While much of this year’s election oxygen is being absorbed by the gubernatorial candidates, there’s one state Senate race that’s raising eyebrows. The state’s most powerful Democrat has been able to count on the state’s most powerful teachers union, but this time the New Jersey Education Association is out to unseat him. NJEA Executive Director Ed Richardson sat down with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.
Aron: Ed Richardson, why is the NJEA so intent upon unseating Steve Sweeney?
Richardson: Well, Steve has, for really the last eight years, been the architect of numerous deals with the Christie administration. Many of which have resulted in very negative consequences, not only for our members, but public employees in general and middle class New Jerseyans. The latest of which was, of course, the promise that Steve had made to place on the ballot a constitutional amendment to, finally, compel the state to honor its pension obligations and fund the pensions. Steve was a champion of that issue, and convinced us to advance it, which we did, along with all the other public employee unions. At the eleventh hour, Steve pulled the plug on it. Our members are very tired of that level of betrayal and are ready for change and we think that the gentleman that is opposing Steve, Fran Grenier, is the great candidate for that office.
Aron: Grenier is said to be an arch-conservative, pro-Trump, pro-Christie and doesn’t believe in climate change, that’s who the NJEA is with?
Richardson: Fran Grenier is running for state Senate in legislative district three and on the issues that we had put in front of him through our screening process, a very extensive screening process, Fran Grenier aligns with our issues. He supports our positions on school funding, on charter schools, on steps to prevent the privatization of support staff in schools who have active contracts, pension funding.
Aron: So he’s not an arch-conservative?
Richardson: I don’t know how you would describe an arch-conservative, but Fran Grenier is aligned with the positions of NJEA on the issues that matter to our members.
Aron: Steve Sweeney was quoted as saying, yes, I promised the NJEA the constitutional amendment, but things change.
Richardson: Here’s what changed, Michael, here’s what changed. He cut another deal with Gov. Christie in order to get the gas tax, and in the process gave massive cuts to the wealthiest New Jerseyans. So Steve admitted, if you look back at his public statements immediately following that, he admitted that he basically committed the revenue that was needed to fund the constitutional amendment to that deal.
Aron: He also said that a constitutional amendment to guarantee full funding for pensions, for public workers, would most likely fail at the ballot. It might have been a real setback for public employees.
Richardson: I couldn’t disagree more, and Steve knows this. Again, working with all the other public employee unions, we were closely polling the issue. Within weeks of Steve pulling the plug on it, it was pulling with two-thirds support of New Jersey voters. It was doing better than either of the other two ballot initiatives.
Aron: Private sector workers who don’t have pensions were going to support full pension funding for public workers?
Richardson: Yes, here’s what they understood, Michael. Public employees have never missed a payment. They have been putting the funds into that pension system through every paycheck. And in fact because of Steve Sweeney, their contributions have increased by 36 percent, and meanwhile over the last 20 years, the state has failed to fully fund its commitment. So people understand fairness, and they understand that the longer we kick this can down the road, the problem only gets worse and the bill only becomes bigger for the taxpayer. So, yes, there was support for that.
Aron: Sweeney is well-known, he’s a veteran, he’s aligned with George Norcross. It’s going to be very difficult to unseat him, despite the millions of dollars that are going to be spent on both sides. Sixteen of the 24 Democratic senators sent a blistering letter to your new president, Marie Blistan, saying this is crazy. One of those, Sen. Bob Smith, is quoted this morning as saying: “This puts NJEA is the first circle of Dante’s Inferno for the next four years. Steve is the second most powerful person in the state and he’s getting re-elected.” Isn’t this a big gamble on behalf on your members?
Richardson: Perhaps, but ask rhetorically from the perspective of our members, how many more times should we be betrayed by the Senate president and simply go on as if nothing has happened to us? Our members, as I said, 36 percent more into their pensions. Chapter 78, a law that, again Steve cut a deal with the governor back in 2011, has resulted in the average NJEA member paying a quarter of their health insurance costs. That’s about six percent more than the average New Jersey worker. Our employees are teachers, as judged by the Economic Policy Institute, are behind comparable professions, even when considering differences in work year and benefits, we’re behind by 10 percent. We’re losing ground under the Senate president and it is time for a change. We recognize how difficult this fight is, but we are in it to win it. There is a pathway to victory. I have to disagree with Sen. Smith because if you look back at the litany of policies, right up until this spring with the school funding deal that shut down ultimately the state government, Steve has cut one deal after another that’s been bad for public education and bad for public school employees.
Aron: Last question, Phil Muphy is endorsed for governor by the NJEA. You’re fighting the Senate President Sweeney, you’re backing the likely incoming governor, Murphy. He’s not asking you to cool down on Sweeney, doesn’t this set up an awkward situation for possibly the next governor and probably the next Senate president?
Richardson: We certainly don’t want that, but let’s face it, I think Phil Murphy is going to be an excellent governor, but come back to the fundamentals of our screening process. NJEA is not an arm of the Democratic Party, so Phil Murphy was screened through the same rigorous process by which we selected Fran Grenier. The key is where are the gentleman on the issues that matter most to our members? Remember, we don’t make a judgement in our endorsements based on what letter is after someone’s name. We endorsed, last year, three Republicans for Congress, and this year several Republicans for the state Legislature. It’s about who aligns on the issues, who is listening to us and our members and who we think can do the best job. Phil Murphy, as I said, is going to be a terrific governor. We don’t have that confidence in Steve Sweeney.
Aron: Ed Richardson, thanks very much for coming in and telling us where the NJEA stands.
Richardson: Thank you, Michael.