Its influence both symbolic and real, the New Jersey Education Association’s PAC this weekend finalized the last of the powerful union’s political endorsements for the November legislative races — with some notable picks and some notable omissions.
Overall, the endorsements by the 125-member PAC committee skewed far to the Democratic side, following a historical pattern for the teachers union that leans both to Democratic issues and also to incumbents. Just seven of nearly 100 endorsements went to Republicans.
“As we finally exit the Christie era and work to rebuild our state, it is imperative that we elect pro-public education and pro-public employee candidates,” said NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer in announcing the endorsements.
Exceptions to the rule
But there were a couple of notable exceptions. In one of the state’s most closely watched races, the union’s PAC endorsed Republican Chris Brown for the District 2 Senate seat, picking him over Democrat Colin Bell to replace outgoing Sen. Jeff Whelan, a Democrat.
The union also chose not to endorse in District 29 state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee and its most influential senator when it comes to education matters.
Although it did endorse her in 2013, the union has had a hot-and-cold relationship with Ruiz in the past four years, especially about student testing and the state’s continued use of the PARCC assessment.
This comes after the high-profile snub this spring of state Senate President Steve Sweeney, when the PAC in May endorsed his Republican challenger Fran Grenier.
The NJEA and Sweeney have a long-running and often-ugly battle over his positions on pension reform and school funding, all of which has only heightened of late. The NJEA even ran ads against the senator in his uncontested primary in June, and now it is siding with a long-shot Republican – and vocal supporter of President Donald Trump – to unseat the veteran Senate president.
“Who voted for what president doesn’t affect the lives of our members as much as one’s positions on pensions and how he would fund our public schools,” said Ginger Gold-Schnitzer, the NJEA’s chief lobbyist, in defending the endorsement.
How much the NJEA’s endorsements matter is open for debate, especially when it looks as if there will be little turnover of incumbents and an unlikely shift in power. And the union certainly has its detractors for its positions on both education and labor issues.
But in a close race, there is no doubt the union can carry considerable weight through both its campaign spending and the activism of its 200,000 members.
In the highest-profile endorsement of the year and one that will bring considerable resources to bear, the union’s PAC in May picked Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy.
The PAC process
It’s a pretty cumbersome process, too, involving a lengthy review and interview in each legislative district before the recommendations come before the statewide committee.
The union in each district assembles an 11-member committee to vet the candidates, and candidates who don’t participate in the process — either answering questions or sitting for an interview — are not even considered for endorsement.
This year, both state Sens. Brian Stack and Bob Smith — both powerful Democrats — chose not to participate, union officials said.
The NJEA has what it terms nine “standards” for consideration, encompassing voting record and views on education and labor issues, leadership positions within the Legislature, accessibility to the union’s members, and electability.
On Saturday, the committee met for more than three hours in the New Brunswick Hilton to hear the recommendations and finalize the picks.
The following are the endorsements: