By KATE ALBRIGHT and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
As men and women in formal attire approached the MC Hotel Wednesday night, they were greeted by residents with handwritten placards: “Go buy a different town.” “Open our $chool$, not lobbie$t wallets.” “Spiller NJEA prez and Montclair mayor? Conflict of interest.”
Some shouted: “Sell out! Sell out! Sell out!” as people walked in. Other times, they struck up conversations with those entering the hotel or walking by.
The protesters — up to 16 people present at any one time, with some participants coming and going — were there to make their objections heard as Mayor Sean Spiller held a campaign fundraiser on the hotel rooftop, three years ahead of the next municipal election.
It was an event billed as a celebration honoring women in the labor movement — Marie Blistan, the New Jersey Education Association president Spiller will succeed when he takes the role in September, and longtime Communication Workers of America labor leader Hetty Rosenstein — though Politico’s Matt Friedman reported early this week the hotel staff didn’t appear to be represented by a union (a message sent by Montclair Local Monday to the hotel’s listed media contact hasn’t yet been returned).
And it was an event where tickets didn’t come cheap, with requested donations starting at $250, and an online form defaulting to the $2,600 maximum contribution for an individual to a candidate committee. It also included an option for the maximum a PAC could contribute, $8,200.
“Come greet the political insiders bankrolling Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller at his shameless big money fundraiser,” a graphic shared to social media by Montclair resident Erik D’Amato, advertising the protest, read. D’Amato is also founder of Vote Montclair, which has successfully petitioned to put a referendum before voters asking if Montclair should cease to have a mayor-appointed board of education and instead have a voter-elected one. The group also recently petitioned for another referendum, on moving Montclair’s municipal elections from May to November, but the township’s attorney rejected that petition on technical grounds.
Spiller and a spokesman, Matt Karyton of Publitics, haven’t yet returned messages sent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning seeking comment. But Krayton told NorthJersey.com ahead of the event: “Holding a fundraiser is an entirely normal thing for a politician to do, and something Spiller did when he was on the town council.
“Unfortunately, money in politics is a reality. Corporate interests and citizens like the Koch brothers spend a whole lot of money in politics. Working families need a voice, too. As a progressive, you can’t fight with one hand tied behind your back.”
Krayton also told Montclair Local earlier this week he didn’t know the status of the hotel, other than it “is in Montclair and has an outdoor space, which are entirely reasonable and noncontroversial criteria for selecting a venue.” Spiller at the time sent a brief message by email saying he was excited to hold the event honoring labor leaders and “I am proud to continue to work in support of progressive policies and to partner with those who share that commitment.”
June Raegner, one of the protest attendees, said Montclair “has always had very independent elections,” but “the last election was run in a way that was very shady and that more people are bringing more money from out of town and big money education interests is only making it more so, and this is not what Montclair is supposed to be about.”
(The last election, an all-vote-by-mail affair, prompted a lawsuit. Among the issues at the time: Tallies had then-Councilman Spiller ahead of then-Councilwoman Renee Baskerville by 195 votes in the race for mayor, but nearly 1,100 were rejected for signature issues or, in some cases, arriving more than 48 hours after Election Day, even if they were mailed on time. A judge ultimately rejected the request to count those votes.)
D’Amato said those attending the protest were “just against the status quo of pay-for-play and big money in small towns. It’s pretty straightforward.”
For those at the protest, the prospect of big money from out-of-town interests was at the nexus of several issues. Many spoke of Spiller’s role as an officer of the NJEA — as its current vice president, soon to be its president, and a contributor to his campaigns — both as an unseemly connection to a major political power and donor, and as a conflict of interest. As mayor, Spiller is empowered to select school board members. One placard asked “Where’s Gonzalez?” — a reference to Sergio Gonzalez, a board member who, when passed over for reappointment this year, issued a lengthy statement alleging the mayor lets the Montclair Education Association effectively run the school board (Spiller has rebuffed those claims, saying he expects appointees to act independently of him).
“The NJEA has proved themselves time and time again, over the course of the last year and a half to be incredibly corrupt,” Daryn Sirota, who said she’d previously been a teacher for 10 years, said. “The fact that the mayor of Montclair is the president of the NJEA may not be illegal but is an ethical conflict. For him to be raising money right now and celebrating NJEA retirees for his mayoral election in 2024 is sickening. The town would be so much better off if he decided to leave.”
That bleeds over into another issue attendees protested: The NJEA pushed back against plans to open school districts in the pandemic before it and local teacher’s unions thought they were ready, and supported the local Montclair Education Association in a dispute with the public school district that kept buildings closed for most of the year. Spiller had said often it wasn’t his role to dictate policy to the Montclair school district, though he also said he supported a return once all parties were satisfied it was safe. He also in May appointed a task force to provide input on the fall return to schools and to address standing issues beyond that.
The NJEA itself, in February, on its website celebrated rankings recognizing Blistan’s and the mayor’s statewide political influence).
“The recognition of both elected officers of NJEA demonstrates the collective power that all 200,000 NJEA members have had — and will continue to have — as NJEA members navigate through the complicated task of educating children while keeping them safe during the deadliest pandemic in more than a century,” the statewide union wrote.
Montclair schools, like all in New Jersey, are expected to provide full-time in-person learning this fall. But parent Obie Miranda-Woodley, one attendee of the protest, said she wasn’t confident that would happen.
“It’s insane that the president of the entire state’s teachers union is keeping the schools closed. And that’s pretty much what he did for a year and a half,” she said. “And then at the end, he organized this reopening committee, which is a joke. It’s a slap in the face, it’s a joke, and he really doesn’t care about our kids.”
Richard Skeen, who said both of his parents were public school teachers and union members, said the “union’s unwillingness to budge an inch and to blindly support what was clearly data-uninformed decisions by April and May was the biggest body blow to our kids that could have happened. It was absolutely appalling.”
Montclair schools began a staggered return to buildings on a hybrid learning schedule in April, with elementary school students first to come back. Some high school grades didn’t return until the final weeks of the year.
“It has undermined a town that all of us moved here for because of great schools,” Skeen said. “And I think they’ve lit those schools on fire.”
The protesters weren’t uniform in their statements. One had a sign saying “Stop harming children. No masks in school.” Others asked her to put the sign down, saying they were comfortable with masks and that it would distract from their message. She continued holding it.
Kimberly Hayden of Union, a support staff member for East Orange Schools and NJEA member, spoke with one of the protesters on her way into the fundraiser. She told Montclair Local she supports the protesters’ right to express themselves.
“I believe in Sean Spiller as the mayor of Montclair, as a candidate, as a politician, as an educator,” she said. “But I mean, I understand their frustration also of not having an elected board, as opposed to an appointed board. I work in a town where they have an appointed board, and I understand where they feel this conflict. But I think that we can continue to have the conversation with Mr. Spiller, who is an elected leader in Montclair.”
She said she hopes Spiller is “level-headed enough to elect the right people to represent the students because the students are first in what we do, but also the community at large and public education as a whole.” But she said as someone who didn’t live in Montclair and didn’t know the full history, she couldn’t speak more on the matter.