In the end, it was Senate President Steve Sweeney who taught the teachers a lesson.
The New Jersey Education Association went all in trying to take out Sweeney, sparking what’s likely the most expensive legislative race in American history. The allies and opponents of Sweeney spent $18.7 million when it was all said and done. “It is more than most past gubernatorial candidates have spent statewide,” said Election Law Enforcement Commissioner Executive Director Jeff Brindle when the final figures were tallied.
Sweeney survived the multimillion-dollar bonanza and won re-election by a whopping 18 points. If nothing else, the NJEA sent a message to state officials that they have money to make your life hell if you cross them. And Sweeney showed that you can cross the union and still survive.
It all started when Sweeney reneged on a promised ballot question in 2016 to guarantee pension funding. Sweeney also accused the NJEA and other union officials of trying to bribe him. The NJEA described Sweeney as a frequent partner in crime with Gov. Chris Christie, who in 2011 cut public worker benefits.
So the NJEA declared war against Sweeney. The union endorsed his GOP Senate challenger, Fran Grenier, a President Trump supporter. The NJEA’s super PAC, Garden State Forward, ran ads labeling Sweeney a “pay-to-play politician.” The union ultimately spent $4.8 million in the failed effort to oust the Legislature’s top Democrat.
Sweeney supporters matched the NJEA dollar-for-dollar, and then some. A super PAC supporting Sweeney, New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, spent $5 million in the district. A super PAC with ties to South Jersey power broker George Norcross, General Majority, contributed $2.6 million toward re-electing Sweeney. The Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress added $1.25 million to boost Sweeney. Candidates in the district combined to spend $4.3 million, the vast majority coming from Democrats.
The effort to knock out Sweeney forced Democrats to spend millions of dollars on his district that could have been spent on other competitive races across New Jersey. While Democrats flipped seats in the 7th and 11th districts, they lost a seat to Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) in the 2nd district.
Whether the costly war between Sweeney and the NJEA will lead any long-term damage remains to be seen. The issue proved awkward for Governor-elect Phil Murphy, who refused to pick sides between the union backing his campaign and the Senate president he will need to enact his policies. Sweeney reportedly said he was disappointed that Murphy was standing on the sidelines.
Sweeney didn’t bury the hatchet after winning the election, comparing the union’s leaders to thugs and saying he would only talk to the American Federation of Teachers, New Jersey’s other teachers union, from now on. After Murphy named NJEA president Marie Blistan as co-chair of his education transition committee, AFT president Donna Chiera was added to committee a few days later.
Sweeney’s top legislative priority next year is to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools, not exactly political punishment for the NJEA. But the funding mechanism for this boost in funding is supposed to be a tax hike on millionaires, and Sweeney is now signaling he may abandon that plan. That’s reminding some observers of his 180 on the pension funding amendment, which started this snafu in the first place.