Pro-Murphy group has long refused to reveal its donors. We now know the powerful NJEA is one of them.
Now we know at least one of the contributors.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, donated $2.5 million to New Direction New Jersey, a nonprofit that promotes Murphy’s agenda, according to a report Monday by Politico New Jersey.
The news drew a sarcastic response from state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a fellow Democrat who often clashes with Murphy and has a history of bad blood with the NJEA.
“I’m aghast,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, joked to NJ Advance Media on Monday.
Insiders have long suspected the NJEA — which spent millions in an unsuccessful bid to oust Sweeney in 2017 — was among the donors.
The union publicly supported Murphy, an unabashedly pro-labor progressive Democrat, in the 2017 governor’s race.
Sweeney called on New Direction to reveal its contributors last year after it began running ads promoting Murphy during a state budget battle between the governor and top lawmakers.
The group — which is run by former Murphy campaign aides — is one of many “dark money” groups that are not required by law to disclose donors.
Initially, New Direction said it would release its contributors by the end of 2018. But the group went back on that vow, citing “increased attacks from powerful special interests seeking to preserve the status quo in recent months.”
Sweeney faced criticism around the same time because Public Service Electric & Gas mistakenly donated $55,000 to General Majority — a super PAC aligned with his ally, South Jersey power broker George Norcross — only months after the state Legislature passed a nuclear subsidy plan that benefited the company, according to news reports.
That donation became known only because General Majority has to reveal its donors under law. It would not have been made public if PSEG gave to General Growth Fund, a 501(c)4 organization that supports Sweeney.
All the drama sparked legislation to require “dark money” groups in New Jersey to reveal the identity of their biggest donors.
The bill overwhelmingly passed the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. But Murphy recently rejected it with a conditional veto, suggesting changes instead.
Sweeney says he’s open to overriding the governor’s veto.
Politico said Mike Lilley, a longtime opponent of the NJEA, found the donation in meeting minutes from the union in January 2018.
The NJEA told the website in a statement that it did make the contribution.
“NJEA members endorsed Gov. Murphy and are working hard to help advance his agenda on public education, workers’ rights and the well being of children and families,” union spokesperson Steve Baker said. “NJEA members choose to support New Direction New Jersey because we want to help bring that agenda to fruition. It is important that progressive voices are heard when these important issues are being discussed in New Jersey.”
The NJEA did not immediately return a message from NJ Advance Media seeking comment.
Murphy’s office deferred comment to New Direction.
A spokesperson for the group, Philip Swibinski, said in a statement that New Direction “is proud to have received support from the New Jersey Education Association because we share many of the same goals, from increasing funding for public schools to making sure teachers receive the respect and financial support they deserve and were all too often denied” under the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.
“As we have said previously, our organization is abiding by all state and federal disclosure laws and will continue to do so,” Swibinski said.
Sweeney said Monday he was irked by the donation.
“I’m bothered the governor is so connected to a point where it really affects the decisions for the people of New Jersey,” the Senate president said during an editorial board meeting with The Star-Ledger in Newark. “I respect teachers. I like teachers. I don’t think their membership appreciates the kind of money (the union is) spending, to be honest with you.”
As for the “dark money” bill, Murphy’s office said the governor’s suggestions strengthen the bill.
Sweeney said he’s open to attempting to override Murphy’s veto if the Senate’s Democratic caucus wants one.
“At some point, we’re gonna be treated as partners,” Sweeney said. “At what point do we as Democrats say enough?”
Murphy last year also called on New Direction to make the donors public.
Sweeney dismissed the idea Murphy can’t get New Direction to do so, noting that Brendan Gill — Murphy’s close adviser former campaign manager — helped form the group.
“They can’t get Brendan to do something?” Sweeney asked. “Come on.”
The NJEA was angered by Sweeney after he refused to place a ballot question before voters asking them if they’d approve regular required payments into the state’s severely underfunded public-worker pensions system.
The union then backed a Republican opponent against Sweeney in his 2017 re-election bid and spent millions to try and beat the Senate president. Sweeney had the help of a super PAC and the “dark money” group with ties to Norcross, the power broker.
Sweeney said he was irked that Murphy didn’t do enough to tell the NJEA to back off in the election. Privately, Murphy allies stress that the governor openly campaigned for Sweeney.
But that helped make the relationship between Murphy and Sweeney — the two most powerful elected state officials in New Jersey — tense.
Things have gotten even worse lately as a task force convened by Murphy investigates whether tax breaks doled out during Christie’s tenure were abused. Among the targets are four companies with ties to Norcross.