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Est. April 5, 2002
November 09, 2017 - Issue 717

2017 NJ and VA Governor Elections
Bellwethers for 2018 Mid-Terms
Public Education

"New Jersey and Virginia were the first proxies in
this battle royal to prevent the corporate Cartel
from the mass privatization of public-sector
institutions.  However, a closer analysis of the
aforementioned victories reveals remaining problems
of political decision making and organizing that
Democrats must address in these states if they
are to have success in the future."

The results are in. The Democrats have swept the 2017 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, much needed victories to push back against the Trump takeover of the national government and twenty-six governorships and state legislatures. New Jersey and Virginia were the first proxies in this battle royal to prevent the corporate Cartel from the mass privatization of public-sector institutions. However, a closer analysis of the aforementioned victories reveals remaining problems of political decision making and organizing that Democrats must address in these states if they are to have success in the future.

In New Jersey, Phil Murphy, the Democratic standard bearer, soundly defeated Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, his Republican opponent, by thirteen points (56 percent to 43 percent). Guadagno was crippled by having served under departing Gov. Chris Christie whose bombastic personality, political scandals, and close ties to President Trump caused his approval numbers to tumble to fourteen percent, the lowest in history for a governor leaving office. But an interesting sideshow of the election season was the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) targeting of State Sen. Steve Sweeney (D), the powerful President of the New Jersey State Senate, for defeat, while endorsing and funding a Republican challenger, Fran Grenier, a Trump-supporter. Although NJEA had endorsed and contributed to Sweeney’s campaign in all his previous elections, the union was angered by his refusal to support a constitutional amendment that would have required the state to fully fund teacher pensions which are currently running a deficit.

This state senate race turned out to be the most expensive in New Jersey’s history with NJEA spending approximately $5 million. But Sweeney was able to more than counter these expenditures with the backing of his political mentor, George Norcross, a multimillionaire businessman, who is the most powerful Democrat in the state, and “dark money” donations from the corporate Cartel. In addition, Democratic legislators gave Sweeney their total support. But the most curious aspect of this political episode was that the NJEA endorsed Phil Murphy for Governor, who also endorsed and campaigned with Sen. Sweeney during the final week of the campaign.

Additionally, Sweeny had the backing of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) splitting the major education unions; the AFT President, Randi Weingarten, came to New Jersey to campaign with him. Likewise, forty percent of NJEA members who live in Sweeney’s South Jersey senate district voted for him, left that ballot line blank, or did not show up at the polls. But the coup de grace was Norcross’s standing get-out-the-vote (GOTV) army of thousands in South Jersey that ensured the victories of numerous State Assemblypersons, Senators, Mayors, County Freeholders, City Councilpersons, and the newly elected governor. His political might was on full display with Sweeney beating Grenier like a drum, fifty-nine percent to forty-one percent. In effect, although NJEA and its allies expended more money than ever in their failed overthrow of a King, they had no field troops to turn out the vote. TV ads, phone banks, mailings, and yard signs are not enough to win an election against a powerhouse.

Norcross and Sweeney solidified their power in the legislature, and let Gov.-Elect Murphy see their influence before he takes office. Murphy will be unable to get anything done without their support. But the burning question is: what retribution, if any, will Sweeney seek against NJEA for their political challenge, which he termed a double-cross?

Down the road, Virginia retained control of the statewide offices—Governor (Ralph Northam), Lt. Governor (electing the second African American, Justin Fairfax), and Attorney General (Mark Herring) by seven to nine percentage points—all of whom run on separate ballot lines. And the Democrats erased thirty-two seats in the Republican-controlled House which should result in a Democratic overthrow of the Republican legislature after the runoff votes are counted. Advocates for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights were able to reach out across the electorate and speak to broad interests. As a consequence, Danica Roem became the first transgender candidate elected to a state House in history.

Virginia’s Democratic Progressives were heavily involved in all the races and had an abundance of boots on the ground via Mobilize America, Higher Ground Labs, and Planned Parenthood. The latter organized against draconian anti-choice legislation developed by arch-conservative Republican legislators. Millennials were a major focus of this outreach as their turnout was low during the 2016 presidential election. The Progressives perfected a GOTV tactic that could bear fruit in 2018 U.S. House and Senate, and state legislative races. It will be imperative that these initiatives be successful if the corporate Cartel is to be held at bay.

Public education may be in deep trouble in New Jersey in the aftermath of the New Jersey elections despite the Democratic victories. Coupled with the impending Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) Janus decision, scheduled to be heard in January 2018, the collection of agency fees, the life blood of many unions, will most assuredly be eliminated. And corporate charter schools will be put on an even more aggressive fast track, reducing the ranks of public school teachers and the budgets for public schools. But Virginia appears to have dodged a bullet to the heart of public education and equality by defeating the most rabid advocates of public-sector privatization.

The Democrats, unions, and the general citizenry must get their acts together if they are to stave off an overthrow of democracy.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 




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