Dear Montclair Voters: You’ve Been Had

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That’s the bottom line from a new analysis by Michael Lilley of the New Jersey Sunlight Policy Foundation. According to newly-available ELEC data (which reveals campaign donations), when Sean Spiller ran for the position of Montclair Mayor in 2020, his victory was “bought and paid for by hundreds of thousands of dollars from the NJEA and its allies.”

How much money precisely?  $310,329 – or thirty-times as much as Spiller’s opponent, Dr. Renee Baskerville, had available to finance her campaign. 

Seems like a lot for a mayoral race. In fact, it is. But, hey, the costs of “video ads, waves of mailers and well-funded get-out-the-vote efforts by NJEA-paid political operatives” add up.

So, two questions:  Where was the money directed and what were the funding streams? (Spiller ran on a slate called Montclair 2020.)  And why was NJEA so heavily invested in Spiller’s victory that no price was too high?

Here’s Lilley’s up-dated break-down of the funding streams, based on the ELEC filings:

Spiller’s campaign:

  • $20,786 came from donations less than $300, whose donors are not reported to ELEC. 
  • $55,135 came from donations over $300, which are reported. Of this amount, $33,450 came from the NJEA and its allies, or 61% of the total. (Lilley has a chart that itemizes all of this.)

Montclair 2020 slate:

  •  Montclair 2020 raised and spent a total of $65,960. The majority of this money also came from the NJEA. Of the $65,960 raised, $41,000, or 62%, came from the NJEA PAC called Garden State Forward.  

Garden State Forward:

[Note: these are payments made to “CerillionN4 Partners,” the NJEA’s “go-to” outfit for campaign-related mailers, and to New Jersey Working Families Alliance –the  NJEA ally that is funded by NJEA— and that NJEA has previously paid for get-out-the-vote efforts for Spiller.] 

  • $67,110 to CrillionN4, plus another $16,800.
  • $89,000 to NJWFA, run by NJEA acolyte Sue Altman.

Here’s Lilley: “adding the Cerillion mailers and the Working Families payment makes a total of $156,110 spent by Garden State Forward, bringing the overall total spent to elect Spiller to $310,329 – or thirty-times as much as Spiller’s opponent, Dr. Renee Baskerville, who spent a total of $10,360.”

Maybe these expenditures are typical of  Montclair mayoral races. 

But they’re not. Lilley looked at all successful mayoral runs in Montclair for the last 20 years. The previous high was in 2012, when Robert Jackson spent $84,361, about a quarter of what the NJEA spent on Spiller. In fact, “spending on Spiller’s 2020 run was 35% more than all the previous mayoral runs combined [since 2000]: $310,329 to $230,654.”

Why the big investment in Spiller? First, the obvious: he just was promoted from NJEA Vice President to NJEA President, replacing Marie Blistan. And now for the not-so-obvious: NJEA is positioning Spiller to run for NJ governor; conveniently his term as top dog of NJEA ends in 2024, just in time to run as Phil Murphy’s heir-apparent in 2025. 

Again, Lilley:

The NJEA has a lot invested in Spiller. He is the president of the organization. He has been paid millions of dollars as a NJEA officer. He is the most famous graduate of the NJEA’s Political Leadership Academy, which trains NJEA members to run for public office. He has been rumored to have gubernatorial ambitions and indeed the NJEA, itself, has openly expressed the aspiration that some day a NJEA member could become governor. Being mayor of a large New Jersey town like Montclair would be a natural stepping-stone to a run for governor, perhaps after a second Phil Murphy term ends in 2025. As it happens, Spiller’s three-year term as NJEA president will end in 2024, so he could run for governor full-time in 2025.

There’s much more detail in the report, which is thoroughly readable. But here’s the kicker: Despite this gusher of NJEA money, the election was very close. Spiller got 5,445 votes to Baskerville’s 5,250, a difference of 195 votes, or 1.8%. In fact, Spiller/NJEA spent $56.99 for every vote, compared to Baskerville’s $1.97.

Boy, NJEA execs are all-in for Spiller’s arc into statewide politics. All it takes is money. But you knew that.

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