Forget about the race to succeed lame duck Chris Christie: There’s a more intriguing electoral battle in New Jersey this fall, and it’s pitting the state’s largest teachers union against its highest-ranking Democratic state official, Senate president Steve Sweeney.
Over the protests of its traditional Democratic allies and some of its own members, the New Jersey Education Association has endorsed Sweeney’s Republican rival, who voted for President Donald Trump and has supported the deeply unpopular Christie, who once said a national teachers union deserved a “punch in the face.”
After eight years of Christie, polls show former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy on track to capture the governorship, giving Democrats total control of the government. But the Sweeney-NJEA fight — which stems from a six-year old pension reform dispute — shows that in a state where union bosses have long held sway, there could be plenty of divisions.
And the state’s most powerful union is putting Sweeney on notice.
NJEA spokesman Steve Baker says the union’s members “support candidates who share their values and whose records demonstrate that” — Democrat or Republican.
“Our concern is with the people who get elected, not the party that they belong to,” he said.
“This [fight] is bigger than Steve Sweeney,” adds Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “The NJEA is demonstrating: ‘This is what happens if we feel betrayed by you.’”
The bad blood between NJEA and Sweeney dates back to 2011, when the South Jersey Democrat struck a deal with Christie — who brags about being the NJEA’s “Public Enemy No. 1” — to overhaul pension and health benefits for state public employees. The union says the move meant a net loss in workers’ take-home pay.
The rift deepened last year, after Sweeney reneged on a pledge to allow a public referendum on constitutionally guaranteeing that the state regularly contribute to its public employee pension funds.
As the deadline loomed to get the question on the ballot, the NJEA threatened to withhold funding for Democrats, prompting Sweeney to accuse the union of extortion. He even suggested he would ask the U.S. Attorney and New Jersey attorney general to investigate.
The NJEA said it has never been contacted by those offices, but ever since, it’s been waging war on Sweeney. NJEA money has turned what would have been a slam-dunk reelection for Sweeney into a contest that’s shaping up to be the most expensive state legislative race in New Jersey history.
Despite the heavy investment the NJEA is pouring into attack ads against the Senate president, most Trenton observers believe Sweeney will prevail. He has the backing of the state’s most influential Democratic power broker and — as an official for an ironworkers’ union — he enjoys support from a number of labor groups.
And if Sweeney prevails, the union’s reputation as New Jersey’s most politically powerful lobbying group could take a hit. State senators aligned with Sweeney have already warned the NJEA should brace for a chillier reception.
“One of the things that is at stake is, quite honestly, the viability and validity of NJEA as a union,” said Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.
“This sort of jihad they’re going after Sweeney with and the fact that the heads of the organizations are making [hundreds of thousands of dollars] a year could very well lead to revolt from the ground up,” he continued. “There’s at least the potential for members wondering why their leadership flushed all their money down the toilet and [they] could ask for some systematic changes.”
The NJEA’s PAC, Garden State Forward, raised $1.1 million and spent nearly $521,000 during the first six months of 2017, according to the most recent financial disclosure forms it filed with the IRS. It’s not clear how much of the expenditures went toward the Sweeney race, and expenses racked up since June may not be publicly available until after the election.
But many observers expect that the NJEA, Sweeney and associated super PACs will have poured millions of dollars into the race by the time it’s over.
Some rank-and-file members of NJEA have questioned the logic of the union’s crusade.
“It appears the NJEA is putting a lot of money into getting rid of someone who, when you look at the big picture, has been more supportive of teachers than not supportive,” teacher Gene Lopes told POLITICO. “To be clear, I hate [the pension and health benefits reforms]. I’ve probably said some not so nice things about Sen. Sweeney, but … this to me reeks of people who said ‘I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton no matter what’ and voted for Trump. And we see how that turned out.”
The NJEA’s Baker defended the process the union’s political action committee followed in deciding whom to endorse; he says the endorsement represents the “vast majority” of members.
To be sure, it’s not the first time the NJEA has passed on endorsing Sweeney: It also chose not to support him in two of his five previous Senate races. But withholding an endorsement is one thing; actively running a campaign to defeat Sweeney in his bid for reelection is quite another.
Sweeney’s Republican opponent, Fran Grenier — the chair of the Salem County Republican Party — tells critics who label him as a Christie supporter that he has not been a fan of the governor’s, whose approval rating remains in the teens, for some time.
“I had been in the past, when he was in his first term,” Grenier said this week. But that changed, Grenier said, after the Bridgegate scandal, in which members of Christie’s inner circle were convicted of shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a Democratic mayor who would not endorse Christie in his 2013 reelection bid.
“I haven’t had a favorable rating of Christie for at least the last year or two,” Grenier said.
But critics continue to fault the NJEA for supporting a conservative.
“I could understand, even if I didn’t agree, [if] they had a disagreement with Stephen Sweeney — if they ran somebody against him in the primary — a progressive — or if they did not support anyone in that district,” state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said.
Weinberg is one of 16 Senate Democrats who last month signed a letter condemning the NJEA for endorsing Grenier. In the following days, local branches of the NJEA rescinded invitations to union-related events that had been sent to some of those senators — or informed them the union would no longer hand out campaign materials on their behalf.
While some Democrats are criticizing the NJEA’s moves, the head of at least one other union is defending the association’s right to decide which politicians it will or won’t support.
Hetty Rosenstein, the New Jersey state director of the Communications Workers of America, said her organization is not endorsing any candidate in the race – but notes the decision might have been different had Sweeney kept his word about posting the pension amendment on the ballot.
“There are long standing hard feelings between many public workers and Steve Sweeney because of previous attacks on collective bargaining and then reneging on the constitutional amendment,” Rosenstein said.
Sweeney, for his part, said that as a union man — he is general vice president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers — he recognizes the right of labor organizations to decide whom they’ll support. But he called the NJEA’s decisions in this case “bad” ones.
“It’s their money. It’s their members. And it will be their job to explain to their members their rhyme and reason for it,” he said.
Jim Florio, a former Democratic governor of New Jersey who supports Sweeney, suggested public education could be at stake if campaign dollars are diverted from more competitive races in other legislative districts.
“If a pro-education Democrat loses a close race that might have been won, that’s a detriment to people interested in public education,” Florio said.
Another teachers group has decided to support Sweeney.
Donna Chiera, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, cited Sweeney’s efforts to transform Rowan and Rutgers universities, whose faculty AFT-NJ represents, as reasons for the endorsement.
“I am hoping the day after election day, when all the dust settles, we will all go back into a room and put together an agenda and collectively, as labor, work that agenda,” Chiera said.
Baker, the NJEA’s spokesman, dismissed the notion the union has betrayed the labor movement by attacking a union man.
“Steve Sweeney betrayed labor when he became a champion for laws that undermined collective bargaining in New Jersey with his advocacy for Chapter 78,” Baker said, referring to the 2011 law that brought about public employees’ pension and health care reform.
While some predict the potential fallout with lawmakers will hurt the NJEA, particularly if Sweeney wins, others aren’t so sure.
Dworkin, of the Rebovich Institute, notes that the NJEA failed to oust then-Senate president John Lynch in 1991 but remained relevant in state politics. He says the NJEA will weather any fallout if Sweeney wins.
“The NJEA has 200,000 members spread across the state, in every district,” Dworkin said. “So even if you box them out, it’s going to be hard to ignore them forever.”