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TRENTON - The top Democrat in New Jersey’s Legislature is facing harsh attacks from a surprising source in his re-election bid: the state’s largest teachers’ union.
The fight between Senate President Steve Sweeney, an ironworkers union executive, and the New Jersey Education Association in a southern New Jersey legislative district comes as Democrats nationally are focused on mending divisions among the party’s factions. But this battle stems from a distinctly New Jersey disagreement.
Sweeney angered the teachers’ union after he pulled his support last year for a constitutional amendment that would mandate pension payments into the deficit-laden fund.
With the union backing his Republican challenger, Sweeney has spent about $2 million, so far, on his re-election. That includes about $138,000 on television commercials in the Philadelphia broadcast market running through next week.
The expensive fight comes as the Democratic Party nationally works to rebuild, out of power in nearly two-thirds of statehouses, in the minority in Congress, and defeated nationally by President Donald Trump in 2016.
“It’s a completely misguided vendetta,” said George Norcross, a longtime Sweeney friend and Democratic National Committee super delegate. “It’s personal in nature and contrary to their interests and Steve’s gonna be re-elected and he’s gonna be the Senate president.”
The union defends its support of Fran Grenier, who’s served as a council member in Woodstown and GOP chairman of Salem County, saying members interviewed him and see him as a better steward of their interests.
Spokesman Steve Baker says the union isn’t applying a national context to the race, and it’s purely about who’ll better represent members in Trenton.
“We’re not an arm of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Others view the union’s decision as perplexing, especially given state and national Republican preferences for expanded charter schools and budget-saving cuts to pensions and benefits.
“It’s counter to their interests,” former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio said. “No question about it.”
Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, said the clash makes it harder for the party to come together. The party, she says, has to focus on winning more middle class voters who sided with Trump, but without alienating its typical bases.
“Our challenge as a party in coming elections will be to offer the right economic platform to win back the middle class high ground while not losing sight of the overall damage that Trump and the GOP are doing to so many of the issues that define our core as Democrats,” she said.
Experts expect Sweeney to prevail against Grenier, but the money spent by the NJEA means Sweeney, who would ordinarily focus on growing the state Senate’s Democratic majority, is instead concentrating on his own race.
Sweeney spent about $2 million through the June primary even though he didn’t have an opponent, according to the most recent state records. That’s more than double what he spent during the primary four years ago.
The NJEA’s political action committee, Garden State Forward, has raised $1.1 million and spent about $521,000, according to IRS documents. The PAC is financing a website that calls Sweeney a “Democrat in name only” and says he “caved” to unpopular Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
It’s unclear how much has gone directly against Sweeney, but the union traditionally is among the biggest spenders in legislative races. Baker declined to discuss how much the union would spend.
“It’s an uphill battle,” said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics. “They’re gonna spend mountains of money trying to knock him off. They believe they have to hold him accountable for what the union sees as a betrayal.”
He added that the goal isn’t necessarily to defeat Sweeney, but to send a message to other lawmakers: Oppose us at your own risk.
The NJEA-Sweeney split also puts Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy, whom both the union and Sweeney have endorsed, in an awkward spot. Murphy’s campaign declined to address it, but Murphy has campaigned with Sweeney and also promised to fully fund the pension — a key union request.
Larry Rogers, whose Better Education for New Jersey Kids is sponsoring a site called StopFranGrenier.com, says the NJEA money could instead have helped Murphy expand legislative majorities.
“It could have been used elsewhere,” Rogers said. “It could have been given to (help) Murphy get his agenda.”
Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini