The price of battle

Teacher Melissa Neiheisel queries Gov. Christie. The union says it has to pay to counter his bully pulpit.
Teacher Melissa Neiheisel queries Gov. Christie. The union says it has to pay to counter his bully pulpit. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

Teachers union spent millions last year in its lobbying against governor.

Posted: March 12, 2012

Are you in the governor's crosshairs? Does he want to enact policies that you object to? Care to respond?

No problem. It'll cost you just $10,875,011.

That's what Gov. Christie's chief nemesis, the New Jersey Education Association teachers union, spent last year for "communications" lobbying: an anti-Christie campaign that featured TV ads, radio spots, and a plane that flew up and down the Jersey Shore proclaiming Christie's love for millionaires.

The ads are needed, the NJEA says, to counter Christie's free arsenal (his regular national TV interviews, 45-minute news conferences and near-weekly town hall meetings) and the firepower of his allies (multimillion-dollar ad campaigns by a pro-Christie political action committee, supportive talk shows on 101.5 FM, and the state Republican Party, which recently sent two young videographers to NJEA headquarters hoping to catch union bosses doing something unflattering).

The NJEA's total lobbying cost last year was $11.3 million, tops in the state and $10 million ahead of No. 2. (Compare the union's Pennsylvania counterpart, which spent $4.2 million on lobbying and politicking last year, according to a new study by the Commonwealth Foundation.)

It also helped set a record. More was spent lobbying Trenton in 2011 ($73 million) than ever - 11 percent more than in 2010, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). And the total for 2010, Christie's first year in office, was up 14.5 percent over 2009.

The Christie era is turning out to be boom times for lobbyists and ad makers.

Experts say that's because a Republican governor is grappling over big issues with a Democratic legislature. "You have this powerful personality who in his words is trying to turn Trenton upside down," says political scientist Brigid Harrison at Montclair State University.

Adds Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University: "The state capital is not a backwater little town. We are arguing over billions of dollars and some very significant public policy issues."

Christie can push his side by dint of office and personality. Countering that by getting a legislator drunk on Merlot at lunch doesn't cut it anymore.

"The 21st century certainly has arrived for lobbyists in New Jersey," said Jeff Brindle, the executive director of ELEC.

The NJEA ads didn't stop the governor from signing a landmark law that forces teachers to pay more for medical and retirement benefits. But most of Christie's other plans for remaking the educational system have not gone through - yet.

"And yes, we did spend a lot of members' money on it, and they wanted it," said Steve Wollmer, NJEA spokesman. "The governor doesn't have to pay to get out his message. The governor has a press conference like he did today, and you guys show up."

Yes, we do. His attacks on the salaries, personalities, and priorities of NJEA officials is news - and of interest to readers.

Asked about the union's spending habits last Wednesday at a news conference, Christie said: "I feel badly for teachers who are paying dues every year to have that kind of garbage be put on the air."

"Is this really what teachers want their money spent on?" Christie asked. He suggested the NJEA use its cash to fund teacher benefits and merit pay. If he were a teacher, he said, "I'd be pretty angry this morning about the way they spend their money."

But are teachers angry? I asked that question on Twitter, and it sparked a tremendous reaction on anti-Christie Facebook teacher forums:

"They're fighting on my behalf. Why would I be mad?"

Some said they wished the NJEA spent more: "If I'm frustrated with my union, it's not because they're fighting back; it's because they need to fight back even harder!"

Several repeated a bit of misinformation: that their dues don't pay for attack ads against the governor. Wollmer said the money for last year's extraordinary advertising blitz came from organization reserves, which were funded by past years' dues.

Yet Christie - who was a registered state lobbyist himself from 1999 to 2001 - said there's more to it. He doesn't believe the NJEA's reported costs fully account for its efforts. He declined to specify what he meant, except to say that he didn't think the union was doing anything illegal.

"And he wonders why we have to advertise to set the record straight?" Wollmer asked. "He can stand up in front of you, the entire press corps, and lie, lie! - I'm sorry I'm getting a little p - ed - and what are we supposed to do?"

Looks as if Christie might have bought himself another ad, just like that.


Contact Matt Katz

at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ christiechronicles.

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