Puzzling moves from N.J. political boss George E. Norcross III

Long a force behind the scenes, George E. Norcross III is taking some surprising positions on issues that affect Democratic supporters.
Long a force behind the scenes, George E. Norcross III is taking some surprising positions on issues that affect Democratic supporters. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 22, 2011

The shouting grew louder as the meeting wore on, echoing across Camden City Council's art deco-style chambers.

From the audience came cries of "Norcross nephew!" and "Because George says!"

The proposed takeover of the city's Police Department by the Camden County government had brought out a large crowd, and as Council members tried to explain their position this month, the hecklers jumped on them. But their real target was not even in the room:

George E. Norcross III, an insurance executive and chairman of Cooper University Hospital. He holds no elected office, but is referred to by a former governor as the second most powerful figure in New Jersey politics.

"I've never seen him," said one of the hecklers, a city firefighter who declined to give his name. "Everything that happens here, he's involved somehow."

Mostly out of public view, Norcross has in the last two decades created a Democratic Party empire in South Jersey that has become the stuff of legend, a political machine that has made or destroyed many an elected official's career.

But his decision to emerge this year and openly back issues that have riled his party's allies - teachers and other public workers' unions - has incited strong reactions, with union officials and Republicans using his name as a rallying cry against all that they perceive is wrong in state politics.

This summer, Norcross surprised many people by coming out in support of the charter school movement, cutting government worker benefits, and regionalizing New Jersey's small-town police departments.

He has been careful to state that he is speaking as chairman of Cooper, concerned about the city that surrounds it, not as a Democratic leader.

But the unusual sight of his distinctive white crop of hair in the public sphere - including not long ago at a news conference in Cinnaminson - has prompted a feeding frenzy.

In June, the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, ran television ads suggesting that Norcross had talked an ally, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), into rewriting pension and health-benefits rules for government workers to somehow benefit Norcross' Marlton insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew.

Now the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police's president, Ed Brannigan, has joined the fray, calling the plan to take over Camden's police force a plot orchestrated by Norcross to destroy the unions.

At a Camden County freeholders meeting Thursday, a Camden police officer stood up and asked Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. whether Norcross' insurance firm would gain a contract with the new department. Cappelli did not respond.

"If they're using his firm, he's making money," groused Luis Sánchez, a 22-year veteran of the force.

Norcross said he wasn't going to "dignify every allegation with a response."

His role in South Jersey politics has always been the subject of conjecture. But the idea of a puppet master with his hand in every political decision is "overblown," said Sweeney, who grew up with Norcross in Pennsauken.

"They have George like the bogeyman. They see him around every corner and [under] every bed," he said.

But Republicans, long impotent in much of Camden County, are smelling blood.

Over breakfast in Collingswood last week, Arnold Davis, a substitute teacher and security guard running for Council in Camden as a Republican, said Norcross had to answer for the crime and poverty that plagued the city.

"I wouldn't put all the blame on Norcross, but it's happened under the people he put in office," Davis said. "The residents see him as a problem in the city."

Why Norcross has chosen now to emerge, and irk allies in the process, mystifies many, though some are willing to speculate.

Norcross chalks it up to Cooper, an institution he has led since the late 1990s, when he helped pull back the hospital from the edge of bankruptcy.

"To put it bluntly, I had had enough," he said in an e-mail. "I couldn't sit on the sidelines any longer and watch what is going on in the city of Camden. People can't walk the streets for fear of being mugged or murdered. The kids can't get anything close to a decent education. People are afraid to come into the city."

The idea that Norcross has been sitting "on the sidelines" all these years is laughable to many in political circles.

But some wonder whether, at 55, he isn't concerned about creating a legacy beyond the mix of fear and awe with which he is regarded in the insider world of New Jersey politics.

State Sen. Richard Codey (D., Essex), a former governor who says he lost the Senate presidency in a legislative maneuver engineered by Norcross, speculated that his longtime nemesis might be looking to get past his reputation as a political strategist and fund-raiser.

"I think he thinks it's good for the image," Codey said. "The public is to some degree very unknowing of who he is and what he does."

It's unlikely that the efforts to use Norcross' newly public positions as political ammunition against him will have much impact.

Similar attacks have been made before. In the 1990s, Norcross' involvement in the decision to privatize Camden's water utility drew cries of foul play, said Camden activist Frank Fulbrook, after it was disclosed that a subsidiary of the former Commerce Bank, where Norcross led the insurance division, advised on the deal.

The purchase went through anyway.

This time, the New Jersey AFL-CIO endorsed only one Democratic incumbent from South Jersey in November's legislative elections, castigating incumbents who had joined with Sweeney in voting to trim public workers' benefits. But Sweeney, a business agent with the ironworkers' union, fell only about 5 percentage points short of an endorsement.

Tom Booth, chairman of the Camden County Republicans, is perplexed by how to use Norcross' new public persona to his party's advantage in the November elections.

"In some respects, he's irrelevant to the conversation because he's not on the ballot. In some respects, he's more relevant than anyone," Booth said. "Using his name, your risk is it becomes a sideshow to the real issues."

How long will the current Norcross bashing continue?

There are signs it might be starting to fade already.

The NJEA, which was toe to toe with Norcross two months ago, is in talks with him over potential common ground in establishing charter schools in Camden.

As to the fight over health benefits and pensions?

"That was the past, and we're done with that for the time being," said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian. "We're interested in looking at any common ground with Mr. Norcross."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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