“Dark money” group New Direction New Jersey (NDNJ) is no longer quite so dark. Some nine months after promising to disclose its donors, NDNJ finally did last week. But only after the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey (SPCNJ), POLITICO and the Bergen Record dug up the major sources of its funding. And only after lawmakers passed a new disclosure law (now under legal challenge). The gig was up and NDNJ knew it.
So we can now confirm what many of us already assumed: NDNJ would not exist if not for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). With almost 70 percent of the $6.5 million raised coming from New Jersey’s most powerful special interest, and with Governor Murphy appearing in NDNJ’s TV ads, it sure looks like the NJEA is pulling the strings of the Murphy administration. For all intents and purposes, NDNJ appears to be a NJEA Super PAC with our governor serving as its spokesperson.
Here are five other things we learned:
1. NDNJ’s hypocrisy knows no bounds. NDNJ’s spokesperson, Phil Swibinski, decries potential attacks on NDNJ from “entrenched Trenton special interests.” This is laughable coming from NDNJ, which got $4.5 million from the most powerful entrenched special interest of them all, the NJEA. SPCNJ estimates, from 1999 to 2017, the NJEA spent over $880 million on politics, most of it disguised and unreported. No other political force in the state comes close. A look at NJEA’s multi-million-dollar headquarters in Trenton, a short walk across the street from the Statehouse, tells you all you need to know. Moreover, the list of NDNJ donors is nothing but a list of special interests. Finally, after its months of delay, it takes some real chutzpah for NDNJ to call on other organizations to reveal their donors and promise to hold them “accountable” if they don’t.
2. Governor Murphy has a serious conflict of interest on his hands. No wonder NDNJ tried to hide its donors for so long. The NJEA’s $4.5 million helped pay for TV ads featuring the governor calling for one of the NJEA’s top policy priorities: the millionaire’s tax. When the governor of a state appears in TV ads paid for by a powerful special interest pushing the special interest’s agenda, citizens are right to ask whose interests the governor is serving: the special interest’s or the citizens of the state who elected him?
3. $4.5 million buys you a lot of influence. NJEA president Marie Blistan was co-chair of Governor Murphy’s education transition team. Deborah Cornavaca, the NJEA political operative who ran the NJEA’s “Members4Murphy” campaign, is now a Deputy Chief of Staff in the Murphy administration. Joel Weisblatt, who was supported by the NJEA and other unions, is now chair of the Public Employment Relations Commission. The governor has stated publically that he has “spoken to the NJEA constantly” for the last five years, “including around New Direction, but far more often on policy.” And, indeed, Murphy has supported all of the NJEA’s top legislative goals: the millionaire’s tax, so-called Chapter 78 relief, and opposition to out-sourcing the work of education support professionals.
4. The NJEA is profligate with its members’ dues. Remember that the NJEA dropped $4.8 million in its futile effort to unseat Senate President Sweeney in 2017. Add the $4.5 million in dark money to NDNJ, and you have $9.3 million of teachers’ dues going to questionable political activities. A full-time teacher pays $950 a year in dues. That $9.3 million could fund a $50 rebate for each one of them. If they truly had a choice, which they do not, would teachers choose to take the rebate?
5. Dark-money advocacy groups appear to be a way around pay-to-play laws. A look at the list of donors to NDNJ reveals that it is full of companies and firms that if their donations had been directly to the Murphy campaign rather than to NDNJ, pay-to-play laws would have been implicated. But since they went to the dark money group, pay-to-play is not implicated. Again, no wonder NDNJ wanted to keep its donors secret.
NDNJ is not going away. New Jersey must see NDNJ for what it is: a vehicle for the state’s most powerful special interest, the NJEA, to project its political influence. NDNJ also represents an ongoing conflict of interest for the governor, which grows every time the NJEA spends another dollar on a NDNJ TV ad with the governor serving as its spokesperson.
All of this casts New Jersey politics in the worst of lights. It lives down to the depiction of New Jersey politics as rife with special-interest influence and corruption. It corrodes public trust in government and ultimately hurts the state. Is this how teachers want millions of their hard-earned money spent?