S. Jersey bloc sends a message of unity

Gov. Christie has been sharing the stage recently with leading Democrats. Above, this month he was with George E. Norcross 3d, and, at left, with Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney in May.
Gov. Christie has been sharing the stage recently with leading Democrats. Above, this month he was with George E. Norcross 3d, and, at left, with Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney in May. (JON ZIOMEK / Courier Post)

Democratic power brokers were key to Gov. Christie's victory on employee benefits.

Posted: June 26, 2011

TRENTON - When a Republican governor in Wisconsin sought to roll back collective-bargaining rights, Democratic legislators fled the state to try to block the bill.

But when a Republican governor in New Jersey pushed something similar, Democratic legislative leaders not only stuck around, but also took the handoff from the governor and barreled through a defensive line of dissenters within their party and thousands of union workers.

Gov. Christie pulled off this upset victory in the Democratic-majority Legislature last week in part because he had successfully cultivated key Democratic power brokers whose Trenton allies voted with Republicans to pass the bill.

"It comes down to, pure and simple, [Christie's] leadership skills and his ability to see people on the other side of the aisle not as enemies to be avoided, but as opportunities to be exploited," said consultant Jeff Michaels, who has advised Christie on policy and worked with South Jersey Democrats. "He looks to make common cause when he can."

Despite his pugilistic reputation, Christie began working the other side on the day after he won the governor's seat in 2009. He visited a Newark school founded by Steve Adubato, a longtime Democratic power broker.

Christie has since nurtured ties with Adubato's protégé, Essex County Executive Joseph "Joe D." DiVincenzo, and aligned with Camden County's George E. Norcross 3d on education policy.

The Norcross connection is all the more remarkable because in Christie's previous job as U.S. attorney, he reviewed a state investigation into allegations of political corruption by Norcross. He expressed disgust that he couldn't pursue the case further because the state had bungled the matter.

Fast-forward to last week, and you find that almost all of the Democratic votes for a bill that forced public workers to pay more toward their health care and pension came from DiVincenzo's or Norcross' sphere of influence. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), for example, works for DiVincenzo.

Union protests targeted the power brokers - along with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a childhood friend of Norcross' who rose to his leadership position in part due to maneuvering by Norcross and DiVincenzo. Sweeney's role in crafting the bill caused so much resentment that one ribald poster at a rally depicted him as Christie's sex slave.

It is not clear that Norcross pulled strings on this bill. But his politics as a conservative Democrat and the discipline of the political organization he helped build were reflected in the vote.

Democrats in South Jersey are more conservative than their brethren up north. For example, Sweeney and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester) called for scaling back employee benefits five years ago, an idea that got nowhere with a Democratic governor.

That South Jersey Democrats voted as a bloc on the bill also reflects how this region, which has just a quarter of the state's population, responded to years of seeing itself ignored when it came to funding and representation.

Alienation bred unity. Under the strong hand of Norcross, an insurance executive and hospital chairman who has been de facto leader of the Democrats for two decades, South Jersey avoided being broken into fiefdoms.

That brotherhood gives the delegation not only the freedom to buck the party base, such as organized labor, but also freedom in matters of money. Norcross is a prolific fund-raiser, so South Jersey Democrats are less reliant on the millions of dollars a year that public unions spend on political operations.

Norcross is also closely aligned to private-sector unions, big fund-raisers in their own right. Their members did not stand with public workers against Christie's bill. Sweeney and Norcross' brother, Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), are labor leaders for ironworkers and electrical workers, respectively.

The split in the Democratic Party was exposed by this bill. In addition to increasing employee health and pension contributions, the measure - which Christie plans to sign Monday - would take health benefits off the bargaining table for four years.

Christie framed the deal as a bipartisan model that he said politicians in Washington should follow. But from the Assembly chamber to rallies outside the Statehouse, union workers distinguished between "Christiecrats" and "real Democrats," saying it was part of a nationwide right-wing effort at union-busting.

The unionists have persistently invoked comparisons to Wisconsin. In that state, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature this year passed a law that curbs public employees' ability to collectively bargain over compensation and increases their pension and health-care contributions.

Democrats fled the state for several weeks to prevent a quorum to pass the bill. Republicans muscled the proposal through by removing spending language, a parliamentary technicality that voided the need for a quorum.

"Just like Wisconsin, it's the same thing," said Evelyn Dowling, an administrative assistant for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities who was one of hundreds of workers who waited outside the Assembly chamber Thursday to score a seat in the gallery.

But there was one difference.

"Do you see our Democrats leaving?" Dowling asked.

"Like the governor of Wisconsin, our governor is trying to do away with collective bargaining," Sen. Linda Greenstein (D., Middlesex), a labor ally who voted against the bill, told thousands of union protesters Thursday.

Like other Democrats, she questioned why Christie was not following the lead of Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, who went to the bargaining table to wrest $1.6 billion in concessions from union workers in May. (On Friday, however, union workers voted against the deal.)

"Why couldn't our governor do the same?" Greenstein asked the crowd.

The view that New Jersey party bosses were driving the bill was evident throughout union protests. Yet when labor picked a fight with George Norcross, its strategy may have backfired. This month the state's largest teachers' union launched a TV ad that attacked him. The unions highlighted a section of the bill dubbed the "Norcross provision," which would have limited employees' ability to seek medical care out of state. The provision was later watered down, then removed. But because it would have cut down on the number of public workers who used Philadelphia hospitals, it was described as a political gift to Norcross, who is chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

An infuriated Norcross called a rare news conference with Democratic leaders, including former Gov. Jim Florio and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, to denounce the ad. Less than an hour later, Christie announced that he had a deal with Democratic leaders on the pension and health-benefits bill, handing the unions a historic defeat.

Norcross would not speak to The Inquirer about his role in crafting the bill, but he said he supported it for helping to shore up the state's flagging pension and health-care funds.

"The action before the Legislature in reforming pensions and health care is a tremendous victory for the taxpayers of New Jersey," Norcross said.

"Fortunately," he said, "a bipartisan group decided to take action to ensure long-term viability of the benefits that are promised to the employees of government."

The rest of the state's Democrats will now regroup.

"Norcross and Joe D. and those guys are only what we allow them to be," said Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex), who opposed the bill. "If we allow them this, then shame on us."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles


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