Unions' Choice to Avoid Primary Will Aid Booker

Unions' Choice to Avoid Primary Will Aid Booker

By Scott Conroy - June 12, 2013

The good news keeps coming for Cory Booker in the popular Newark mayor’s bid to become the next senator from New Jersey.

A pair of polls released on Monday showed the Democratic front-runner besting his two most viable primary opponents -- U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt -- by more than 40 percent in the special election to finish out the term of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died last week at age 89.

The best chance for liberal-leaning Pallone and Holt to make the race competitive against Booker --who is far better known statewide and has already begun racking up key endorsements -- would be to win the endorsement of one (or both) of the Garden State’s two most powerful unions: The New Jersey Education Association and the state branch of the Communication Workers Association of America.

But sources connected to both the NJEA and CWA tell RealClearPolitics that they do not expect their organizations to endorse a candidate in the Aug. 13 primary, leaving Booker with one less obstacle on his expected march to victory in the Oct. 16 general election.

“We’re unlikely to endorse in the primary,” said NJEA government relations director Ginger Gold. “This is a really politically complicated situation for organizations like ours because we have good friends running against each other, so there’s no advantage for us to get involved in this primary.”

In previous campaigns, Pallone and Holt have both benefitted significantly from their strong ties to the NJEA and CWA. Both unions, meanwhile, have had difficult to lukewarm relationships with Booker, who has established a reputation as a pro-Wall Street Democrat.

Last month, the NJEA formed a super PAC with the ability to raise unlimited funds, and the union’s capacity to make an impact on the Democratic primary is clearly evident.

But Gold cited the expedited special election calendar as an additional reason why her organization is reluctant to get involve in the Senate primary, as the union focuses instead on its uphill battle to knock off Republican Gov. Chris Christie in the November gubernatorial election.

Still, Gold suggested that a significant percentage of the teachers’ union’s nearly 200,000 members are expected to get behind Pallone and Holt.

“I can’t think of a time when either of them weren’t endorsed when they ran for office,” she said of the two Democratic congressmen. “They both have excellent voting records on our issues. They’re both extremely accessible to our members.”

Meanwhile, a person familiar with the internal discussions of the CWA -- New Jersey’s largest employee union -- said that group is “pretty unlikely” to endorse in the Senate primary. This source lamented that it was “sort of head-scratching” that both congressmen chose to enter the race, since their strong positions on union issues and bases of political support are similar.

“Booker would be the prohibitive favorite against anyone, but it does really make it more difficult with both of those two running,” the source said.

Since Christie took office in early 2010, both the NJEA and CWA have had frequent and high-profile bouts with the Republican governor, who has embraced his role as a union antagonist.

Booker has diverged from Christie in speaking out against some of the provisions in a new evaluation system that uses standardized test scores to determine teacher ratings in the state’s public schools.

But while the unions’ dealings with Booker have been far less acrimonious than they have been with the governor, their relationship with the Newark Democrat has often been fraught, especially when Booker and Christie teamed up in 2010 to push for teacher tenure reform and expanded student access to district vouchers.

Full-fledged union backing of either Pallone or Holt might have gone a long way to counter Booker’s institutional advantages in what is expected to be a low-turnout special election primary, but with time to catch up in the polls already running short, the front-runner appears to be in an increasingly comfortable position.

Booker has vowed not to air negative advertisements against his fellow Democrats, appearing unconcerned about the line of attack that his political antagonists have long mounted against him: that he is primarily interested in promoting his own brand and national celebrity.

In his announcement speech on Saturday, however, Pallone took a veiled jab at the Newark mayor.

“Do I have to answer in less than 140 characters?” Pallone said in response to a reporter’s question about the campaign, according to -- a sardonic reference to Booker’s prolific use of Twitter.

According to Patrick Murray, who directs Monmouth University’s polling institute and is a close observer of New Jersey politics, the intra-party barbs are unlikely to get much sharper than that.

“I’m not sure whether that much of a direct attack will work in the short time period we have,” Murray said. “I think all of these candidates want to keep it positive. Pallone wants to make it that he’s the real Democrat and Booker isn’t, but he’s not going to go totally negative in order to do that.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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