NJ Democratic Identity Crisis

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The New Jersey Education Association has released an expensive ad that accuses Republican Gov. Christie and Senate President and Democrat Steve Sweeney of caring “more about paying political bosses than protecting NJ taxpayers” by collaborating on health and pension reform for public workers, including teachers. It’s a risky move by the Union, driven by fear of both benefits and education reform. The ad includes multiple references to George Norcross, a powerful Democrat and supporter of charter schools and vouchers. Norcross is also a patron to both Sen. Sweeney and Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver; the Assemblywoman, after some back and forth, now seems poised to allow the pension/benefits bill to come to the floor of the Legislature.

How are Democratic leaders in NJ responding to the NJEA ad? Here’s a sampling of quotes from today’s papers that reveals how education reform discombobulates traditional party alliances.

George “Powerbroker” Norcross: “When we’re aware that 87 percent of public schools in Camden are considered failing by the Department of Education and eight miles away my children get a quality education, there’s something wrong with America. There’s something wrong with New Jersey. I’m embarrassed by the Democratic Party, to be frank. We should be the leaders on education reform,” he said. (Asbury Park Press.)

NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano: Democrats are making a “very, very dangerous mistake” by backing the bill. “It is a party who has seemed to lose its way in terms of middle-class values, working people values. That is the base of the Democratic Party, and when they take issues of this nature and try to out-Christie Christie on it, I think they are losing their base.” (The Record.)

Senator Steve Sweeney: “The NJEA is fiddling with our teachers’ money while Rome burns…This $1 million attack ad won’t do a thing to save the pensions of hundreds of thousands of teachers and retirees from collapse, or give property tax payers any relief from the ever-increasing weight of health benefits that hangs around their necks.’’ (The Record)

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian: [Sen. Sweeney] is “apparently more interested in protecting the interests of George Norcross than the interests of taxpayers.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Former Gov. Jim Florio: The NJEA ads are ““the very opposite of responsible, the very opposite of constructive dialogue. We try to think of teachers – and I think the vast majority of them are – as role models. And that’s not what it is we’ve seen (in these ads)…I would hope that teachers themselves would reach out to their leaders. (PolitickerNJ)

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ): “Instead of spending its resources attacking Mr. Norcross and those who seek a better city, the state NJEA leadership should join local leaders – including local NJEA members – in a common effort to improve education for the children of Camden.” (PolitickerNJ.)

Bergen County Assembly Representatives Valerie Vainieri Huttle(D- 37), Gordon Johnson(D- 37), Joan Voss(D- 38) and Connie Wagner(D-38): “Our Democratic Party principles are to stand with the working families that unions represent. Public workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters and the many other employees who dedicate themselves to our state, deserve a seat at the bargaining table to decide their own fate. These people are New Jersey. We must continue to preserve their fundamental right to collectively bargain.” (Press Release)

Rev. Reginald Jackson, Director of the NJ Black Ministers Council: “I salute George Norcross, I salute Steve Sweeney, in fact, I applaud Gov. Christie…Our fight is not with the NJEA, but our fight is on behalf of our children.” (PolitickerNJ)

Newark Mayor Cory Booker: “”Let’s raise a level of dialogue. We cannot keep blaming each other when our children, at the end, fail and falter.” (PolitickerNJ)

The debate about school reform is “unfortunately degenerating into shallow name calling, mistruths and really undermining what should be a robust and dialogue. It’s unfortunate we’ve seen really a shallow attempt to vilify individual actors who have a record established on serving the educational interest of not just all of New Jersey’s kids, but particularly New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.” The NJEA ad is “a departure from the sensible, was painful and poisonous, and not in any way adding to what is going to be necessary to move us forward.” (The Star-Ledger)

Assembly Speaker Joe Cryan: “For those of us who haven’t sold out our party, we decline to accept. And for those of us who work for a living, we decline to agree,” Cryan said in a telephone interview. “The speaker [Oliver] doesn’t have the majority of her own caucus, and as the majority leader, I say she shouldn’t put it up [for a vote]. And as for the rest of us, we all want health care. We all believe in a better life for us and our children. And how terrible it is that the Democratic Party today chose to take a different path.” (The Record)

Hetty Rosenstein, CWA New Jersey state director: “We expected this from Gov. Christie, but we did not expect so-called Democratic leaders to abandon working families. Make no mistake: More than one million unionized New Jerseyans are passionate, engaged and outraged — and the soul of the Democratic Party is at stake,” she said. (Asbury Park Press.)

Former NJEA senior executive Jeannine LaRue: “I can’t recall the union going after a citizen… They really wanted to go after him for the education reform…Competition is healthy. I believe that even the public schools will perform better.” (PolitickerNJ)

Professor Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University: “The reality is, it takes a lot to slay these dragons.” If NJEA leaders “essentially declare war on what heretofore have been political allies, they really risk this protracted situation where they lose their political clout and ability to work with legislators in the future.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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