Teachers Union — and Its Money — Helped Shape Outcome of Assembly Races

John Mooney | November 6, 2015 | Education
NJEA poured millions into Democratic candidates' campaigns, didn’t back even one Republican

njea convention
Gov. Chris Christie may claim in places like New Hampshire and Iowa that he has tamed New Jersey’s public employee unions, but you wouldn’t have known it from the smile on the face of one union’s leader.

“We had a terrific week,” said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, as his union gathered yesterday for its annual convention in Atlantic City. “Nobody can ruin this week for me.”

Steinhauer was referring to the NJEA’s little-noticed but quite successful campaign push in Tuesday’s election. With all 80 state Assembly seats on the ballot, New Jersey’s Democrats – helped considerably by $4 million the NJEA spent on behalf of their campaigns – added four seats to the majority they already had in the lower house.

The NJEA was all in for the Democrats this year. For the first time in recent memory, the union did not endorse a single Republican. But the union also insisted that it wasn’t party affiliation that mattered.
“We would have liked to endorse a Republican,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s head of government relations and director of the NJEA’s PAC.

“The reason the Republicans weren’t endorsed was that none of them stood up and voted for the five-seventh pension payment,” she said, referring to the proposed $3.1 billion payment of five-seventh of the state’s obligation. “The rubber met the road on the pension payment. This election for the NJEA was very much about one thing: It was about candidates keeping promises.”

The Republicans had their own take, of course, saying that the NJEA and other unions poured money into races where the GOP couldn’t match the opposition’s spending. And Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said that spending showed where the union’s true heart resides.

“What is the goal of the special-interest money?” Bramnick said at a State House news conference yesterday, adding that it didn’t appear to be about education.

The NJEA’s election money came in two streams: from the NJEA-backed independent PAC, Garden State Forward; and the union’s own PAC.

Garden State Forward, which spent a whopping $18 million on the gubernatorial and legislative races two years ago, this time came back with about $3.8 million.

[related]Much of it went through General Majority, the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic PAC that spent heavily on the tight races in the 1st District and 2nd District. Garden State Forward also spent directly on contested races in Districts 11 and 38, as well as in District 14, which wasn’t so close. A media buy of $250,000 came in the final days of the race in District 11, where the Democrats’ picked up a seat.

“We did very well where we put our resources,” Schnitzer said.

Edward Richardson, executive director of the NJEA, said the decision on how to allocate the money was a strategic one.

“It really had to do with what our partners were interested in doing, and where we felt we had some gaps,” he said. “It’s about economy of scale. It was in District 1 and 2, and [General Majority] also played in 11 and 38. Collectively, you have access to so much more expertise than we could buy on our own.”

“And we wanted to supplement that,” he continued. “We wanted to shore up 14.And even in 38, we made a decision to do some stuff up there on our own.”

The union’s own PAC spent another $500,000, Schnitzer said, focusing on the 14th District and the 38th District.

Despite early predictions of a tight race, the 38th turned out to be a sweep for the Democrats. District 14 was never seen as close, but Schnitzer said the union didn’t want to take it for granted.

“That’s always been a battleground district, and they’ve been among our biggest supporters,” she said.
Schnitzer and other union officials said it wasn’t just dollars that made a difference in the Assembly races, as she said NJEA members have been proven to be more likely to vote but also put in time working for the endorsed candidates.

“Our members were so mobilized,” she said. “What I will remember most about this election is the level of engagement. This may have been the lowest turnout in history, but members were never more passionate in this election.”

Added Richardson: “You can provide all the air cover you want, but in the end, that is where these things are won and lost. Our members were clearly charged up and out there working.”

As for what the election results might portend for the 2017 gubernatorial election, Richardson said it is too early to tell. “It sends a message right now, and we’ll see how that resonates. Two years from now is a whole ‘nother game, another set of factors.”