Kevin Riordan: Norcross focuses on Camden

George E. Norcross III, who is out promoting the future of Camden, disputes that a Democratic machine controlled the city's past.
George E. Norcross III, who is out promoting the future of Camden, disputes that a Democratic machine controlled the city's past. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 31, 2011

Formidably prepared and tastefully polished, George E. Norcross III holds forth about how best to reform public education and public safety in Camden.

He sounds like a liberal and a conservative, a realist and an idealist, as he - there's really no other word - addresses the Inquirer Editorial Board.

"Camden is unique. Its politics are different. Its difficulties are worse," Norcross says with the understated yet commanding confidence of a CEO, which he is. "But I also think its opportunities are significantly greater."

The Cooper University Hospital chairman, insurance company chieftain, and Democratic power broker may sound a bit like an academic, and his thick white hair gives him a professorial look.

But what Norcross most resembles during his 90-minute appearance is a candidate, on the campaign trail and on message.

He wants more charter and private schools in Camden and a regional police force in Camden County, neither of which will happen without "public support . . . for effective change."

And its advocate will be a man who long preferred to exert his influence privately.

Hence the fresh accessibility, bipartisanship, sincerity, and appearances - formerly rare - at public events, including neighborhood meetings in the city.

Camden needs a new narrative, and Norcross is ready to write it.

"There's been a complete deterioration of the fabric of the city," he says, blaming "the political establishment" and "the leadership."

Failures by "the administration," as well as a lack of "competition," have left Camden with public schools that are "almost the equivalent of juvenile prisons."

That phrase is less abrasive than the "sewer" to which Norcross likened the city system last month when he was on hand to support Gov. Christie's "transformation" schools initiative.

But outside of Cooper, Rutgers, Campbell Soup, and Our Lady of Lourdes, when Norcross looks at Camden he sees failure everywhere.

"In the last 25 years, it's fair to say Camden has gotten, in large part, not better but worse," he says. "Many would argue it's gotten remarkably worse."

He's right. Many would.

Many also would argue that "the political establishment" and "leadership" in the city have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the Camden County Democratic organization.

You know, that sophisticated, impressively financed operation with which Norcross has been synonymous for . . . pretty much 25 years, if not longer.

The organization's hallmarks include an almost uncanny ability to sniff out and snuff out (or, at least, co-opt) any competition - the sort of competition he now finds so lacking in, say, the school system.

Norcross doesn't particularly care for my observation, but he's not about to lose his cool.

Plus, he has a pretty good comeback.

"If I was so influential in Camden's government over decades," he says, "it would look a hell of a lot better than it does today."

So much for the pretty good part.

"There was no [Democratic] machine in the city of Camden," he insists. "No such thing."

Having seen, as a reporter, the savvy, muscular machine at work, I'm amazed Norcross can make such an astonishing assertion.

Perhaps he has forgotten all those admirably disciplined get-out-the-vote operations - even during school board races - in the 1980s and '90s.

But that was then.

This is now.

Like his late father, who was born and raised in Camden, Norcross (who grew up in Pennsauken) is working hard on behalf of Cooper and sees the future of the hospital and the city as "inseparable."

He's certainly right about that.

He's also correct that no single political party or individual is to blame for Camden's pain. The notion of Norcross as all-powerful puppet master or municipal micromanager is absurd.

But Norcross is wrong to try to fob off responsibility for the city's situation on some abstract failures of a faceless "leadership" or "administration."

His political organization endorsed, financed, and essentially ran the campaigns of virtually every victorious mayoral, City Council, and school board candidate in the city for decades.

During which time Camden became ever smaller, poorer, and more desperate.

Norcross wants to write himself out of Camden's old narrative and pen himself a starring role in a new one. He certainly has the savvy, drive - and wherewithal - to try.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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