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South Jersey Dem machine, teachers' union barrel toward Election Day

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, is fighting the state's largest teachers' union in what has improbably become the most expensive legislative race in state history.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (right) addressed supporters on Saturday in Woodbury. GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer
Senate President Steve Sweeney (right) addressed supporters on Saturday in Woodbury. GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff PhotographerRead moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney hopped on top of a firetruck in a parking lot off Broad Street in Woodbury, grabbed the megaphone, and cut to the chase.

"We're going to send a message that we cannot be bullied, that one group does not control the state of New Jersey," Sweeney told about 250 volunteers gathered Saturday morning, most of them members of building trades unions.

Less than a mile away, on Evergreen Avenue, dozens of members of the state's largest teachers' union cheered as the group's president declared they wouldn't tolerate Sweeney's "bullying, intimidation, and betrayal of public-school employees."

Then volunteers in both camps fanned out across South Jersey's Third District, knocking on doors and urging voters to support their respective candidates in what has improbably become the most expensive legislative race in New Jersey history.

On paper, Sweeney's opponent in Tuesday's election is Republican Fran Grenier, a supervisor at PSEG Nuclear's Salem plant and former Woodstown Borough councilman.

But Sweeney, the state's top-elected Democrat, is also up against the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association, which vowed in March to defeat the senator and has spent millions on television ads to try to accomplish that goal.

"Our members demanded an aggressive campaign," Marie Blistan, the group's president, said in an interview Saturday at the union's Woodbury office.

Sweeney may represent just one district, but the campaign has statewide implications: The Senate president is among the most powerful positions in Trenton. He can stall or advance the governor's agenda by controlling what legislation or nominations are considered for votes.

Hence the deluge of ads in this rural South Jersey district in a year when all 120 seats in the New Jersey Legislature are up for election. The governor's mansion is also in play; Republican Gov. Christie has served the maximum two terms and will leave office in January. Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Wall Street banker and diplomat, is leading in the polls against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a former prosecutor and sheriff.

In its latest ad, an NJEA-affiliated political group depicts Sweeney snapping his suspenders and smoking a cigar. "South Jersey is a mess, and it's time to take out the trash," the narrator says, as a truck dumps a heap of garbage at a landfill.

The teachers' union and a Sweeney-aligned super PAC started buying broadcast and cable ad time in midsummer. Those two groups, Sweeney's campaign, and another pro-Sweeney PAC will have spent an estimated $8.7 million on TV ads in the Philadelphia market come Election Day, according to the GOP media-buying firm Jamestown Associates.

Overall, the candidates and independent political groups are projected to spend at least $17 million, according to campaign-finance regulators, more than doubling the record.

Sweeney's sins, according to the teachers' union? He cut deals with Christie, underfunded schools, and broke a promise to hold a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have mandated pension funding for public employees.

"He has not been a friend of education," said Christine Onorato, 52, a teacher at Delsea Regional Middle School and longtime NJEA member.

Onorato, of Mantua, blames Sweeney for championing legislation that required public employees to contribute more money toward their pensions and health care. Now Onorato says she tutors and works weekends to make up the difference.

Sweeney, vice president of an ironworkers union, has represented the Third District — which spans Salem and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland Counties — since 2002. He was elected Senate president by his colleagues in 2009.

He says the NJEA's endorsement of Grenier, a supporter of Christie and President Trump, makes no sense. "He's against everything they stand for," Sweeney said.

Grenier couldn't be reached for comment.

The senator and his supporters argue he has fought for fairer distribution of school aid and worked to shore up the pension system.

Some Senate Democrats have argued that the union's campaign against Sweeney has diverted resources from battleground districts where the party was hoping to win seats, but the union chafes at the suggestion that it's an "arm" of the Democratic Party.

Democrats control the Senate, 24-16, and Assembly, 52-28. While those margins may change, Democrats are expected to retain their majorities.

Some analysts and Sweeney allies believe that if he wins, the union's leadership will face a backlash among rank-and-file teachers wondering why they spent so much money on a losing cause against the state's most powerful elected Democrat.

The election also comes months after the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would consider invalidating a law that requires public employees to pay union fees for collective bargaining.

The high court split 4-4 on a similar case last year. Now that Trump has appointed a conservative, Neil Gorsuch, to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, labor unions in New Jersey and across the country are worried.

That Grenier can even compete is almost remarkable. As of Oct. 24, Sweeney had raised $1.5 million for his individual campaign account — 10 times as much as Grenier — and $2 million for his joint account with his Assembly running mates.

Not long ago, it seemed likely that Sweeney would face a multimillion-dollar race this year — for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

But Sweeney decided not to run for governor, and he was expected to cruise to reelection.

Then the NJEA stepped in.