Mayor Sean Spiller, seen here in May announcing a new task force to work on the return to full-time in-person learning at Montclair schools, will host a fundraiser for his campaign Aug. 4. (LOUIS C. HOCHMAN / STAFF)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Click through an online invitation for Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller’s Aug. 4 campaign fundraiser on the MC Hotel rooftop, select an amount to donate, and you’ll see in the heading, under Spiller’s name: “Progress in Action.”

That’s (also) the name of a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization started in October of last year, months after Montclair’s municipal elections were through and Spiller had been elected. It lists Spiller’s brother among its officers or directors, and the mayor’s home address is listed as its business address.

But it’s not where donations to attend the fundraiser — which start at $250, with options available for the maximum allowed $2,600 from an individual or $8,200 from a PAC — are set to go.

“The fundraiser is for Mayor Spiller’s mayoral campaign and is not related in any way to the nonprofit,” Matt Krayton of public affairs and public relations firm Publitics, speaking for Spiller, told Montclair Local Monday.

Spiller’s slate of municipal candidates used the Slogan “Progress in Action” during the campaign last year, and it continues to appear on his website. The identical wording was apparently confusing enough to throw off veteran political reporter Matt Friedman of Politico, who last Thursday tweeted:

“Campaign finance laws are absurd, part 10,000. This fundraiser for Montclair Mayor/maybe future gov hopeful Sean Spiller invites people [to] donate $8,200 to a dark money ‘non-profit’ that’s essentially a Spiller political arm. He technically doesn’t run it but his brother does.”

Friedman corrected the error in a subsequent tweet, as well as in an article available through Politico’s paid “Pro” service Monday. Within a day of the original tweet, though, the website NJEdReport.com had run a critical story titled “Teacher Union President Celebrates Himself At His Dark Money PAC Fundraiser” (Spiller, currently vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, is set to become its president in September). That report quickly made the rounds in Montclair-focused Facebook groups.

For Friedman’s part, he owned the error — though with the snark those who follow his writing are accustomed to: “Apparently THIS ‘Progress in Action’ is Spiller’s mayoral slate. That’s different than the 501(c)4 ‘Progress in Action’ that’s run by Spiller’s brother. Yes, the names are identical. Yes, I do regret [the] error, even if it was an extremely easy one to make. To clarify, Spiller has nothing to do with Progress in Action. But he’s part of Progress in Action. Hope that clears things up.”

A response card sent to invitees of the fundraiser states the matter more clearly: It asks them to make checks payable to “Election Fund of Sean M. Spiller.”

As of the election fund’s most recent filing with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Committee in April, it had $5,645 cash on hand and owed Spiller $2,000. Spiller’s current term isn’t up until 2024.

A 501(c)(4), like the one founded last year, is technically classified as a social welfare organization — and the classification can be used for any number of organizations not explicitly connected to politics. But they’re allowed to influence elections, with certain limitations. And they’re not required to disclose their donors — hence the allusions to “dark money.”

Perhaps the most famous “dark money PAC” in New Jersey politics in recent years was the 501(c)(4) linked to Gov. Phil Murphy, New Direction NJ. In 2019, it released a donor list for the first time after pressure from activists and media. Its largest donor by far both that year and in 2020 was Garden State Forward, a super PAC funded by the New Jersey Education Association.

Spiller’s fundraiser is set to honor the outgoing NJEA president, Marie Blistan, and longtime Communication Workers of America labor leader Hetty Rosenstein, who joined Murphy’s 2021 campaign leadership team in April. Invites for the event feature an image of labor icon Rosie the Riveter, and proclaim: “United in Labor.”

Friedman’s Monday piece reported the MC Hotel, the site of the fundraiser, isn’t represented by the Hotel Trades Union, and that a worker who picked up the phone there said they did not believe it was unionized.

Krayton told Montclair Local he didn’t know the hotel’s status “other than it is in Montclair and has an outdoor space, which are entirely reasonable and noncontroversial criteria for selecting a venue.”

“Mayor Spiller is proud to be supportive of Montclair businesses,” he said.

Krayton said Blistan will be there, but scheduling didn’t work out for Rosenstein to appear in person.

“I am excited to host a fundraiser for my mayoral campaign and more so to have the opportunity to honor two women who are iconic labor leaders, fighting tirelessly for working families across New Jersey,” Spiller told Montclair Local by email Monday. “I am proud to continue to work in support of progressive policies and to partner with those who share that commitment.”

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