Sweeney super PAC draws heavily on union support

PoliticoNewJersey- More than half of the money raised by a super PAC aligned with state Senate President Stephen Sweeney comes from Building Trades labor unions, while lobbying, engineering and construction firms contributed much of the rest.

New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow was founded in the spring of 2015 by a former Sweeney aide, Sean Kennedy. It immediately started drawing big checks from private sector unions.

The PAC’s filings give an early indication of how much Sweeney — himself a vice president of the International Association of Iron Workers — plans to rely on organized labor’s muscle during his anticipated run for governor in 2017.

“I think the greatest testament to Senate President Sweeney, who clearly this super PAC is supporting, is along the lines of those who know him best," Kennedy said. "He has spent his entire life as a member of the building trades. He’s always fought for the middle class, fought to put people to work. Those people know him better than anybody and have shown they’re 100 percent behind him not just in their words but their resources.”

In all, unions — none of them public employee unions —contributed $671,500 of the $1,176,566 the PAC raised in 2015.

The biggest single donor was South Jersey’s IBEW Local 351, which gave $100,000. Rep. Donald Norcross — a Sweeney ally and the brother of his political patron, Democratic power broker George Norcross — started his career as an electrician with the union in 1983.

Through various councils and locals, ironworkers unions gave $158,000. UNITE HERE!, which represents hotel and casino workers among others, contributed $51,000. New York-based SEIU 1199 gave $25,000.

Public sector unions like the NJEA and CWA — which have historically clashed with Sweeney over cuts to public worker benefits— do not appear anywhere on the super PAC’s reports.

Sweeney, however, has been on friendlier terms with the public workers unions in recent years. And he’s pushing an amendment to the state Constitution that would require the state to fulfill its pension obligations — something the public sector unions strongly support.

“He absolutely does have to make some inroads with the public sector, but it’s not clear he’s going to be able to get their endorsements,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.

The Carpenters Fund for Growth & Progress — which has strong ties to South Jersey Democrats — also gave $25,000.

“They’ve probably become one of the most influential private worker unions in state politics,” said Murray. “They also get their members out to work the streets and the phones, getting the vote out.”

Engineering firms with millions of dollars in public contracts — some with state work that would bar them from making significant donations to gubernatorial campaigns under New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws — gave $49,500.

Lobbying firms — topped by Cammarano, Layton and Bombardieri Partners, which gave $10,000 — gave a combined $34,000.

Attorneys and law firms, some of which have public contracts, gave $102,500. Some of those law firms, like Archer & Greiner and Gibbons PC, which gave $25,000 and $10,000, respectively, also have in-house lobbying shops.

Sweeney’s is just one of several active super PACs and other political groups that are supporting expected Democratc candidates for governor in 2013.

A super PAC supportive of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop has raised $3.2 million since its founding in August — much of it from massive anomyous cash infusions and donations from developers and law firms with business in the city.

Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who is making the rounds to run for governor, has blanketed the airwaves with ads and Democrats’ mailboxes through a group that’s raised $1.95 million — the vast majority of which came from Murphy’s own deep pockets.

Allies of Democratic state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has said he's likely to run for governor in 2017, have set up at least two PACs. One barely raised any money last quarter, while another's year-end report is not yet online.

The rise of super PACs has frustrated the state’s campaign finance agency, which has found them difficult to track and often used as ways to circumvent campaign finance law.

But Jeff Brindle, executive director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, gave credit to Sweeney’s super PAC for its transparency. Unlike the other groups, New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow filed with the state and has filed quarterly updates on its donors.

“That’s exactly what we’ve been calling for, for some time: Legislation that would require that. If there’s any kind of participation in New Jersey, they should be filing with us,” Brindle said. “The Sweeney PAC has been really good. They’re voluntarily doing it, which is really excellent.”

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