NJEA releases endorsements for state Senate and Assembly races

The state’s largest teacher’s union also happens to be the state’s biggest special interest spender. It put out over $600,000 during the June primary alone. The New Jersey Education Association — an underwriter of NJTV News — has a decades-long reputation for aligning with Democratic candidates and policies. But the organization appears to be making a major reversal, at least according to a released list of endorsements for the November legislative elections. Correspondent Michael Hill is standing by in Woodbury where leaders from the NJEA are holding a rally denouncing one of the state’s top Democrats.

The top Democrat is Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney and the NJEA were allies for quite a long time until about a year ago. They’ve been at odds over some of the issues, but the big reason they have been at odds had to do with funding the state pension system. And a year ago today on Aug. 8, 2016, Sweeney blocked a vote from going before the public in New Jersey on guaranteeing what would have been a constitutional amendment, on guaranteeing state payments to the pension system. When he did that, the NJEA and its members thought that Sweeney broke a promise and that he betrayed them. We asked the senate president for an interview today, but he was not available. Listen to some of the union members are protesting about. They decided the union calls for this rally to mark the anniversary of Sweeney blocking that vote and asked its members to show up in black. It appears many of them have complied. The NJEA came out this week with a bunch of endorsements for the Legislature and the governor. It’s had a long standing practice of endorsing Democratic candidates, but this year is a little different.

“There’s a different guy running this year. I think Chris Christie has kind of kept a lot of the Republicans in check under his ideology. Now that he’s gone, perhaps some of them will be able to come back to more of the middle of the road,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.

Steinhauer says the union uses nine criteria to decide which incumbent lawmakers or challengers to endorse, judging them based on whether they support what the association advocates.

“We don’t care what label or party you bring in,” Steinhauer said. “We care about where your issues are. And as I stated in those criteria, not only do we want you to be aligned in the majority with our issues, you have to be electable. If you’re not electable, you certainly can’t do any good with your issues if you’re not in office.”

The 200,000 member union says it looks at lawmakers recent voting records to make its decision.

“Our endorsement process is not a punishment operation, it’s a reward operation to help make sure that the right people are in place to work with on issues that we’re concerned with,” he said.

“I don’t know that the NJEA endorsement in definitive. I don’t think it makes or breaks any particular election. They obviously have a lot of money, they obviously can support and help candidates, but I don’t know that there’s a particular district that’s going to change the vote because they’ve changed who they’ve endorsed,” said Seton Hall Professor Matthew Hale.

But Steinhauer hopes it does, and especially legislative district 3. The union endorsed the Republican challenger over Democrat and Senate president, Steve Sweeney, who clashed with the union over a number of issues and then called the union’s tactics into question.

Sweeney said, “This demand by the unions for quid pro quo transforms the promise of the campaign contribution to bribery, and the threat of withholding that contribution to extortion under both state and federal law. These unions are no longer engaging in public advocacy issues focused on the education of our children. Instead they have made specific threats regarding specific legislative actions that benefit the pocketbooks of its members.”

“We’ve endorsed Fran Grenier in LD 3 to not only replace the Senate president, but replace him as a senator in LD 3,” Steinhauer said.

“Steve Sweeney has the track record. Steve Sweeney has the support of the majority of Democrats in his district, the majority of Democrats in the state. So is he a little bit more nervous than normal? Probably. Is he scared? I doubt it,” Hale said.

The union’s political action committee and a rival supporting Sweeney are on pace to break spending records for a legislative district with competing television ads. How much is the union willing to spend in the Sweeney race?

“As much as we need to and not a penny more,” Steinhauer said.

Analysists are anticipating that the spending in this race will reach some $8 million which will be a record for legislative districts. It received a statement from the senate president saying, “In 2016, Sweeney once again led the effort to put pension funding to the voters but recognizing the anti-government settlement of the electorate, he held back to protect the risk of the future pensions that would results in its defeat at the ballot box.”