Unions, Legislators and the 2017 Gubernatorial Race

Senate President Steve Sweeney is an ironworker.
Senate President Steve Sweeney is an ironworker.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) is arguably the most powerful elected Democrat in the state of New Jersey. He is also an ironworker by trade and holds a job as the Vice-President of the International Association of Iron Workers.

While Sweeney’s labor affiliation is not outside of the normal—at least six Democrats in the legislature are directly affiliated with labor unions (and a handful more with public sector union groups like the NJEA or the FOP)—his connection to the labor world does add an interesting element when considering his likely 2017 run for governor.

In recent years, political action committees (better known as PACs) have been cropping up with increasing frequency both nationally and statewide. A chunk of those PACs are directly affiliated with the labor sector. According to OpenSecrets.org, labor PACs donated over $54 million to federal political candidates in 2014. Eighty nine percent of those 2014 donations went to Democrats. Building trade unions like the one with which Sweeney is affiliated contributed over $14 million, with 87% of those contributions going to Democrats. In 2015, PAC spending in New Jersey pushed the cost of the election (which had one of the lowest turnouts in state history) to over $30 million.

As there are no currently elected Republicans with professional labor ties in New Jersey, the numbers point to a power dynamic that favors Democrats in terms of getting those all-too-important union endorsements that help draw voters to the polls and score increased fundraising dollars. This means that the Republicans—who are already behind due to Governor Chris Christie’s dismal approval ratings—are unlikely to get a PAC-related bump in New Jersey that can rival what the Democratic candidates are likely to pull in in 2017. Looking to the coming elections, especially if unions continue to support and endorse Democratic candidates, it seems unlikely that a Republican candidate would be able to gain the support of union groups in New Jersey.

In New Jersey, labor groups like SEIU, the Asbestos Workers Union, CWA, IBEW and the Ironworkers, among many others, all have PACs registered in 2016 according to ELEC. The number of these groups demonstrates an increasing political influence.

New Jersey’s pay to play laws do not include PACs in their provisions. This means that the groups associated with the PACs are not held to the same standards as other committees in the state. Normally, a contract cannot be granted in excess of $17,500 to a group that has contributed to an official who is in office. This PAC loophole has generated some concern about how special interest money may be seeping into elections, muddling the fairness of contracts. Even so, it does not seem that PACs are losing any favorability among union members.

Sweeney’s labor affiliation does not mean that the Senate President has the gubernatorial nomination in the bag for 2017. While it is likely that building trade unions will mostly back Sweeney, it is possible that there will be some breakaway of that support to his most high-profile competitor for the statehouse: Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

Fulop, unlike Sweeney, has no obvious personal professional ties to the world of unions. The mayor is a veteran of the Marine Corps and a former Wall Street trader. Even so, he has been able to curry favor with many public sector union groups due to his work with the groups in Jersey City and beyond.

Both candidates need the support of one powerful union in order to win big in 2017: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

The NJEA bankrolled much of the 2015 assembly races with their affiliated Garden State Forward PAC and the General Majority PAC. An endorsement for either candidate could mean huge fundraising dollars for the gubernatorial contest. Last month, the NJEA came out with a letter supporting Sweeney’s proposed pension reform. In October, Fulop backed the NJEA’s slate for the school board in Jersey City.

Like Sweeney, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-4), Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7), newly-elected Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-11), Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-14), Assemblyman Joe Egan (D-17) and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-34) are all directly labor-affiliated.

Unions, Legislators and the 2017 Gubernatorial Race