In King Lear, Shakespeare famously wrote, “come at the king, you best not miss.” For those not as familiar with the Bard, it is also a quote many today will attribute to Omar from The Wire. Most, particularly those in politics, know that when you come after the top dog, you better be successful … or suffer the consequences.
That may be a very hard lesson that the New Jersey Education Association is soon to learn. For those who hadn’t been paying attention to legislative races in the Garden State, the state’s largest teachers union decided to set its sites this fall on the Senate President. The Democratic Senate President, Steve Sweeney. And the NJEA did so by pouring millions — at least $5 million reported before election day — into Sweeney’s Republican, Trump-loving opponent.
Why, one may ask, did the teachers union decide to take on the (at the time) most powerful Democrat in the state, a Democrat with strong backing from labor unions across Jersey? By most accounts, it had to do with pensions and Sweeney’s decision to side with his constituents and not back a constitutional amendment guaranteeing increased pension payments by the state. Some might also point to Sweeney’s willingness to be open to the idea of charter schools, particularly in the struggling communities of South Jersey.
All told, the Sweeney Senate race is likely to be the most expensive state legislative race in history. Some say the total spending will exceed $20 million when all is said and done. Much of that was money Sweeney had to use to defend himself, dollars that he otherwise would have raised to help other Democrats win Assembly and Senate seats at a time when Democrats were taking back the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly a decade.
When the dust settled Tuesday night, the most powerful Democrat in New Jersey (and Sweeney may just retain that title even after Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is sworn in in January) won his state senate re-election campaign by 18 points, defeating the Trump/Chris Christie protege — and darling of the NJEA — by 18 points.
The big question is, what comes next? In the rough and tumble world of Jersey politics, it is hard to see Sweeney giving the NJEA an “attaboy” and congratulating it for sticking to their beliefs and doing what they thought was best for its members. While Sweeney has always been a friend of the teachers — and even had the AFT come into the state and campaign with him to mitigate the NJEA attacks — it is hard to see a world where Sweeney now becomes besties with the NJEA, even if the NJEA is now on the top of the “must call list” for the incoming governor.
The NJEA decided to come at the king, and they missed. No one doubts that Gov.-elect Murphy has made a list of promises to the NJEA as part of his march to the big desk. And Murphy will need to make good on those promises, helping move the NJEA’s agenda forward in a state when the governor’s office burned NJEA requests on sight for nearly a decade. But we are fooling ourselves if we think the Senate President is going to just go along with every one of those requests because a Democratic politician asks for it, even if that politician is a Democrat governor elected by 13 points in a blue state.
Successful politicians like Sweeney don’t get where they are, and don’t hold onto where they got, by rolling over and showing a soft underbelly. Sweeney is all too aware of who his friends are, who helped him win re-election, and who needlessly forced him to spend millions of dollars that could have been more wisely spent increasing his majority in the State Senate. He may not proactively seek retribution in the upcoming legislative session, but he will not forget. Nor should he. Progressives may rejoice about their collective successes on election day, but when they turn on dependable Democrat voices like Sweeney — and back conservative Trumpites to play single-issue politics — it is a dangerous gambit that places politics ahead of policy.
Nothing will get through the New Jersey Legislature, no matter how strongly it is endorsed by the incoming governor, that the powerful Senate President doesn’t want. The NJEA came at the king, and it missed. As a result, the union — and its members — may have to pay the price. That’s politics, particularly Jersey politics. And it will likely be a very expensive lesson for the New Jersey Education Association.