The 2020 election isn’t here yet but NJEA casts its ballot for 2021 race

No surprise the union backed Phil Murphy for governor. News is how early they did it
NJEA executive committee meeting with Gov. Phil Murphy by Zoom on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

The 2021 election cycle for New Jersey governor hasn’t even started yet, but the state’s most powerful union is making sure everyone knows where it stands, nonetheless.

The political action committee of the New Jersey Education Association, representing 200,000 teachers, school staff and retirees, announced in an evening news release this week that it had endorsed Gov. Phil Murphy in the Democratic primary.

That was hardly surprising, given the long alliance between the two. But not mentioned was that the primary does not take place until next June. And Murphy doesn’t even have a challenger at this point.

But no matter, as the union has done this before; it endorsed Murphy in 2016 on Oct. 8 — helping to set the early tone for that primary before the hard campaigning even started. For a host of reasons, potential challengers Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop subsequently withdrew.

“This seems to be the new normal for NJEA — make your gubernatorial primary endorsement in October,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. “It allows them to start spending on the governor’s behalf immediately, and the upcoming race for governor pretty much begins the moment the presidential race is decided.”

While some names have been rumored as potential Democratic candidates, Dworkin said he didn’t expect much of an intra-party challenger at this point, regardless of the NJEA’s endorsement.

No realistic path for primary challenger?

“While he certainly has his detractors within the party, Murphy’s strong position with the Democratic grassroots activists, his willingness to spend his own substantial resources, and his high approval rating during the pandemic have largely blocked any realistic path for a primary challenger,” Dworkin wrote in an email.

NJEA President Marie Blistan said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News on Thursday evening that the timing seemed right — even if we have another election first.

“We’re not done this [presidential] election yet, but we’re in a critical time in this state and its schools,” Blistan said. “There are still a lot of unknowns at this point, but the governor has shown he can walk the walk … It was incumbent for us to say, ‘thank you.’”

The union’s executive committee met with Murphy by Zoom on Monday, and its full leadership delegation voted for the endorsement on Wednesday. Blistan said it planned for a similar process for the Republican primary, although not quite yet.

But one GOP candidate already in the race didn’t sound like he much expects the NJEA leadership’s backing either way.

“It’s no surprise that a small group of politically-connected insiders endorsed Governor Murphy’s reelection,” said Jack Ciattarelli, the former state Assemblyman and business owner making his second bid for governor.

“These special interests own and control Governor Murphy, so they might as well protect their investment by endorsing him, too,” he said.