Early signs that Monmouth County will be one of the crucial proving grounds for a badly wounded Republican party in 2017 emerged Friday, as former Republican Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini called for her Democratic successors to acknowledge their ties to the NJEA. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) called for state and federal investigations of the group this week after the state’s largest teachers’ union threatened to withhold campaign cash from state Democrats.
Angelini was taken down along with her Republican district-mate Caroline Casagrande by Joanne Downey and Eric Houghtaling (both D-11) in the biggest upset of last year’s Assembly elections.
That victory came after the General Majority super PAC — an organization with financial ties to South Jersey party boss and Sweeney ally George Norcross — aired attack ads against Angelini in the race’s final weeks, with the majority of its funds coming from the NJEA contributions.
Sweeney, meanwhile, has been caught in a war of words with the group because of the ongoing standoff in Trenton on funding the nearly bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund. Sweeney has said that a funding plan favored by Governor Chris Christie would make his own bill to amend the state constitution and require quarterly pension payments into the state’s underfunded public pension system impossible.
Sweeney’s decision not to post the pension bill led the NJEA’s threats to county Democratic organizations. Writing in a statement that the Assembly members “owe their seats in the Legislature to the NJEA,” Angelini called on her opponents to speak out in light of controversy.
“It’s no surprise that my opportunist opponents welcomed the NJEA spending in their race and tow their agenda in Trenton,” she wrote. “In the face of these troubling allegations, Houghtaling and Downey need to break their silence and stand up to their special interest allies.
“They had no problem standing behind Steve Sweeney to support another do-nothing government commission on school funding. Failure to stand behind Sweeney in calling for a criminal investigation will prove that they have sold out to the NJEA and have no problem with transactional politics in Trenton.”
Downey and Houghtaling had joined Sweeney in introducing a bill to form a task force on reforming the state’s school funding formula, a signature issue of Monmouth County Republicans like State Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) and Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13).
Sweeney is weighing his own gubernatorial bid against Jersey City Mayor Steve Flop and a host of other Democratic contenders. The 2017 race in the 11th district could turn out to be a referendum on the strength and resources of a state Democratic party riven with regional conflict over who should get the nomination to take over for Governor Chris Christie at the end of his term, and a Republican party hobbled by its lack of labor and super PAC support.
Reached for comment, Downey and Houghtaling deferred to Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal. Already in the unenviable position of having to choose between party bosses in the North and South when looking for campaign contributions and making his own gubernatorial endorsement, he called the NJEA scuffle a distraction from his candidates’ strengths.
“It is truly sad that Mary Pat Angelini has failed to come to terms with the fact that Monmouth County residents rejected her candidacy,” Gopal said. “Simply, she was exposed for votes against women’s healthcare, commonsense gun violence reforms, and equal pay for women. It is time for Mary Pat Angelini to look in the mirror and accept that her failed record is the reason she was booted from office.”
Whatever the outcome of this year’s presidential race, the party’s widely unpopular nomination of Donald Trump and Christie’s high-profile role in Trump’s campaign could compound state Republicans’ troubles as they try to roll back their Assembly losses in the first, 11th and 16th districts. Four Republican Assembly members went down last year including Angelini.
Gopal, meanwhile, has more to fear from making the wrong choice when he offers his endorsement for governor. Any goodwill electoral goodwill resulting from Sweeney, Downey and Houghtaling’s school funding proposal could be undercut by fundraising losses if he chooses Fulop over Sweeney.
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