NJ politics succeeds by getting self-interest to serve common good | Our View

Election campaigns in New Jersey are smelly affairs. Candidates promise or imply they’ll benefit self-interested groups or factions. The wealthy and powerful try to buy the favor of candidates or even the outcome of a race.

Voters and candidates would do well during campaigns to keep in mind what it means to be human. Other animal species relentlessly pursue their self-interest, driven solely by instinct. People figured out that working with others for the common good produced a better outcome for all than just blindly competing for personal gain. Elected officials and political/government systems that give priority to common interests over those of groups and individuals are essential to democracy.

This tension between the public good and self-interest always colors campaigns, and this fall’s state election has produced some interesting examples.

One that seems truly unique is the teachers union vendetta against Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

The New Jersey Education Association has grown wealthy and powerful by providing funding and campaign support mainly to Democrats, getting many benefits in return. Yet this year they’re trying to destroy the Legislature’s top Democrat.

The relationship was fine until a little more than a year ago, when Sweeney declined to hold a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment the NJEA wanted and he apparently had agreed to pursue. It would have put fully funding $46 billion in teacher pension promises ahead of all other state spending. Maybe he didn’t have the votes in the Senate, or figured the timing wasn’t good to get public approval. Whatever the reason, it prompted NJEA threats of retribution against Democrats who failed to back it. Sweeney responded by accusing the union of “attempted bribery and conspiracy.”

The NJEA announced it would try to defeat Sweeney in this year’s Democratic primary, in the general election and in any effort to seek another term as Senate president.

That last threat failed within two days, when Senate Democrats unanimously pledged their support for Sweeney. When no one challenged Sweeney in the primary, the NJEA took out ads attacking him anyway. And in May, the union endorsed his little-know Republican foe.

Sweeney nonetheless engineered a compromise on school funding that increased state aid by $100 million and got another $50 million for preschool and special education programs. Yet last month the union put 100 protesters in Sweeney’s district wearing black to mourn the death of the pension amendment.

In its effort to support every Sweeney enemy it can find, NJEA has endorsed Chris Brown for Senate — after spending more than a million dollars two years ago to defeat Brown and elect Colin Bell, who is now his opponent in the Senate race. That’s the reverse of the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey endorsement and makes it seem that for the NJEA, it’s all about hating Sweeney and asserting absolute power over politicians.

At least it has made the teachers union slightly more bipartisan, bringing to eight the number of Republican legislative candidates it is endorsing this year, still tiny compared to the 86 Democrats enjoying its favor.

We understand why the NJEA would focus so narrowly on its own interests. Since, as Robert Reich said in his Sept. 3 commentary, the economic and political elites spend their “ever-growing wealth and power on rigging the game to their own advantage,” teachers might feel justified in steering N.J. government to their advantage. But residents and taxpayers need less rigging, not more.

At least it’s clear what the union wants. Not so with Phil Murphy, who appears on his way to purchasing the governor’s office by paying the North Jersey Democratic machine and funding his own campaign with whatever millions are needed.

This not only isn’t unique, it’s remarkably similar to Jon Corzine, another wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive with no political experience who suddenly decided he wanted a major elected office in New Jersey.

There was great hope that Corzine, an outsider and finance guy, would lead the fiscal restoration of heavy-spending, heavy-taxing New Jersey. But when the hard choices needed to be made, Corzine instead got in bed (literally) with the state’s biggest government workers union, mistakenly thinking that would serve his national ambitions.

Murphy’s front-running campaign hasn’t said much about tackling the state’s problems, which judging by the polls hasn’t bothered the public much. We can’t blame people for wanting a fresh face with proven success at something.

We just hope that whatever his so-far unclear ambitions are, if Murphy becomes governor his pursuit of them includes and is furthered by fixing state government finances and reviving New Jersey’s nation-lagging economy. Advancing those common goods would make a fine political reputation.