LILLEY: Deb Cornavaca, the NJEA, and Gov. Murphy Are One Revolving Door of Special-Interest Influence

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Well, well, well, as night follows day, a NJEA political organizer cycles into the Murphy administration as a senior officer and then cycles right back to the NJEA.  Murphy’s Deputy Chief of Staff Deborah Cornavaca is leaving to become the NJEA’s Director of Government Relations.  Recall that Cornavaca was an NJEA political organizer before she went to the governor’s office to foster friendly relations with …. the NJEA and other unions.  And now she leaves the governor’s office for the NJEA where she will be fostering close relations with …. the governor’s office!  The brazenness of this special-interest co-optation of New Jersey government is breathtaking.

The facts are clear.  According to Governor Murphy:

“For the past four years, Deb Cornavaca has served as an integral member of my senior team, leading our outreach efforts to houses of worship, unions, advocacy groups, and community leaders, among others.” [Emphasis added]

(Sunlight surmises that Cornavaca was basically a political organizer for Murphy, doing the same job she did for the NJEA with many of the same activist organizations.  See our breakdown of Cornavaca’s career below).

According to NJEA Executive Director Steve Swetsky:

“Deborah brings a deep knowledge of both state government and of the full range of policy issues that are most important to New Jersey’s public school employees.” [Emphasis added]

Sunlight has documented the close relationship between New Jersey’s most powerful special interest, the NJEA, and Murphy.  The NJEA has been “all-in” for Murphy since he announced his candidacy for governor and contributed at least $15.5 million to pro-Murphy Super PACS.  For his part, Murphy has provided the NJEA with multiple policy quid pro quos.  Cornavaca is the embodiment of this cozy relationship.  Her seamless transition from the NJEA to the governor’s office back to the NJEA is the sort of special-interest revolving door that gives New Jersey politics a bad name.

But Murphy doesn’t care about that, he’s running for president.  And the NJEA surely doesn’t care because they benefit handsomely from a special-interest-dominated political system.  Is there any doubt that New Jersey citizens are taking a back seat?

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Here’s a breakdown of Cornavaca’s career as an activist and NJEA political operative from Sunlight’s report “A Spider Web of Political Power and Influence:

Meet Deborah Cornavaca.

Cornavaca is currently Governor Murphy’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Outreach. Cornavaca is also the living embodiment of a vast, interconnected network of public sector unions, progressive advocacy groups and other allies that reaches every corner of New Jersey – a veritable spider web of political power and influence. At the center of this spider web sits the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the largest and most powerful public sector union – and special interest – in the state. It was from the NJEA – where Cornavaca ran the NJEA’s Members4Murphy campaign – that Cornavaca jumped to Murphy’s staff.

As Deputy Chief of Staff, Cornavaca was famously caught on tape rallying the members of the progressive activist group Action Together New Jersey to push back on Senate president Steve Sweeney’s “Path for Progress” plan to address the New Jersey’s massive unfunded pension liabilities. On the call, Cornavaca was identified as a “longtime member” of Action Together who was “speaking to fellow activists and organizers.” Of note, despite her government appointment to serve of the citizens of New Jersey, Cornavaca made clear where her true loyalties lie: “[I] shouldn’t hide that I’m a unionist through and through.” Exactly as hoped by the NJEA, we can be sure.

True to her words, Cornavaca’s career is a case study of NJEA-backed political organizing in New Jersey. Appropriately recognized as an “organizing expert” by the governors’ office, Cornavaca’s political skills have been employed across the spectrum of the organizations and coalitions that make up the NJEA’s network of allies. Along the way, she has progressed from field organizer to leadership positions to executive office roles, always in the service of the NJEA’s agenda: fighting charter schools with Save Our Schools, resisting school choice in Newark, organizing against PARCC in Montclair and ensuring maximum NJEA member support for Murphy. It was a logical next step to progress from the NJEA to the governor’s staff.

In 2011 and 2012, Cornavaca was a political organizer for Save Our Schools, the grassroots parents’ group with strong ties to the NJEA and a leading voice against charter schools in the state. In 2013, she joined the leadership of the Badass Teachers Association – a more militant wing of the teachers union movement – even though she was not a teacher. By 2014, Cornavaca joined the NJEA-funded Working Families Alliance, where she was the campaign coordinator for the Better Choices for New Jersey coalition and on the Steering Committee of the Healthy Schools Now campaign. The NJEA supports both organizations. She eventually became Legislative Director for Working Families Alliance.

Notably, while working for Working Families Alliance, Cornavaca provided a glimpse into how Working Families Alliance operates with allied groups. In 2014, Cornavaca was involved in the Newark Education Organizing movement, in which the NJEA also participated. Cornavaca, the professional political organizer, acted as a spokesperson for the NPS Boycott4Freedom movement, which was boycotting Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan. Described as a “Newark parent” in news accounts, which she was not, Cornavaca spoke for the parents’ group as if she actually were a Newark parent: “We have decided to escalate our actions to a boycott because we cannot continue to let the state and the superintendent disregard our lived experience and endanger the lives of our children.” She also appeared to be working with Newark parents’ group People Unified for Local School Education (another NJEA-backed group) by coordinating food supplies to support the boycott.

About the same time in 2014, Cornavaca was listed as a member of Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS), an anti-standardized testing (PARCC) “parents’ group” in Montclair – along with at least two other Newark political organizers. Of course, as in Newark, she was not a Montclair parent and her involvement in MCAS was surely as a political organizer.

By 2015, Cornavaca had joined the NJEA as a political organizer where she remained until she went to work on the governor’s staff. Apparently while at NJEA, Cornavaca served as Treasurer and Steering Committee member for the NJEA-supported Latino Action Network. Importantly, in 2017, Cornavaca ran the NJEA’s “Members4Murphy” campaign to organize its members to support Murphy for governor. The NJEA was “all-in” for Murphy, and Cornavaca’s role there no doubt catapulted her on to Murphy’s staff: a win for Murphy, a win for the NJEA and a win for Cornavaca.

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