If you live in the Philadelphia TV market, you probably have seen more paid political ads than you care to watch touting two candidates running for a state Senate seat in South Jersey. Perhaps you have asked yourself why so much money is being spent on such a seemingly low-level office. The answer is that so much more is at stake.
The Third District seat is held by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, who up until about a year ago was considered the odds-on favorite to succeed Republican Chris Christie as governor. Instead, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy and Sweeney is in a fight just to stay in the Senate.
Competition is always good. Incumbents need to justify their reelection. But competition is better when the competitors are equally able to do the job, which is not the case in this election. In fact, if it weren't for the massive sums the state teachers' union is spending to try to defeat Sweeney, the Republican candidate would have been dismissed long ago as too inexperienced.
You heard that right. The New Jersey Education Association, long considered an appendage of the Democratic Party, is backing a Republican, Fran Grenier, and spending hundreds of thousands of union members' political action money on TV ads to get the former Woodstown Borough councilman elected. Why? Because Sweeney ticked off the NJEA.
He first raised the union's ire in 2011 when he worked with Christie to pass legislation requiring teachers and other government workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health coverage. The law also required the state to make its annual payment into the pension fund, which it hasn't always done.
The NJEA wanted a constitutional amendment making the pension payments mandatory, and Sweeney said he would push for that — but he didn't, which was the last straw for the union. So, it endorsed Grenier, the Salem County GOP chairman, who won't say if he voted for Donald Trump. Grenier did belong to the Electricians union before being promoted to a management job at PSE&G's Salem nuclear plant.
The NJEA and its affiliates are expected to spend $6 million in a state Senate race they are likely to lose. That has forced state Democrats to spend an equal amount on Sweeney, which is money that won't go to other Democratic candidates in the Nov. 7 election. Seeing that much money spent on any race is obscene, and speaks to the outsize influence of hard, cold cash on elections.
Putting aside the NJEA's beef with Sweeney, he is the superior candidate to represent the Third District, which includes all of Salem County and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland Counties. But Sweeney's value goes beyond that. As Senate president, he has worked with Republicans, including Christie, to make realistic budgetary decisions, including by passing the pension and health care reform bill.