In NJEA Feud, Experts See Little Threat to Sweeney Senate Presidency

N.J. State Senate President Steve Sweeney Max Pizarro for Observer

One of New Jersey’s most influential labor groups is threatening to use its full political and monetary weight to oust State Senate President Steve Sweeney for his failure to act on the state’s dwindling contributions to the public pension system. But experts see that promise from the New Jersey Education Association as an uphill proposition if not an empty threat.

The bad blood between Sweeney and the NJEA has been building ever since he agreed to concessions on public pension benefits with Republican governor Chris Christie in 2011, but reached its peak when Sweeney declined to post a resolution that would have put mandatory quarterly pension payments on the ballot last year. 

The union pledged to oust the Senate President by lending its considerable resources to a primary or general election opponent, or alternatively by pleading its case to the Democratic caucus when it makes its leadership decisions after an election in which they are expected to maintain strong majorities in both houses. 

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said the attempt to cost Sweeney the Senate presidency will likely become a display of its willingness to target Democratic leadership that it deems insufficiently aggressive on pension payments. With Sweeney ally Troy Singleton likely to replace Republican Senator Diane Allen, any change to the playing field will have to come from a Senate pickup in the 2nd or 11th legislative district.

“As of right now, nothing has changed on that front. The NJEA is just kind of rattling the cage. There’s a hope that they’ll have a friendly audience if Phil Murphy is governor. And maybe they can start to undermine Sweeney’s position. But as of now all the major players in the Democratic Party are abiding by whatever agreement they reached recently that would keep Sweeney in that position.

“There’s a feeling to that that there’s no downside to it, making this attempt.”

Rider University analyst Ben Dworkin said the balance of power between North and South that determines leadership decisions is“fluid,” but said races in the state’s two competitive districts will be the most important variable when Democrats vote on whether to give Sweeney another term. Other pro-Sweeney independent groups, he added, will also have a say and could counteract the NJEA’s efforts to undermine his support.

“I think it’s an uphill battle for the NJEA,” Dworkin said. “The NJEA is going to be but one of many different groups that will have an opinion on this. They’re not the only ones, and we don’t even know who’s going to be in the caucus.”

Sweeney himself is facing a challenge from newcomer Fran Grenier, the chair of the Salem County Republican organization. Harrison Neely, who is running all of the Republican Senate campaigns, said he expects Grenier would be willing to work with the NJEA if they decide to lend their support. Sweeney’s 2013 challenger Nikki Trunk ran a competitive campaign despite Christie’s decision not to break his frequent alliance with the Senate President.

“Frank is going to seek support from a broad audience, and one of those groups includes the NJEA,” Neely said. “We feel like we can work with them.”

Sweeney declined to comment.

Dworkin pointed out that Sweeney will be losing a consistent supporter as the 2nd district’s Jim Whelan retires, and that the 11th is a politically diverse district with a popular Republican incumbent in Senator Jennifer Beck.

“Jim Whelan has been  consistent supporter of Steve Sweeney. With him not being there it will be up to the new person, who may not even be a Democrat. That could be one less vote for Sweeney as he tried to put together a majority. In district 11, there are lots of interests who will be involved in that race,” he said. “Will the Democrat, Vin Gopal, even win so that his vote can make a difference?”

Even so, he added that the NJEA will not be an adversary that Sweeney can simply push aside.

“They have an active membership with a well-financed political arm. And they’re everywhere in the state. It’s not like these teachers are just concentrated in one corner.”

Representatives from the NJEA were not immediately available for comment. In NJEA Feud, Experts See Little Threat to Sweeney Senate Presidency