The political spending by the New Jersey Education Association is no secret anymore, with the latest numbers — in the tens of millions — continuing to astound.
A new report by the state’s election finance commission tallied more than $57 million spent by the teachers union on political campaigns and lobbying in the past decade and a half — more than double its nearest rival.
And a third of that total came last year alone for the election of the governor and the entire Legislature — more than four times the next-highest spender.
But with that money always comes the question as to whether the NJEA is getting the same political bang for its buck anymore, especially under a combative administration led by Gov. Chris Christie.
Even the union’s chief lobbyist, Ginger Gold Schnitzer, said the challenges couldn’t be steeper for the 190,000-member union, with rollbacks in teacher pensions and benefits, and new requirements for teacher tenure and evaluation.
But Schnitzer said the union has won some key victories and has little choice but to press its cause, no matter how expensive. She points to several other states where unions have seen far bigger losses.
“If we weren’t out there advocating at these levels, I don’t know where we’d be,” she said. “Look at Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina. That’s where we’d be.”
Some outside observers say the union is unlikely to have lost much clout, even if arguably losing a couple battles.
“When you have a large association like they do, mostly college educated, who feel they face a hostile governor, they are going to demand you respond even if it won’t necessarily have much impact,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“There is a demand for spending when you are under attack,” he said.
Still, he said there is no doubt the union remains a big force in Trenton and elsewhere, especially with its membership active “in every town and district, from Cape May to Mahwah.”
“Some would like to discount them, but because of those resources, they remain a player,” Dworkin said. ‘They were in the room with the tenure law negotiations, they were at the bill signing.”
The sheer dominance in spending is hard to argue.
The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission released a report yesterday that listed the election and other political spending of the state’s major organizations and industries, and it wasn’t even close for the teachers union’s rivals.
For the first time, the annual report also included both so-called independent expenditures and lobbying expenses, and ELEC reported that the NJEA overall had spent more than $57 million since 1999. That was more than double the amount for the second on the list, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and affiliates.
And while the NJEA’s campaign spending in that time was actually third to the IBEW and the New Jersey State Laborers unions, its $24 million in lobbying expenses dwarfed the competition. Next highest was Verizon, the telecom giant, at $11 million.
“NJEA is considered a powerhouse in Trenton, and for good reason,” Jeffrey Brindle, director of ELEC, said in announcing the report. “Few special interest groups come close to matching its financial clout.”
Some raised the question as to whether the NJEA’s prominence has possibly strained its standing with other labor unions.
“In some ways, they have over-succeeded,” said Joe Williams, executive director of the Democrats for Education Reform, a New York advocacy group, and a longtime follower of teacher unions nationwide.
“Their relationship with Christie is not as much of a problem for the NJEA,” he said, “as their relationship with other labor groups and Democratic leaders like [Senate President] Steve Sweeney.”
Schnitzer discounted that, saying the NJEA worked closely with other unions, including in the last election. “We have never said we can do this alone,” she said. “Maybe because we are so big, people count on us to do a lot, but we have always sought to work collaboratively.”