New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scored a big win for his agenda in June when he persuaded the state legislature to pass a public employee pension and benefits overhaul. The bill, which the governor’s office said would save New Jersey taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years, was the product of a yearlong negotiation between Christie and the Democratic leaders of the state senate and assembly, though it did not receive the backing of most Democrats in either chamber. Those that did support the bill are now paying a political price, with the state’s most powerful union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), withholding endorsements for any Democrat in the upcoming election who voted in favor of the pension reform, including the senate president and assembly speaker.
“NJEA members make these endorsement decisions, and they have made it clear that they will not endorse legislators who have impaired their right to collectively bargain and who have imposed thousands of dollars of additional costs on public employees,” NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said in a statement. “Our members refuse to give precious resources and their own time to campaign for legislators who hurt them and their families.”
That reference was to provisions of the pension and benefits reform bill that will increase state employee contributions to their pension and health benefit packages on a sliding scale based on salary, raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 and allow the state to begin offering catastrophic and reduced coverage health plans in exchange for lower premiums. Left off the NJEA’s endorsement list were more than 20 legislators from both houses, most of them Democrats, all of whom voted for the pension reform bill.
But in the case of State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the NJEA has done more than just decline to give him its seal of approval. It has spent $1 million of member dues to run advertisements against Sweeney in his district, alleging that his support for the bill had corrupt motives. The union tied Sweeney to longtime Democratic power broker George Norcross, who runs a health insurance brokerage with the state as one of its biggest clients. The NJEA alleged in the ad that Norcross’ firm would stand to benefit from the changes to employee benefits in the bill, essentially accusing Sweeney of selling his vote.
“If the legislation is approved by the committee, it will be proof positive that the interests of the party bosses are more important to this legislature than the interests of the state’s taxpayers,” Keshishian said.
Sweeney, himself the president of a private sector union, fired back. “The NJEA is fiddling with our teachers’ money while Rome burns,” Sweeney said in reaction to the ad. “This $1 million attack ad won’t do a thing to save the pensions of hundreds of thousands of teachers and retirees from collapse, or give property taxpayers any relief from the ever-increasing weight of health benefits that hangs around their necks.”
The battle between New Jersey Democrats and their largest and most influential backer has been fought with the specter of the legislative elections hovering in the background. New Jersey is one of only four states holding off-year legislative elections. Much like the 2009 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, the outcome will be closely watched for clues as to how the larger national electorate will behave in 2012.
The dustup over the pension reform law complicates an already tricky election campaign for New Jersey Democrats. Veteran New Jersey conservative pollster and media consultant Rick Shaftan told HUMAN EVENTS his polling shows a heavily Republican electorate this year, giving Republicans a good chance of picking up one or both chambers in November, even before the NJEA decided to sit out so many races.
“Democrats have defined themselves as a far Left party,” Shaftan said. “The Democrats message is: We want New Jersey to have the nation’s highest income tax at 10.75%, we support Planned Parenthood abortion clinics and want to use taxpayer money to fund them, and we back public employee unions and want taxpayers to pay 100% for their benefits.”
“If the election becomes a referendum on public employee unions, it could hurt Democrats bad. Public employee unions, not popular right now, and the class warfare, is not working this year. People are wising up to this stuff,” he said.
Shaftan said Republicans have a realistic opportunity to pick up as many as 15 in the assembly and seven to nine seats in the senate, including Sweeney’s, thanks in part to the NJEA. “Sweeney can lose. Republicans have no credible challenger yet, but Sweeney has high negatives and now he’ll have no campaign workers because of the vote for pension reform bill.”