NJEA leadership, members address failure to oust Sweeney

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

It’s been over 24 hours since the polls closed and the votes were tallied. Among the winners is Senate President Steve Sweeney, who defeated Republican challenger Fran Grenier, a candidate backed by the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union.

At a two-day NJEA convention in Atlantic City, members reacted to the loss.

“That’s the chance you take with an election, right?” said President of the Hoboken Education Association, Gary Enrico. “He had a lot of broken promises, so I can understand why we came out against him.”

NJEA has been in a fight with Sweeney over his handling of public worker pensions. The union says teachers have had to pay more into their pensions and health care as a result of Sweeney’s 2011 deal with Gov. Chris Christie to overhaul the state’s public worker pension system.

Sweeney said the deal was necessary to keep the system from going bankrupt. Last year, Sweeney promised to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for the state to fully fund its pension obligation. He ultimately backed out, believing the ballot measure would fail.

“We were so strong in opposition against him being re-elected,” said retired teacher Barbara Toczko.

With about $16.6 million in expected total spending, the 3rd District Senate race was the most expensive legislative race in state history.

According to the State’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, $12 million came from independent groups. The NJEA spending $4.5 million on the race, compared to Sweeney-backed Super PACs spending just over $7 million.

Sweeney came out with the win by 18 percentage points.

Many of the NJEA members at the conference said that money was well spent because it sent a very clear message.

“He faced a really tough opponent in Fran Grenier and hopefully now that’s going to teach him a lesson that look, we’re here, we’re watching, you’ve made these promises, you need to step up to the plate and be a man of your word,” said Robert Scardino, a theater teacher.

NJEA President Marie Blistan said she looks forward to working with Sweeney but hasn’t had the opportunity to speak to him just yet.

“We have worked with him for years before. I live in that district. There were years that he was not endorsed and we still worked with him. We continue to work with him and I’ll work with anyone who wants to work for public education, our students again and for our members,” said Blistan.

For his part, the Senate president is focusing on the state’s other teacher’s union.

“I’ll be working with the AFT. I’m very happy to work with them. They are a progressive group that says what they mean and they don’t change,” said Sweeney. “The NJEA has not tried, they have not reached out, they have not called. And I’m not expecting it, and I’m not losing sleep over it.”

It’s an answer that does leave in question if the relationship can be mended.