NJEA Needs a Primer on Political Strategy

Case in point is the union’s endorsement of NJ Senate-hopeful Jerome Dunn (Union), running in the primary today as part of a slate called Democrats for Change against incumbent Ray Lesniak. Yeah, we get the antipathy towards the Opportunity Scholarship Act, otherwise known as the “voucher bill.” Senator Lesniak is a primary sponsor of the bill, but he’s also been a favorite of NJEA for decades and the odds of him losing to Dunn, Assistant Superintendent of the Elizabeth public schools, are slim to none. Yet NJEA is pulling out all the stops in supporting Dunn and, in doing so, allying themselves with the political cesspool that is the Elizabeth Board of Education.

From RealClearPolitics: "The state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has endorsed Dunn. Though Lesniak has been a longtime friend of labor and the NJEA has a running feud with Christie, the veteran lawmaker supports school vouchers and the union does not."

For a bit of the back story check out Bob Braun’s column in the Star-Ledger and John Mooney in NJ Spotlight.

Just how political is the Elizabeth School Board? The school district website features a rebuttal from Board President Marie Munn in response to a recent expose in the Star-Ledger that concludes that the district is rife with nepotism (at least 20 relatives of Board members are employed by the School Board); that the former Board president has six relatives employed there, including a sister who is paid more than $50K a year as truant officer for preschoolers despite the fact that preschoolers are not obliged to attend school; that administrators and board members pressure employers to make campaign contributions. Braun also points out that the district has a history of appointing union leaders to administrative posts, including the brother of NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano. It’s pretty grim.

(In response the Elizabeth Education Association has a letter out to members that agrees that support for NJEA-endorsed candidates is voluntary yet urges them to support Dunn and the rest his slate.)

Bob Braun queries Sen. Lesniak on why NJEA would insert themselves into this rathole. Lesniak replies that NJEA doesn’t want to “alienate on of its biggest locals:”
"The union and the school board are virtually one entity,’’ says Lesniak. And the school board represents the last vestiges of the old political machine of the late Thomas Dunn, the former, longtime Democratic mayor — who also didn’t mind endorsing Republicans. But Dunn didn’t like the local union and fought against making the board an elected body because, he warned, it would be taken over by the union.
The Star-Ledger story makes note of emails send by Elizabeth board member Paul Perreira to employees asking for a donation of $240 to support a group called For the People of Union County. The money is used to put out a weekly newsletter called The Union County Reporter, which is essentially campaign literature, much of it featuring Dunn.

So why would NJEA insert itself into this mess? Beats me. If Dunn loses, the union has a statewide demonstration of its impotence. If Dunn wins (which seems unlikely) then they’ve ousted a powerful education supporter who just happened to fail the litmus test on vouchers.

Update: the Democrats for Change slate -- led by Jerome Dunn and endorsed by the Elizabeth teachers' union -- won in Elizabeth lost night but lost everywhere else. Here's PolitickerNJ's story, which reports that Sen. Lesniak's slate "thrashed" its challengers.