of extorting him and asking state and federal authorities to investigate, though the call was largely seen as being overblown.

Grenier’s surprise endorsement in June can be seen as the culmination of those frustrations. The former PSEG nuclear supervisor was the only candidate to appear before the NJEA’s political action committee’s screening meeting, where he earned the unanimous backing of its trustees. In a statement, then-president Wendell Steinhauer defended the choice, arguing that “voters in LD3 are ready for change.”

Newly elected NJEA president Marie Blistan took it further, responding to the letter of support for Sweeney by saying “It is not NJEA’s responsibility to protect the career of a politician whose serial dishonesty, frequent betrayals and long history of partnership with Gov. Christie on anti-worker, harmful legislation has revealed him to be unworthy of our members’ support. Our responsibility is to support the candidate who participated in our screening process and earned our members’ endorsement.”

Dworkin said the NJEA is likely to experience some blowback from the move, particularly from those disapproving lawmakers in the Legislature. Should Murphy win the governorship, Democrats will have free reign to tackle a whole host of legislative issues next year, including the school funding formula and pensions.

“Assuming Sweeney wins, I'm sure the NJEA will suffer various slights over the coming legislative session,” he said. “There are plenty of ways to box them out.”

Member loyalty

Still, there's the undeniable presence of the NJEA in the state, which means that any backlash the group might incur from this latest play will only be temporary. Dworkin notes that the group bounced back from their targeting of John Lynch in the ‘90s, despite the fact that the move also was viewed unfavorably by lawmakers and other onlookers at the time.

“The fact is that they have 200,000 members, all scattered across the entire state. It's hard to imagine they don't exist,” Dworkin said.

Then there are those in the Legislature today who themselves view the standoff as a natural reaction to Sweeney’s decision as senate president. Several Democratic senators did not join in the caucus’ letter of support, among them lawmakers who’ve had more icy relations with Sweeney.

“It’s politics,” said state Senator and former Gov. Richard Codey. “If you’re anti-teacher, the NJEA is going to be anti-you. If you’re anti-fireman or anti-policeman, then those organizations are going to be anti-you. That’s all it is.”

Chase Brush is a freelance writer and editor based in the greater New York area. He is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and Rutgers University alumnus.

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