NJEA’s Battle With Sweeney Setting Spending Records in NJ

The state Senate race in the 3rd District could cost $20 million this year, a historically huge amount, according to ELEC.

Steve Sweeney. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

New Jersey’s largest teacher union has spent $4 million to unseat Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), and the race is on track to be the most expensive in state history for a legislative seat, according to a new report from the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

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Total spending from candidate committees and independent groups on the state Senate race in Sweeney’s 3rd district had reached $9.5 million as of Oct. 6, a month before the election, according to the ELEC analysis. Those groups had another $1 million on hand, ELEC added.

The spigot remains open, and by the time the race is over, it could be the most expensive in New Jersey history at nearly $20 million.

“We could be seeing first $20 million legislative race,” said ELEC’s deputy executive director, Joseph Donohue. “That used to be the cost of a gubernatorial race.”

The New Jersey Education Association — through its 527 group, Garden State Forward — has spent record amounts on TV ads, phone calls and mailers labeling Sweeney as a “pay-to-play” politician more interested in advancing Gov. Chris Christie’s agenda than liberal priorities. The ELEC analysis, however, does not include what the NJEA has spent on direct-mail literature, only TV and digital ads.

New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, a super PAC backing Sweeney, has been fighting back, spending $2.6 million this year on its own TV ads and campaign literature attacking the Republican candidate for the Senate seat, Fran Grenier, as a pro-Trump Republican.

In addition, Sweeney and Grenier, who has the backing of the NJEA, have spent $1.6 million from their campaign committees. The Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress, an independent group backing Sweeney, had spent $250,000 as of Oct. 6 and has been spending more since then, with TV ads in the Philadelphia market over the last several weeks.

General Majority PAC, an independent group aligned with South Jersey power broker George Norcross, a Sweeney ally, had sent $895,000 to New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, the Sweeney super PAC, the report showed.

In previous years, Norcross and the NJEA had split fundraising duties for General Majority PAC, but now the two sides are at war.

The NJEA says taking out Sweeney, the top elected Democrat in state government, is the top priority this year because he reneged on a promise to put a pension funding amendment on the ballot in 2016. Sweeney also accused the NJEA and other union officials of trying to bribe him.

Sweeney’s supporters say the NJEA is cutting off its nose to spite its face. They describe Grenier as a hardline Republican who supported President Trump and shares Christie’s ideas on drastically cutting school funding.

The NJEA is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Trenton, collecting more than $100 million in dues every year from its more than 200,000 members. Under Christie, however, they have seen the pension fund for educators, the Teachers Pension and Annuities Fund, fall into the most dire state of all the retirement funds for New Jersey public workers. Sweeney has been Senate president throughout Christie’s governorship and partnered with the governor to cut public worker benefits in 2011.

Trump won Sweeney’s district in the 2016 presidential race, and the NJEA hopes its massive spending can tilt the playing field enough to knock out Sweeney, who has represented the South Jersey district since 2002.

Sweeney has rolled out other union endorsements all year and on Tuesday appeared with Randi Weingarten, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, at an event in Rowan University in South Jersey. The AFT represents Newark teachers but the NJEA is by far the dominant teachers union in the state.

All 120 legislative seats are up for election on Nov. 7. As of Oct. 6, candidates had raised $26.9 million, spent $12.2 million and had $14.7 million on hand.

Independent groups had spent another $12.3 million, according to ELEC, bringing total spending on legislative races to $22.5 million.

“We have been predicting since 2010 that independent groups would become a major force in New Jersey campaigns. This year’s campaign lends further credence to that prediction,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. “The growing influence of these groups makes it more important than ever for the Legislature to update state laws to reflect recent U.S. Supreme court rulings that permit full disclosure by independent groups.”

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, had raised far more money than Republicans as of Oct. 6: $20.2 million to $6.7 million. Spending was $9.1 million for Democrats and $3 million for Republicans, with the most hotly contested race after Sweeney’s happening in the 11th district. State Sen. Jen Beck (R-Monmouth) is facing a well-funded Democratic challenger, Vin Gopal. Combined, candidates from both parties had spent $1.8 million on that race.

The most expensive legislative race on record before this year’s blowout in the 3rd District was in 2003, a $6.1 million election ($8.2 million in today’s dollars) between Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) and Republican George Geist, ELEC said.

NJEA’s Battle With Sweeney Setting Spending Records in NJ