It’s been a rough summer for one of the expected frontrunners in New Jersey’s approaching gubernatorial race. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) faced acid criticism from the state’s largest teacher’s union when a political stalemate over transportation funding scuttled his plan to put an amendment to the state constitution on the 2017 ballot, the same year he is likely to run for governor.
With that plan to constitutionally require quarterly public pension payments with a ballot question put off for another year, leadership at the New Jersey Education Association vowed not to support bid against potential rivals like Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, the only candidate to formally announce his campaign so far.
An ongoing standoff between Democratic lawmakers and Governor Chris Christie over the nearly insolvent Transportation Trust Fund has created uncertainty about the state’s ability to pay into its underfunded pension systems, moving Sweeney to delay the amendment.
Sweeney took one black eye when he was unable to gather the votes for an override and remove the TTF stumbling block, and another when he incurred the wrath of the NJEA by declining to post the amendment in the Senate. The group is one of the party’s biggest and most influential donors in the state, and threatened to withhold campaign cash from Democratic candidates and county organizations until Sweeney cleared the deadline for a ballot question this year.
Sweeney has attempted to get out in front of the NJEA’s attacks against him by demanding state and federal investigations into those threats. Although those attacks may have been inevitable given the stagnant pension payments that have marked his tenure, the scuffle could cut into his margins in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Sweeney has the South on his side, and the support of its influential party boss George Norcross. That could be enough to counterbalance his loss of support from the NJEA during the primary, which will depend on the candidates’ eking out slim regional majorities.
Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin pointed out that Sweeney needs only a slim 25 percent of the primary vote to win, and said that the crowded Democratic field will be a boon for the Senate President.
“It is assumed that he will have overwhelming support in the southern part of the state. Which is not enough to win a primary,” Dworkin said. “What he has going for him is the unified southern support with smaller pockets of support in northern parts of the state.
“If the northern part of the state, with far more registered Democrats, is split among three to five other people, he has a better chance.”
The Democratic primary will likely see runs from Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) and State Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), among others.
Dworkin said he wouldn’t bet on Norcross wavering in his support for Sweeney either.
“In 2000 Jim Florio was backed by the South Jersey Democrats against Jon Corzine, and they stuck with him. Through the end. Even as Corzine was out spending millions of dollars or tens of millions of dollars. So I think it’s unclear as to whether Norcross would even consider a second choice.”
Seton Hall political scientist Matt Hale agreed that Norcross will stick with Sweeney no matter what. The proposed investigations into the NJEA were, he said, Sweeney “making a play that he can win the primary without them.”
Hale pointed to the rivalry between Sweeney and his Assembly counterpart Vince Prieto (D-32), who took a hard line on posting the pension amendment in time to get it on the ballot this year.
“I’m not sure that it’s the smartest thing to do for a primary, but it will certainly help him in the general election,” he said. “He’s been getting frustrated because he’s got Prieto doing backbench stuff, and he felt it was necessary for him to show that he’s the sheriff in town.”
Saying that the NJEA feud could cost him if the field narrows between now and the primary, Hale added that he wouldn’t put much stock in the group leaving Sweeney out in the cold come November.
“If it’s a two-person race, I think he could be in some trouble,” he said. “At the end of the of the day, the NJEA is going to be behind the Democrat no matter who it is.”