In a highly unusual move, the state Legislature’s top Democratic official, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, took a big swing yesterday at New Jersey’s most powerful public employee union, the New Jersey Education Association.
It left many questioning Sweeney’s political strategy, as it is an open secret that he plans to run for governor next year in what is expected to be a very tough primary fight.
Sweeney (D-Gloucester) accused officials at the NJEA and a top police-union representative of bribery, saying they’ve threatened to hold back campaign contributions unless the Senate moves within the next few days to ensure a proposed constitutional amendment seeking voter approval of beefed-up state pension contributions makes it onto the ballot this fall.
The longtime Senate leader also sent letters to both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office to report alleged intimidation tactics by the teachers’ union that he said “cross the line from lobbying to attempted bribery and conspiracy.” In addition to lobbing accusations at NJEA officials, Sweeney said the president of the state Fraternal Order of Police left him a voicemail in recent days making clear that future campaign contributions are at stake.
“I think laws have been violated,” Sweeney said during a news conference at the State House yesterday.
The NJEA issued a statement later in the day saying it has done nothing wrong by informing lawmakers of its major priorities. A message left for FOP President Robert Fox seeking his response to Sweeney’s accusations was not returned.
Sweeney’s taking-on of the NJEA and other labor unions runs counter to political convention for a Democrat with gubernatorial aspirations in New Jersey. And Sweeney himself is an official with an ironworkers’ union.
The unions are a core Democratic constituency and reliable campaign funders. For example, in the 2016 Assembly contest, public unions were credited with helping Democrats build on an already impressive majority. Thus, in a Democratic Party primary, winning union support – and campaign contributions — can be the deciding factor.
Despite his union credentials, Sweeney has had an uneven history with the public-sector unions. He upset those unions after working closely with Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican, on a major public-worker benefits-reform law in 2011. But he also won back some favor after introducing the proposed pension-funding amendment that’s now at issue.
Sweeney’s news conference yesterday came just days after he and other senators were loudly booed by public workers who packed the Senate chambers in anticipation of final approval for the proposed amendment, which calls for language to be added to the state constitution to require within a few years that the full state pension contributions calculated by actuaries be made on an annual basis.
Getting that amendment adopted has become a key priority for the unions following Christie’s decision in 2014 to walk away from a specific payment schedule that was spelled out in the 2011 law, which is often referred to as Chapter 78. The same law forced the workers to contribute more toward their pensions, something they’re still doing even as the state has been making only partial employer payments.
But Sweeney did not put the amendment up for a vote during Monday’s Senate session, saying it has unfortunately been dragged into the ongoing impasse with Christie over renewing the state’s nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund. Without knowing how the transportation-funding stalemate will be resolved, and at what cost, Sweeney said it would be irresponsible to put the amendment on the ballot if the state can’t afford to fund it.
Christie has insisted that Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) adopt a significant sales-tax cut along with a 23-cent gas-tax increase that they all agree should be enacted to bring in more money for transportation projects. The two legislative leaders have instead offered to pass a more modest package of targeted tax cuts along with the gas-tax hike.
The cost of Christie’s proposed sales-tax cut is estimated to be $1.6 billion, much more than the projected $900 million price tag of the plan backed by Sweeney and Prieto.
If the amendment doesn’t get passed by the Senate by August 8, a deadline set in the state constitution, there is no way the ballot question will go before voters this year. Still, Sweeney said yesterday he remains committed to putting the amendment up for a vote once the TTF issue is resolved. He said he also fears the pension amendment could fail if it is put before voters with no TTF deal in place.
On Tuesday, the day after the vote was shelved Politico New Jersey reported that NJEA officials had started calling county Democratic Party leaders to let them know campaign contributions would stop flowing from the union unless the pension amendment made it onto the ballot this year. A www.northjersey.com story said state Democratic Party Chairman John Currie received a similar warning.
Sweeney, during the news conference yesterday, also pointed to the message left for him by Fox, the police union official. He went on to cite both state and federal anti-bribery laws, as well as a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on a corruption case involving the former governor of Virginia that he said specifically referred to what constitutes bribery.
According to the Supreme Court ruling, the federal statute “makes it a crime for ‘a public official or person selected to be a public official, directly or indirectly, corruptly’ to demand, seek, receive, accept, or agree ‘to receive or accept anything of value’ in return for being ‘influenced in the performance of any official act.’” The ruling also said “an ‘official act’ is defined as ‘any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity.’”
Sweeney took offense to what he called bullying by the union officials. But he also said the linking of the vote on the pension amendment to campaign contributions goes beyond simple free speech or lobbying.
“I’m blown away that they could make these kinds of threats,” Sweeney said.
But Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the NJEA, said Sweeney previously promised to get the pension amendment on the November ballot. And Steinhauer stressed that political contributions are made on a voluntary basis. “We have a responsibility to use our members’ voluntary political contributions to support their priorities,” Steinhauer said. “NJEA has simply informed legislators and party officials that we are withholding support that we are under no obligation to give.”
One of Sweeney’s expected opponents in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial contest took immediate advantage of the blow-up yesterday; Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, posted on social media that “a commitment is a commitment.”
Though only Democrat Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, has formally declared his candidacy, Sweeney and Fulop are widely expected to eventually join the 2017 race. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and former state Democratic Party Chair Tom Byrne are also possible candidates.
When asked if he was making a poor political decision by taking on the NJEA, Sweeney responded “who knows?”
Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political science professor and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said that at first blush Sweeney’s move would seem to be a bad one headed into the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But, he said, too much is unknown about how the race will shape up to say definitively that it will be bad for Sweeney.
“It doesn’t have to be a negative in the primary,” Dworkin said. He noted that former Democratic state senator Barbara Buono, even with the NJEA’s full support in 2013, was unable to beat Christie. He said, “It really depends on who you’re running against. It depends on what the issues are at the moment.”