TRENTON — One of the most liberal state lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, gave an extended defense of Senate President Stephen Sweeney on Friday as he comes under attack from the New Jersey Education Association.
An outside group funded by the NJEA called Garden State Forward recently launched a series of brutal attack ads against Sweeney and a website criticizing the Democrat for his record on schools, pensions and other issues. The teachers union has been warring with Sweeney for almost a year and threatening to oust him from the top Senate position.
“I am a supporter of the Senate president. I will be a supporter of the Senate president in the new term, hopefully to see him re-elected into that position,” Weinberg told Observer NJ.
Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) have been eyeing Sweeney’s 3rd District seat since 2013 and see an opening to flip it red if the NJEA keeps up its attacks and mailers. Sweeney, however, is a well-funded incumbent with powerful allies in South Jersey.
Weinberg said the NJEA should abandon the fight against Sweeney because the alternative would be a Republican who does not align with the teachers union’s mission.
Sweeney supports the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and is not trying to tear apart the state Supreme Court’s landmark education funding rulings in the Abbott v. Burke line of cases, she said. Critics in the Republican Party, including Gov. Chris Christie, say the rulings have saddled state taxpayers with billions of dollars in costs and lackluster results for students in urban “Abbott districts.”
“I don’t quite understand the NJEA carrying this fight as far as they seem to be doing because they don’t really have an alternative,” Weinberg said. “They have Steve Sweeney who has stood up on so many issues important to me, important to women, important to the families I represent and on the other side you have pro-Trump, anti-Abbott-district, pro-Christie school funding running against him. What is the discussion here?”
Salem County GOP Chairman Fran Grenier, a union worker at a PSE&G power plant, is running against Sweeney in the November elections and has said he hopes to secure the NJEA’s endorsement after the union interviews him and quizzes him on his positions.
Weinberg also said she hopes to play a role in mending the “communication breakdown” she believes has plagued Sweeney’s relationship with the NJEA.
“The NJEA represents a very important part of our population: the teachers who teach our kids,” she said. “I would hope that they spend a little more time on that, that our Senate president spends a little less time feeling threatened, and that all sides can sit down and come to a good conclusion.”
NJEA leaders have unloaded attack ads on Sweeney after years of disagreements, and the relationship seemed to break permanently last year after the Senate president pulled a ballot question he had promised to send to voters to ask for guaranteed pension funding in the state constitution. The pension system faces $135 billion in unfunded liabilities, according to Bloomberg, threatening the retirement security for hundreds of thousands of NJEA teachers and retirees.
In the end, Sweeney said the state would not be able to afford the pension amendment because of a deal Democrats struck with Christie to cut the sales tax and eliminate the estate tax.