Mayor Sean Spiller, seen here earlier this year announcing a task force to help guide the full-time return to Montclair schools, is also president of the New Jersey Education Association. (LOUIS C. HOCHMAN / MONTCLAIR LOCAL.)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

A new report from a policy group known for its frequent criticism of the New Jersey Education Association argues the union and its allies spent much more to support now-Mayor Sean Spiller’s 2020 campaign than previously understood.

But some of the analysis comes down to best-guesses. The paper from the Sunlight Policy Center, “The NJEA Broke All The Spending Records to Elect Sean Spiller,” says it’s impossible to tell for sure just how much NJEA money went to support Spiller, then the NJEA’s vice president and now its president. That’s because two records of expenditures filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission don’t actually say which campaign or campaigns the expenditures were meant to support. 

At issue: In April of 2020, NJEA super PAC Garden State Forward filed an independent expenditure report with ELEC for $67,110 to political consultants Cerillion N4 Partners, for mailing expenses. The form says it’s for a nonpartisan, May municipal election — the same kind Montclair has. But where the form asks for the “legal name of an election district or municipality,” Garden State Forward wrote “statewide.”

It did the same regarding an April 2020 filing for $89,000 in payments to the New Jersey Working Families Alliance political organization, for making phone calls and text messages. Again, the form says it’s for a nonpartisan, May municipal election. And again, it’s marked as “statewide.”

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“You would think if they were asking for the legal name of the district or municipality, that ‘statewide’ is not really a legal name,” Michael Lilley, president and founder of the Sunlight Policy Center, said.

In all, Sunlight is estimating the NJEA and allied groups and individuals funded $230,560 out of an overall $310,329 spent to elect Spiller — contrasting that with $10,360 spent for his opponent, Renee Baskerville, in a race that ended just 195 votes apart (Baskerville had also unsuccessfully asked a judge to let voters cure ballots rejected over signature issues and to count ballots received late but postmarked on time for the election).

Sunlight groups several figures together to get to that total, including the in-question Cerillion and Working Families payments.

Sunlight’s math

The ELEC reports marked “statewide,” but which Lilley argues were likely for Montclair, together amount to $156,100 in spending.

The Sunlight analysis includes another $41,000 NJEA PAC provided to Spiller’s “Montclair 2020” slate, supporting himself as well as his running mates — Township Council members Bob Russo, Bill Hurlock, Robin Schlager and Lori Price-Abrams, as well as council candidate Roger Terry — out of $65,933 ELEC filings say were spent by the slate.

ELEC reports show Spiller’s own campaign spent $88,286. Of the money his campaign raised, $7,500 came from the NJEA PAC.

But the Sunlight report also breaks down contributions to Spiller from what it describes as contributions from NJEA “allies” to get to its totals. Those include individuals such as then-NJEA President Marie Blistan (at $5,100), or NJEA affiliates such as the Passaic County Education Association (at $500). It includes individuals such as Robert Fagella, an attorney who has worked for the NJEA (at $500), and Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who has worked as a senior adviser to New Direction, the pro-Gov. Phil Murphy 501(c)(4) group that receives the majority of its funding from the NJEA (at $2,500).

Sunlight’s tally putting the NJEA PAC’s $7,500 together with contributions from “allies” takes the combined figure from the union and those connected to it to $33,450.

The figures do not include donors who contributed less than $300, which aren’t reported to ELEC.

“That’s all I could identify as NJEA and NJEA allies,” Lilley said. “I suspect if a research firm really sat down with this, they’d find more.”

Unclear spending

“Generally, we want all the parties filing with us to be as precise as possible,” Joseph W. Donohue, deputy director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, told Montclair Local.

He cautioned he couldn’t speak about an individual filing, but said ELEC’s regulation on independent expenditure reporting seemed to be “silent on the issue” of whether it’s appropriate to list “statewide” for a municipal election. If the issue were raised to the commission, he said, it might be able to issue a clarification. 

“The problem is the original statute [empowering ELEC] is not really specific. It doesn’t have a lot of details. We’ve been saying for more than a decade, now, that we need new legislation,” Donohue said.

A message sent Monday to Spiller and political consulting group Publitics, which has represented his campaign, hadn’t been returned as of Tuesday afternoon, nor had a message to Working Families Alliance. Dean M. Nielsen, founding partner of Cerillion N4 Partners, said he couldn’t speak for this story.

An NJEA spokeswoman said she’d forward an inquiry to the union’s communications director, Steven Baker. That message also hadn’t been returned.

In its paper, Sunlight argues the Garden State Forward expenses for Cerillion N4 Partners and the Working Families Alliance should be assumed to be on behalf of Spiller.

It notes that Garden State Forward had paid Cerillion $16,800 for mailers in support of Spiller’s 2016 campaign (in that case, it listed the election district as “Montclair Town” on ELEC forms). Sunlight also says that race and 2020 are the only two times Garden State Forward has made independent expenditures for a May municipal election.

And “Montclair was the only May municipal election where a NJEA officer and NJEA Political 

Leadership Academy graduate was running for mayor in a campaign largely funded by 

the NJEA,” Sunlight writes. “The NJEA had a lot at stake in Montclair in May 2020 and apparently not much at stake elsewhere.”

Sunlight says it couldn’t find news reports or social media accounts of Working Families conducting get-out-the-vote efforts or endorsing candidates in May 2020 municipal elections. But it pointed to 2016 media reports of Working Families door-knockers canvassing in support of Spiller at the time.

“Sunlight has been forced to rely on circumstantial evidence because of inadequate disclosure by Garden State Forward on its ELEC filings. … Of course, both the NJEA and Working Families know for certain exactly how much was spent in Montclair. Should they refute Sunlight’s deductions with hard facts, Sunlight would happily make an adjustment to the numbers.”

It also pointed, for comparison, to an ELEC white paper about the 2017 election for the Third Legislative District that estimated the NJEA spent $5.4 million to unseat state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — but couldn’t be sure of the exact figure, because of filings marked “statewide.”

This fall, voters will decide whether Montclair’s mayor should continue to have the power to appoint Board of Education members, or whether the township should have an elected school board, as most New Jersey communities do. Members of Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put the issue on the ballot, and others have argued Spiller’s status as an NJEA officer presents a conflict of interest.

Spiller, for his part, has said he trusts voters to decide whether an elected or appointed board is best for Montclair

“No wonder Spiller can consider losing the power to appoint the school board with such apparent equanimity,” Sunlight wrote in its paper. “The record-breaking amount of money spent to elect Spiller in 2020 makes it clear that even if Montclair citizens were to succeed in their quest for an elected school board, the NJEA can and will swoop in to support its favored candidates whenever it chooses.”