In an otherwise predictable New Jersey election season, the state’s largest public sector union has come out behind a Trump-supporting Republican facing an incumbent Democrat. The New Jersey Education Association, which is New Jersey’s top political spender, is backing Republican Fran Grenier against Steve Sweeney, the Democratic state Senate president and New Jersey’s second most-powerful elected official. The controversial endorsement has angered liberal allies, but the union remains unapologetic in its message: Democrats cannot take teachers for granted.
It’s a contentious move, but one that is unlikely to change the ultimate outcome of the election. Democrats are expected to control all three branches of government after November, a major turning point for the Garden State. After seven years under Republican Gov. Chris Christie — a man boasting an impressively low 15 percent approval rating — a majority of voters are expected to cast their ballot for Phil Murphy, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate running against the GOP’s Kim Guadagno. And with a state legislature that’s also expected to remain blue, progressives have been eagerly anticipating their chance to start reversing the policies of Christie’s tenure.
That explains why the NJEA has decided to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in what’s shaping up to be the most expensive legislative race in state history to try to unseat Sweeney: The union feels the top Democrat has betrayed it one too many times.
In late September, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could strike a mortal blow to the NJEA and other public sector unions across the country. Through the case, which mirrors a similar suit that reached the high court in 2016 but ended in a 4-4 deadlock following Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death, union opponents hope to outlaw “agency fees” — mandatory dues all union members must pay for collective bargaining. The NJEA’s controversial endorsement has jeopardized Democratic support at such a precarious moment for unions, especially for someone who appears so at odds with labor’s goals, and has left many liberals squirming. The move has also baffled others in the labor movement — Sweeney is backed by the AFT (the state’s smaller teachers union), the AFL-CIO, the UCFW, UNITE Here, SEIU, AFSCME, among others.
At the same time, many progressives have also long wanted unions to take a more aggressive stance against Democrats who happily court labor’s campaign contributions, yet fail to push for a strong pro-worker agenda once in office. The NJEA’s leadership, which has defended its endorsement by saying it is “not an arm of the Democratic Party” — echoes some of the rhetoric of more left-leaning activists who urge unions to actively challenge more corporate, Wall Street-aligned Democrats. Yet it’s one thing to primary an establishment candidate from the left, and another to campaign hard for a Republican during the general.
Sweeney, who first joined the state Senate in 2002, became majority leader in 2007 and Senate president in 2010. His relationship with the NJEA began to sour in 2011 when he pushed forward a deal with Christie that limited pension and health benefits for public sector workers. The union says Sweeney has continued to cozy up with Christie and has failed to forcefully criticize the governor’s underfunding of public education. The relationship deteriorated even further last year when Sweeney walked back on a promise to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to fully fund pensions, and then accused the NJEA of bribery and extortion.
This past March, the NJEA declared it would try to unseat Sweeney, but there were no Democrats willing to primary him. The union could have chosen to give no endorsement and still run negative ads against Sweeney, but the NJEA instead decided to endorse his Republican challenger along with running attack ads.
“This is Jersey politics, not tiddlywinks,” Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, told The Intercept. “It’s tough, it’s rough, people hit each other in the face, and when you get knocked down you get back up.”
Still, the controversial endorsement has drawn fire from Democratic leaders, who say it forces the party to spend money defending Sweeney’s seat when they should be funding Democratic candidates in more competitive districts.
In mid-September, 16 Democratic state senators sent a letter to NJEA President Marie Blistan calling her union’s endorsement “inconceivable” and one that would carry damaging consequences for the party, Murphy, New Jersey, and the NJEA. “We understand that you have had differences with Senator Sweeney, but how can that possibly justify endorsing and funding a candidate who stands for everything your members oppose?” the state senators wrote. “To put it bluntly, the millions you’re spending on behalf of Fran Grenier is preventing us from spending money on candidates your own PAC has endorsed. The NJEA’s actions contradict your promise and ours to teachers throughout New Jersey to fight for their best interests, especially in the face of politicians unfriendly to education like Donald Trump, Chris Christie and Fran Grenier.”
By early August, both sides had already spent nearly $1 million on television ads, an unusually high amount, especially so far out from November. Travis Ridout, a political science professor and the director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks all broadcast ads in federal and state elections across the country, told The Intercept that political advertising in state senate races usually doesn’t occur until fairly close to Election Day — and spending levels are still fairly low in those races. “In fact,” he added, “most state legislative races don’t see any TV advertising at all.”
In July, Lily García, president of the National Education Association, the NJEA’s parent organization and the largest labor union in the United States, gave a speech saying she “will not allow the National Education Association to be used by Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos” and that her union “will not find common ground with an administration that is cruel and callous to our children and their families.” The NEA primarily, but not exclusively, backs Democrats for office.
When asked for comment on the NJEA’s endorsement of Grenier, the NEA told The Intercept it does not weigh in on endorsements from its affiliates.
Steve Baker, an NJEA spokesperson, declined to share the union’s candidate screening questionnaires with The Intercept, but said that union members felt comfortable recommending Grenier for endorsement after talking with him about a “wide range” of issues. NJEA’s Executive Director Ed Richardson offered a bit more insight in an interview with NJTV News, saying that after putting Grenier through an extensive screening process, the union felt he aligned with their positions — specifically on school funding, charter schools, pensions, and privatization.
Local New Jersey media has described Grenier as an arch-conservative, a climate-science denier, and someone who has demeaned public employees. Though he was a member of the electrical workers union from 1995 to 2005, the president of his former local, which endorsed Sweeney, said Grenier “was not a union guy.”
In an interview with The Intercept, Grenier confirmed he supports President Donald Trump’s policies, though he thinks the president “could reign in the Twitter a little.” He praised “the direction that [Trump] is taking the country as far as the amount of illegal immigrants coming across the border, and for upholding the laws of the country.” Grenier is also backing Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial opponent, Kim Guadagno.
Grenier told The Intercept that during his NJEA screening process, he made clear that if he were elected, he would not be willing to take on more debt, but he’d support identifying and eliminating inefficiencies in the state budget to potentially support new initiatives. “We need to stop borrowing, we’re already the most taxed residents in the country,” he said. “What I told them is I’m a fiscal conservative who has led Salem County in reducing their debt, and we’ve done so without layoffs. I will bring that fiscal responsibility to Trenton.”
Critics charge that Grenier supports Christie’s regressive school funding ideas, though Grenier told The Intercept that’s not true and he’s “not really familiar” with Christie’s plans. “Someone reported I supported Christie’s plan, but I don’t really know the details of it, and my comments at the time were focused on looking at whatever other states are doing to fund their education,” he said. He added that some New Jersey school districts are overfunded, and others are underfunded, because “powerful Democrats can manipulate things so some schools suffer.”
Controversially, Sweeney also maintains that school districts are unequally funded and that some level of redistribution is required, a position at odds with the NJEA, which argues that no existing school budget should be cut. In a C-SPAN interview last month, Sweeney defended his work on school funding reform and touted his support for labor. “I’m a union leader myself, I work for the Ironworkers International Union of North America, and you’re not going to find anybody more union than I am,” he said. “But as a senator I have to look at all members of the community, not just labor, and that’s what I do.”
Ultimately, as one of the best-funded candidates, Sweeney is likely to win his race next month. He did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment on NJEA’s Grenier endorsement, but in an interview with NJ Advance Media, he again defended his loyalties to organized labor and working people. “It’s frustrating because [the NJEA is] not being truthful,” he said.
Political analysts suspect the NJEA is pursuing this strategy largely to send a message to other Democratic legislators that if you cross unions one too many times, they’ll come after you, too.
“Sweeney is extremely well-connected, has the resources to combat a barrage of negative attacks, but not every legislator can say that,” said Dworkin. “The fact that the NJEA is not likely to knock off the legislative leader doesn’t mean their strategy isn’t working on some level.”
Others wonder if the NJEA’s hardball approach will come back to bite it, especially if Sweeney is elected and holds a grudge. Yet Dworkin notes that the powerful teachers union tried to oust the former Democratic Senate president in 1991, so this sort of politicking has some precedent in the NJEA’s playbook. With 200,000 members across every district in New Jersey, the union has some latitude. Plus, though the NJEA may take some heat if Democrats lose their races elsewhere in New Jersey, if Murphy (who the NJEA endorsed) is elected, then a veto-proof majority is less important.
Donna Chiera, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, declined to comment on the NJEA’s endorsement, but said she does worry it has diverted too much attention away from the fact that New Jersey has the opportunity to elect a Democratic governor with a Democratic legislature. “My concern is that members are hearing mixed messages, and sometimes when people get mixed messages they don’t vote at all,” she told The Intercept.
Murphy has so far refused to criticize the NJEA for endorsing Grenier. In Politico he was quoted as saying he’s “incredibly honored” to be backed by the teachers union, and yet “at the same time, I’m also on the line with and I’m campaigning with Steve Sweeney.” One Star-Ledger columnist argued that Murphy’s silence will weaken him, as other legislators “will see that he refused to throw a fellow Democrat a life-preserver in his hour of need.”
To some extent, this remains inside baseball for a relatively isolated political district. But as Dworkin put it, for those who follow these things, “it’s one of the more exciting fights.”