TRENTON - The big spending in the race to replace U.S. Sen. Cory Booker's interim successor as Newark's mayor is coming from outside political groups rather than the campaigns themselves, a first in New Jersey as the type of spending that has become pervasive in presidential and statewide elections catches on locally, too.
The groups have spent $2.6 million so far in Newark's mayoral election and another $93,000 on elections in Trenton and Bayonne, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
The effect, particularly in Newark, where city councilman and school principal Ras Baraka and law school professor Shavar Jeffries are vying in Tuesday's nonpartisan election, is that the campaigns themselves aren't to blame for all the mudslinging.
The commercial that compares Jeffries to Republican Gov. Christie, an unpopular figure in heavily Democratic Newark, is the work of the Working Families Organization, a national liberal group.
The ad that blasts Baraka as a career politician who voted to raise his own pay is from Newark First. The alliance of blue-collar unions and other groups, including the New York-based Education Reform Now, was formed specifically to back Jeffries and bash Baraka.
"It's just following a trend. It started out at a national level," said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission and an advocate of more transparency in this type of political spending. "The state follows the national and now the local follows the state."
Unlike the candidates, whose campaigns are bound by contribution limits, the independent groups have no restrictions on how much they can raise and spend. They are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns, though, and they must report their spending.
Some of the groups, including Newark First, have also disclosed which organizations fund them, while others have not.
The campaigns themselves have only spent $1.5 million as of filings this week, compared with $1.7 million by Newark First and $400,000 by Working Families.
Outside groups have fueled the last few presidential elections and they spent $39 million on last year's New Jersey gubernatorial and legislative races.
Better Education for New Jersey Kids, a group that advocates for charter schools and using public money to send children to private schools, spent more than $250,000 in the Jersey City mayoral race last year.
The group has spent $36,000 in Trenton to support Jim Golden, one of six mayoral candidates. Much of that paid for a billboard and direct mail that try to link candidate Eric Jackson to former Mayor Tony Mack, who was convicted of federal corruption charges this year.
The American Federation of Teachers has also spent $93,000 on anti-Jeffries ads, and the future of education is seen as a crucial issue by the independent groups.
Both Newark candidates say they want to end the state's control of schools. If that happens, the mayor could take a large role in the school system.
Baraka supports strengthening traditional public schools, while Jeffries favors the bigger changes pushed by reform groups.