In Man-Bites-Dog Scenario, Christie Visits NJEA for Endorsement

John Mooney | March 18, 2013 | Education
Just by showing up for interview, governor demonstrates how his relationship with union has evolved

The fact that Gov. Chris Christie didn’t win the New Jersey Education Association’s endorsement for governor this weekend wasn’t all that unexpected.

The surprise was that he participated in the process at all.

Four years after Christie sent a public letter rather than showing up for his pitch to the NJEA, the governor walked across West State St. in Trenton — right on time for his 6:30 appointment.

In what was described as a cordial back and forth, Christie spent 45 minutes in front of the 15 union leaders who make up the screening committee, responding to probing questions about everything from pensions to teacher evaluation.

Ultimately, the union’s PAC picked the Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), by a unanimous vote of its 130-member operating committee.

“It’s a very democratic process, with a small ‘d’,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the executive director of the PAC and the union’s chief lobbyist. “The decision is not made by a small group of people in a room, but we have a lot of different voices in that room.”

It has typically been a big “D” process, too, at least for governor. The union has almost exclusively endorsed Democratic candidates for at least the past 20 years. (It sat out the 1992 race between Christie Whitman and James Florio, and endorsed Gov. Thomas Kean once before that.)

And whether the union and its ample coffers and army of 195,000 members can help Buono against the long odds the polls says she faces, will be among the NJEA’s biggest challenges yet.

In announcing the endorsement, NJEA president Barbara Keshishian made clear that Christie still is antithetical to the union on a number of issues he is pressing.

“It’s time for a new set of priorities in Trenton,” Keshishian said in a statement. “Barbara Buono is listening to the middle class and the state’s 10 percent unemployed, and their concerns will be heard when she is elected.
“Barbara Buono rejects the misplaced priorities of the past — priorities like tax cuts for millionaires while blocking an increase in the minimum wage; shortchanging public schools while allowing property taxes to increase by 20 percent; and demanding taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools while underfunding public schools by billions of dollars,” Keshishian said.

The Christie campaign said it wasn’t counting on the endorsement, either. But the fact that Christie showed up for the interview at all spoke volumes about the narrowed distance between the union and the governor.

“We had zero expectation of getting their endorsement given the differences of opinion on key areas of government spending,” said Michael DuHaime, Christie’s political strategist, in an email last night. “That said, there has been a constructive dialogue over the past year, and we hope it can continue.”

There are plenty of differences still, and the Christie administration’s backing of online charter schools and the imposition of a new teacher evaluation system could rekindle the tensions.

But the two sides also sat together on the new teacher tenure law, and the heat of the rhetoric has clearly cooled.

“There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity . . . For the governor to come to the NJEA and sit and talk with us.” Gold said. “There’s a lot of water under the bridge, but it’s not lost on me where we are now.”