NJEA VP Sean Spiller’s New Dark Money Group Plans a Major Shindig While You Can’t Eat With Grandma.

Matt Friedman of Politico starts his Playbook this morning with a scoop: Sean Spiller, VP of New Jersey’s largest teacher union (NJEA) and Mayor of Montclair, is headlining  a “Holiday Cocktail Reception” to benefit a new dark money group called “Progress for Action.” While Spiller’s name isn’t on the filings for the 501(c)(4), his brother is on the Board of Directors.

So Friedman follows the money by directly asking Sean Spiller 1) why he is hosting a fundraiser during a pandemic “in an elegantly decorated and heated tent” in Essex County and 2) What exactly is this new dark money group and why is it honoring him? 

Spiller says the “purpose of the event is to raise money for Toni’s Kitchen, a food ministry in Montclair” (where he was booted from the Board of School Estimates, which oversees Montclair’s school budget, due to his status as an NJEA elected officer). And he doesn’t try bother dispelling rumors that he has his eye on higher office. Friedman ends his blurb with the suggestion that Spiller may be eying a gubernatorial run in 2025.

Actually, Mike Lilley of the Sunlight Policy Center beat him to the punch. Last April Lilley published a report called “Councilman Spiller, Mayor Spiller, Governor Spiller? NJEA Members Run for Office,” deconstructing NJEA’s “Political Leadership Academy” that “recruits and supports NJEA members to run for political office.”

Here’s PLA’s mission statement:

[I]t’s no longer enough to elect friends of education to public office; we must elect members of the education family. No one in public office will speak up as strongly for public education as our own members. That’s where the NJEA Political Leadership Academy comes in.

Lilley’s report, in this new context, is worth a (re)read. Two relevant tidbits regarding the gala in Essex County:  From 2013 to 2020 Lilley estimates that Spiller has made $2,187,059 from his NJEA duties. And this:

The thought of a Governor Spiller clearly does not trouble [NJEA leaders] and Spiller but it should trouble New Jersey citizens. The question needs to be asked: At what point would such a conflict of interest become detrimental to the state? Spiller happens to lead New Jersey’s most powerful special interest, which can and does outspend and out-organize any other political force in the state. It is certainly possible that the NJEA and its network of allies could get Spiller elected governor, but would it be right for the state? 

Anyway, if any readers want to pay $1,000 a seat for the “Holiday Cocktail Reception,” you’ll dine in style. The event is  being held at a resort called Nanina’s in the Park, where Friedman says every fundraiser in Essex is “required by law” to be held. I don’t know the menu (and confess I’ve never been there)  but options include a Caviar Station “Consisting of a Variety of Iced Vodkas, Imported and Domestic Caviar Served with Chopped Egg, Onion and Capers.” Also, “a doorman [in] top hat and tails [will] greet your guests upon arrival.”

Pretty nice for all you 1 percenters out there! And I’m sure there’s a way to bypass Newark, less than 5 miles away, where Mayor Ras Baraka has ordered a lockdown due to a COVID positivity rate of 22%, including a 10-day shelter-in-place restriction and a curfew of 8 pm for essential workers. Party on!

UPDATE: Spiller announced late yesterday that the event for the dark money group will take place virtually, instead of at Nanina’s at the Park. See here for details.

What do you think?