Barack taps Carpenters big for N.J. post

More Carpenters Union stories: here

Labor-backed Dem surrounds himself with union operatives

Politics and union organizing weld into one for Tricia Mueller, the new state director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Granddaughter of a Local 19 sheet metal worker or "tin knocker" as they're called in building and trades, Mueller first started working campaigns for her father, a telephone installer who served as the youngest mayor of Oakland, New Jersey.

"I could read a ward map from the time I was very small," said the 34-year old Camden native and chief political operative for the 17,000-strong New Jersey Regional Council of Carpenters, as she sat in a Hamilton coffee shop on Thursday, three days into her tenure as Obama's state director.

"I come from the field," she told PolitickerNJ.com. "I believe voter contact, voter mobilization, and voter education represent civic duty at its finest."

Gov. Jon Corzine and Democrats who know statewide political operations have a lot of confidence in the veteran Mueller.

"Tricia really knows the ropes, knows all the players, and more importantly knows how to get stuff done," said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes. "What this shows me is that the Obama campaign is not taking New Jersey for granted, as they picked one of the best political operatives in the state."

"I think she’s the best," said Essex County political operative Phil Alagia and chief of staff to County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

"We’ve worked with her in the past, and she was very helpful with Joe in his campaigns. The state director of a presidential campaign organizes county by county and on that basis they picked the right person, because she’s great at field operations."

Mark Alexander, who served as state director during the primary campaign, said of Mueller, "She has a great attitude about the work and about Barack Obama. She knows what’s she’s doing, and I’m very happy."

A self-professed Obama supporter in the 2008 primary whose union backed John Edwards, Mueller said she first heard Obama speak when she served as a John Kerry delegate at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. From a labor standpoint, AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech calls Obama "the opportunity of a lifetime," and Mueller agrees.

"Barack Obama holds a lot of promise for New Jerseyans, and for working class and middle class people across the board," she said. "The state of the economy is in such disrepair, and everything is so expensive. The Bush administration has not put us in a very positive place, and so people are feeling politics in a very personal way."

While she respects Sen. Hillary Clinton and as a woman praises what she describes as Clinton’s trail-blazing primary campaign, Mueller said she was ultimately not convinced by the candidate’s message.

"Barack Obama’s message is about change, and a Barack Obama presidency speaks volumes about where we are in a global setting," Mueller said. "I’ve spent time abroad, and I’ve seen the effects of trade on Third Word countries. Bill Clinton was a huge supporter of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), and it was difficult to picture Hillary Clinton making change in that regard."

As she looks across the party divide at the John McCain campaign trying to position itself as the blue collar team, Mueller notes that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee has a poor labor rating, and voted against raising the minimum wage, protecting workers’ overtime rights, and prevailing wage laws.

"John McCain has supporters, but Barack Obama has believers," said the state director. "When you have people who believe in a real spirit of change, it’s a different motivator."

Obama’s record as a community organizer turned ward politician especially inspires Mueller, who discovered her own path to organizing shortly after her graduation from the College of New Jersey, when she worked on women’s and workers’ rights issues in Mexico and Central America.

"I decided the labor movement would be a really good place for me to give back," she said. "I wanted to learn how to organize, and to me unions always felt like the most valid social movement with their emphasis on equity in pay, living wage, retirement with dignity, and elevating quality of life for working people."

For eight years, Mueller has run political operations for the Carpenters’ Union as one of the country’s highest ranking women labor leaders in building and trades. Her work for the carpenters routinely spurs politicians - including Corzine, Sen. Robert Menendez, former Gov. Jim McGreevey and Sen. Frank Lautenberg - to recruit her as a political organizer for their campaigns.

Although the South Jersey native has admittedly coordinated campaigns for Camden County Democratic Organization co-chair Donald Norcross, Mueller underscores the fact that she’s a statewide operator.

"I have relationships all across the state on both sides of the aisle," she said. "I’ve organized every county in the state. I’ve established myself politically in New Jersey. This is my home."

With Corzine’s backing, she out-dueled U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman's chief of staff Bob Decheine to last week officially land the job as head of the Obama campaign. Following her victory, she went down to Washington, D.C. to meet personally with Decheine, whom Obama selected as the campaign’s senior advisor.

Now Mueller has less than 90 days to pull together Democratic Party forces, which include at least two potentially disparate strains: the original grassroots organizers for Obama, who fought the party machine and now must be absorbed into it; and the holdouts from the Clinton primary campaign, some of whom still see Obama as an upstart.

"We have to bring everyone into honest discourse," said Mueller. "People need to speak up. The thing about New Jersey is we’re a small but incredibly diverse state. We’re politically diverse state, which means how you do politics in Burlington is different from Middlesex. We do not have one statewide cookie cutter model.

"I have a ton of respect for grassroots people, and I also have a ton of respect for the institution," added the state director. "We have to harness all of the energy we have toward a common goal."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"They Have No Choice"
South Jersey's most powerful political boss, Commerce Bank executive George Norcross, has a certain style: You're either part of his machine, or you get crushed by it. Can anybody stop him?
By Richard Rys
From high above the most dangerous streets in the nation, -Camden
looks like a city of promise, chest puffed out and swollen with pride,
taking strong, confident strides toward its future. Just look to the
north. The shiny, graffiti-free RiverLINE train rolls past the old RCA
building, awaiting its makeover into high-end condos, and jogs on past
Campbell's Field and lifeless acres now earmarked for residential
development. Imagine that — people moving into Camden. He's had a hand in all of it.

Turn south and you'll see the Tweeter Center, which has stolen
summer concerts from the Mann across the river, so now everyone from
Coldplay to Brooks & Dunn bypasses Philly and heads to South
Jersey. Imagine that — Camden as a destination . He's not
surprised. He is George Norcross, and from the office window of one of
his minions at the Delaware River Port Authority, the view is

For Norcross, it's not enough to have risen from his modest
beginnings in Pennsauken to run Commerce Bank's insurance division,
complete with a seven-figure salary and some $88 million in stock. Not
bad for a college dropout. But for Norcross, not bad is not nearly good
enough. Not in business, and certainly not in politics, where the
49-year-old's years of leading the Camden County Democrats and his
fund-raising muscle have made him the most powerful boss south of Exit
7A, with considerable clout up the Turnpike as well. His Democratic
faithful control Camden and Gloucester counties, the power seat of
South Jersey, and pulls strings in most others. In Trenton, Norcross
allies decide which judges are elected, the language of the state
budget, and the passing of legislation. They also run agencies that
fund million-dollar projects — those listed above and many, many more.

Like Camden from this aerial view, the machine Norcross has built in
South Jersey is a thing of beauty from afar — a business-like plan that
has ushered in a Democratic renaissance. But down on the street, where
the heat rises off Admiral Wilson Boulevard like specters fleeing Hell,
Camden's portrait grows more ominous. So does the picture as one looks
more closely at how Norcross commands power. This is where hardball
politics ends and a culture of intimidation, dubbed "La Cosa Norcross"
by his enemies, looms. His name is invoked in threatening phone calls,
senators are F-bombed, and if his opponents are still kicking once they
lose, he steps on their throats.

Norcross has long denied that side of his personality, and other
than one slip-up in the statehouse a couple years back, it's been tough
to prove its existence. Then came the Palmyra tapes. A town councilman
who claimed he was being threatened and bribed by Democratic loyalists
to oust two enemies was wired, and in a recorded meeting, Norcross
ordered him to "fire that fuck … get rid of [him] … and teach this
jerk-off a lesson," and said of the other that he was doing "everything
humanly possible … things that are distasteful" to install him as a
judge, which Norcross said was "the only way I can get rid of him."
More important, in light of this year's governor's race, was this: "In
the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they're all going to be with me.
Not because they like me, but because they have no choice."

"I look at him with a combination of disdain and respect," says one
longtime GOP strategist. "The stuff he's done outside the political
sphere is appalling. But the political guy in me says, 'God, he's good.
I wish I'd done that.'" And what greases the wheels of his Democratic
woodchipper, grinding up and spitting out his enemies across the state,
isn't money. It isn't some grand vision he has for South Jersey. Pull
back the curtain on the Wizard, and you'll find that all the regional
improvements he's demanded and the windfall of state aid he's guided to
Camden weren't acts of philanthropy. Norcross simply wants to win.

With dusk turning
to darkness over Cherry Hill, George Norcross
has already been awake for nearly 20 hours, which is why he's now on
his third espresso at Lamberti's on Route 70, just miles from his
Commerce Bank office and his home, which a friend once teasingly called
Tara, à la Gone with the Wind .
Lamberti's seems to be his Cheers, where everybody not only knows his
name; some even share it. His brother Philip is seated three tables
away. I am not introduced. His 17-year-old daughter, Lexie, walks in
for dinner with an old family friend, a Camden attorney. As for meeting
Norcross's wife of 20 years, -Sandy, or their eight-year-old son, Alex
— no dice. The hostess greets Norcross personally, and a young
businessman stops by the table to pay his respects. When he introduces
the strawberry-blonde with him to "Mr. Norcross," her eyes swell with
awe as she shakes his hand.

Throughout our five-hour dinner, Norcross rarely speaks on the
record — and, not surprisingly, he isn't interested in being
tape-recorded — but he does address one critical question: What
happened to the CAN DO CLUB sign? The placard he hung on his office
door when he became head of the Camden County Democrats at just 32 said
it all: CAN DO CLUB. MEMBERS ONLY. Either you're in or you're out.
"It's still on my desk," he says. "That struck me as an affirmative
outlook on success. Too often it's 'can't do.' It's motivation to work
harder than anyone else. Here's a phrase you can use — second place is
first loser. I love that."

"George is the most competitive person I've ever met," says Center
City attorney Arthur Makadon. That includes half the athletes who have
played in Philadelphia in the past 20 years, most of the lawyers, and
anyone of stature in regional politics, including Governor Ed Rendell.
"If I was in a foxhole, I'd want him in there with me." Which has made
George Norcross and South Jersey the perfect match. Philadelphia, if
you think you have an inferiority complex, let me introduce you to your
neighbor to the east.

Where Philly gets lost between bookends of the Greatest City in the
World and the nation's capital, South Jersey has long felt forgotten in
its own state. While the North is all muscle and industry, wealth and
power well-lit by Manhattan's glow, the South is the gal who never gets
asked to dance — farmlands, strip malls, and a seaside playground for
Philadelphians who mock her, yet claim her beaches in the summer as
their own. Folks in the lower eight counties were once derisively
referred to by Northerners as "609ers," slang for their area code and
shorthand for toothless hicks. Since 75 percent of the state's voting
population and the majority of its Senate and Assembly members are from
the North, for decades South Jersey never enjoyed the attention — read:
money — that its neighbors did. The South even tried to secede from the
state in the '80s, and, of course, upheld its tradition of losing. Then
came 1991, when Governor Jim Florio's $2.8 billion in tax increases
made New Jersey look like Boston circa 1773, only it was Democrats
being tossed into the river. The party had no message. It was in
shambles, desperate for direction. South Jersey was ready for Norcross.

His career started early, and power came fast. His father led the
South Jersey AFL-CIO, and brought his teenage son to business meetings
with him. After dropping out of Rutgers-Camden, Norcross listened to
his old man and got both his real estate and insurance licenses. He'd
later ignore his father's advice to steer clear of politicians. "He
valued loyalty as a most important trait, and felt it was lacking in
politics and government," Norcross says. "He felt if I devoted my
efforts to business and charity, my time would be better spent." The
oldest of four sons and a natural leader, Norcross built his Keystone
National Companies from an office in Camden with a single phone and
chair into a multimillion-dollar company. By 1989, he was running the
Camden County Democrats, and two years later, he'd laid out his
blueprint for success and cemented himself as a political colossus.

As many Norcross operations either begin or end, this one was
personal. State Senator Lee Laskin, an immovable Republican force,
might still be in office if he hadn't blocked the appointment of
Norcross's dad, a big fan of the ponies, to the New Jersey Racing
Commission. Before the 1991 Senate race began, Norcross paid Laskin a
visit and asked him for a favor. Help my father. Please. Laskin blew him off, and Norcross left with one thought in mind — Lee Laskin must go.

Norcross devised a plan of attack that focused on both the big
picture and his backyard: Laskin's State Senate seat, and the Camden
County freeholder board, which today oversees a $289 million operating
budget and influences the appointment of countless jobs. Control the
freeholders, and you control the county. String a few counties
together, and you overcome their weakness in the legislature with sheer
fund-raising might. Combine that financial strength with influence in
the Assembly and the Senate, and you've built hotels on every square
from Mediterranean Avenue to Boardwalk.

Norcross recruited fresh faces to put a reformist spin on the party
— Harvard grad John Adler, son of a poor dry cleaner, would vie against
Laskin, and two promising young lawyers, Jeff Nash and Vince Sarubbi,
would run for freeholder. In a simple yet innovative move, Norcross
found his last candidate, former Highland High School football coach
Jim Beach, by mailing questionnaires to folks with no experience in
public service. (Beach showed up at his first interview in Norcross's
office waving his tax bill.) With Beach as Everyman, Sarubbi the
charmer and Nash the policy hound, Norcross had his dream team, later
dubbed the Three Amigos.

Despite the chummy nickname and the fond memories all share from
that race, as a leader, Norcross is a combination of Machiavelli and
Sun Tzu, with a pinch of Donald Trump — a friend who invited Norcross
to his third wedding, in January. "I love being with George because
every outing is a competitive one," says Trump. "A lot of people don't
like him because he'll cut a conversation short. He doesn't need to
talk for 10 minutes about something he can say in five." Indeed, in
meetings, when Norcross is done speaking to you, he might ignore you
completely. He's stingy with compliments, blunt with criticism, and he
uses his reputation to his advantage. As Beach puts it, "I wouldn't
want to cross him." Another advantage of injecting new blood into the
party is this: He can make them, and then they're his. "I've adopted my
father's code of loyalty," Norcross says. "Those who do not do likewise
have met judgment."

And with him, you win. Norcross pursues victory at literally all
costs, raking in $1.9 million for Adler and the Amigos, a
then-unheard-of sum for just a county race and a legislative seat, and
even took out a personal loan for $250,000 to help his cause. While the
Republicans did things the way they were always done in New Jersey —
thinking small, not raising more money than they thought they needed —
Norcross hired Stan Greenberg, Bill Clinton's pollster, and local
strategist Neil Oxman helped craft "silver bullets" — crippling ads
portraying Laskin's law office and legislative office as one and the
same. Others featured grainy photos of the Amigos' opponents at public
events blinking, yawning, scratching their noses — as still frames, it
looked like the guys were sleeping or knuckle-deep into their nostrils.
To this day, one still jokes, à la Seinfeld , "It wasn't a pick! It was outside the nose!"

With 17 days left before Election Day and Laskin leading by 25
points in the polls, Norcross delivered his pièce de résistance —
running 30-second spots, not on the local news, but during an Eagles
Monday Night Football contest, game seven of the World
Series, and other network shows. Adler won by 10 points. All three
Amigos were also victorious — the only Democrats to defeat incumbents
anywhere in the state that year. Norcross's gamble earned him an
instant reputation far beyond Camden County. As a Republican strategist
who worked on that campaign puts it, "He changed the game."

You would think that a guy who had already ripped his left knee apart
four times would give it a break already with the athletics — that
common sense would rope in his raging competitive ego. The last time
Norcross's ACL turned to oatmeal was during a pickup basketball game in
1997. "After 20 years, I still thought I had that jump shot," he says.
"My wife was so pissed. She told me it was the last time she would help
me after I act like I'm 18." Yet Norcross still plays tennis, and he
golfs at Galloway, the club he co-owns with Commerce Bank honcho Vernon
Hill. Though his knee looks like Darth Vader's with all the armor
strapped to it, he attacks every point like it's life or death. "If he
doesn't play well," says Arthur Makadon, "he'll spend hours and hours
practicing. He hates to lose."

In politics and business, Norcross doesn't know much about defeat.
Since his 1991 coup, he's built an impregnable barricade of influence
that surrounds the county and his interests like fortifications around
a medieval castle. It starts with the circle of four: Camden's Joe
Roberts, majority leader of the Assembly and poised to become speaker;
Wayne Bryant, Senate Budget Committee chairman, also of Camden; Lou
Greenwald of Voorhees, Assembly Budget Committee chair; and Adler, who
now approves all of the state's highest appointees as Senate Judiciary
Committee chair and sits on the Committee on Ethical Standards. All of
the Amigos went on to greater success as well — Beach is the Camden
County clerk, Sarubbi is the county prosecutor, and Nash serves as vice
chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority, which puts Norcross
within a phone call of the $95 million the DRPA will dump into various
projects this year. And of course, they call him: Adler counts Norcross
among the few he consults before making legislative decisions, and Nash
admits that he won't make a move that Norcross might object to without
speaking to him first.

If you sketched a flow chart of the Norcross machine as a business
model, two of the largest branches would lead to three words, circled
in a fat-tipped red marker: LABOR and COMMERCE BANK. Norcross handed
control of the Camden County Democrats to his brother, Donald, who
keeps their father's legacy alive as the leader of South Jersey's
AFL-CIO. On Election Day, labor becomes George's army, grunts getting
out the vote and outnumbering the ragtag GOP foot soldiers 34-1. Their
reward for the hard work? Jobs on projects funded by counties, the
DRPA, and other -acronymed agencies headed by Norcross pals. Since
joining Commerce in 1996, Norcross has been credited with tripling the
bank's government deposits, and his insurance division serves more than
half of the state's municipalities. All part of his statewide plan.

Then there's Cooper University Hospital. His father was a board
member there, as Norcross is today, and it looms in monolithic tribute
to what happens when Norcross stands in your corner. To show off his
crown jewel, Norcross meets me at Cooper's cancer center in Voorhees
and, ever the man in the background, invites a group of docs along to
do the talking while he stays on the fringes, saying little. The Cooper
team, though, is quick to point out how the hospital was on the brink
of collapse in 1990 when Norcross took over — hiring then-U.S. Attorney
Michael Chertoff, now Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,
to straighten out its books. Norcross ran the nonprofit like a business
and, most recently, carved out $29 million for the hospital from the
state budget and Trenton's $175 million Camden Revitalization Package.
That's on top of the tens of millions more that will trickle into
Cooper's pockets from various state departments, including health,
community affairs, and, oddly, transportation. Norcross changed the
hospital's image as well. Those Kelly Ripa commercials you can't
escape? She did them for free, a $1.5 million favor to her friend
George, who's also a friend of her dad, Joe Ripa, who happens to have
been a Camden County freeholder since 2003, after Kelly skyrocketed to
national fame. A second round of pro bono Ripa commercials is already
blanketing the airwaves.

As we leave Cooper's chemotherapy recovery room, a doctor
friend of Norcross's father explains how patients and funding were
drifting from South Jersey to Pennsylvania, New York, and the northern
half of the state. "I've been told that $2 billion worth of medical
money was leaving. … " He pauses and looks at Norcross: "Is that fair
to say?" Norcross nods. He eventually breaks his silence to brag a
little before a Lincoln Navigator pulls up — Norcross has a driver on
call at all times — and whisks him away for a meeting with someone
whose identity he doesn't reveal. "In the next two to three years," he
says, "cancer care will be provided to people in South Jersey by Cooper
almost completely." It's not a sense of civic pride or a Christ-like
healing of the sick that's behind the grin stealing across his face —
unusual for Norcross, who rarely smiles when he speaks. He's just
letting me know that he's about to win again.

There are some who say that New Jersey's Civil War is about as real
as the cloven-hoofed devil who roams the Pine Barrens. They say
Norcross is full of it when he declares that he steals from the "robber
barons" of the North and gives to the needy of the South. Here's what's
not a myth: Norcross can raise more money than anyone in the history of
the state and use it against whomever he chooses, as he did in his $4.4
million campaign that dethroned GOP stalwart George Geist in 2003 — a
State Senate victory two times more costly per vote than Michael
Bloomberg's mayoral run in New York. In the last month of the Geist
race, Camden County Democrats received $1.2 million in loans, including
the maximum of $37,000 each from Norcross, four of his relatives, and
at least six others with connections to Commerce Bank; money also came
in from some other, curious folks, like two women from the same Cherry
Hill address whose occupations are listed in Democratic records as
"homemaker" and "unemployed." (Loans from those women and just over
$800,000 more have yet to be repaid.) He can even avoid a costly race
by simply buying you out, as he did by installing Republican Senator
John Matheussen in a $195,000-a-year job as head of the DRPA.

He's also proven that his plan for using county governments as his
power base and building upward was dead-on. In Camden and Gloucester
counties, with the Dems raising millions more than what their opponents
scrape together, Norcross is left with seven-figure leftovers he then
"wheels" to help overthrow key Northern counties like Bergen and Essex,
and squeeze the life out of the opposition. "Any Republican with a
public service contract is told if they contribute to the GOP, they
will lose their contracts and their candidates will lose their jobs,"
claims Guy Talarico, Bergen County's GOP chairman. "You don't get good
government. You get a puppet who owes his job to a boss from the
southern half of the state." Clearly, the tug-of-war between North and
South is more than hype.

Worse than the toll Norcross's tactics take on individuals is the
collective accumulated dread that's crippled the opposition. "We have a
real problem recruiting new talent," says Richard Ambrosino, who has
faced Norcross in the past and is on the ballot for Cherry Hill's town
council this November. "They just don't want to go through all of that
— the negative campaigning, the personal attacks. Norcross intimidates
before and after the race." One insider admits that when Norcross hears
of a Republican talent, he works hard to recruit that all-star to his
team, and is often successful.

Hardball politics, yes. Inching toward the line of impropriety?
Sure. But what's made Norcross so effective is that when he exacts his
vengeance or throws his weight around, it's either behind closed doors
or through intermediaries — hence the nickname "La Cosa Norcross." That
is, until 2002, when he stepped out of the shadows and into the office
of Senate co-president John Bennett to demand $25 million for a
proposed civic arena in Pennsauken. Norcross denies that a shoving
match ensued, as others have said, but what's certain is Norcross's
last words, as he left without getting what he wanted: "I will fucking destroy you."
Adding to his frustration, says one source, was that two weeks prior,
Bennett had declined Norcross's offer to "get his South Jersey guys
together" and make him Senate president. Not coincidentally, Norcross's
tough talk proved prophetic. Bennett was defeated in an ugly campaign
the following year. "That was the worst time of my life," says Bennett.
"He has those who stand in his way defeated or removed. I will never
seek public office again."

This is why those Palmyra tapes have everyone salivating — they
suggest that the stories about Norcross's behind-the-scenes behavior
are indeed true, and, more troublesome, that his vindictive aggression
outside the political arena bleeds into it. The tales are everywhere.
When developer and Norcross persona non grata Irv Richter was nominated
for an award at Rutgers-Camden, a Norcross attorney kindly alerted the
committee to a six-month jail term 30 years in Richter's past. (The
conviction had since been expunged.) After his use of non-union labor
on a $46 million Cherry Hill renovation held up construction permits
and cost $600,000 in delays, developer Bill Healey started seeing
invitations to Norcross fund-raisers in his mailbox. Businessman Roy
Goldberg sued the South Jersey Transportation Authority — considered to
be a Norcross patronage den — after he refused to consult with
Norcross, as an SJTA official told him to, and a $21 million parking
garage he was building at the Atlantic City airport was killed. The
suit was settled in March, and Goldberg refuses to comment further.

The tales of Norcross's bullying grow more ominous. One prominent
South Jerseyan received phone calls from someone who name-dropped
"George," promising that if the man campaigned for office, it would get
ugly. He never ran. Then there was the county GOP candidate whose
employer was very supportive of his efforts. Once the employee lost the
election, though, he lost his job — and his employer reeled in a hefty
contract from an agency stocked with Norcross devotees. Even the wife
of a Norcross-installed pol got into the act at a social function,
telling the wife of a Republican on the verge of a campaign, "You don't
want to do this." Norcross, of course, laughs the stories off, as if
they're nothing more than modern-day Grimm fairy tales, born of
imagination. But these anecdotes — and several others like them — were
told with hushed voices and the nervous demand that the storytellers
never be identified. In other words, the fear is real.

That so many people who say they've been burned by Norcross and his
lieutenants are so reluctant to speak on the record about their
tribulations only underscores the depth and reality of his power. Even
the press isn't immune to his influence. Norcross has enough
ex-reporters on his side to compete with the Courier-Post he loathes: Former Courier staffers Ken Shuttleworth, Bill Shralow, Kevin McElroy and Carl Winter all have jobs with or ties to Camden County. Longtime Courier
writer Dennis Culnan is now one of Norcross's chief researchers, and
also has contracts with Cooper Hospital and Camden's South Jersey Port
Corporation; his son works for the SJTA.

Other journalists have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with
Norcross behind the scenes — he shovels them dirt on his opponents,
they get a few days of copy. Reporters who are perceived to betray
Norcross are dealt with in kind. His cordial relationship with the Courier 's
Alan Guenther ended when Guenther wrote a revealing three-part series
calling him "Boss Norcross." This was followed by a smear campaign
aimed at Guenther and his father, a local architect whose firm donated
more than $11,000 to the Camden County Democrats. Always standing in
the background, Norcross let his lawyer do the dirty work, sending the
newspaper a seven-page letter that attacked Guenther's father for
"solicitation of no-bid contracts" and other offenses, while outlining
the reporter's "conflicts of interest" and "vigilante tactics."
Guenther declined to comment on the matter, and despite Norcross's
efforts, he remains at the Courier .

The Palmyra tapes have sent newspapers and political groupies from
both sides into a frenzy, listening for the thump of that fabled other
shoe dropping in the form of a federal indictment. Don't hold your
breath, folks. Consider that in 2000, Jon Corzine launched his own
investigation into Norcross and Florio, his opponent for the Senate,
and nothing surfaced. Norcross may fight dirty, but thus far, he's no
criminal. No indictments. No laws broken.

He is, however, nibbling at every station of the power buffet. State
Attorney General Peter Harvey is a friend of the attorney who
represented a Commerce Bank exec in the Philadelphia corruption probe,
and has been criticized for what some say is his kid-gloves treatment
of the Norcross probe. Now the feds have taken over. More impressive
than Norcross's relationship with Harvey is his pal Chertoff, who
invited Norcross to his 50th birthday at Deux Cheminées and has
connections that flow through every artery in the justice system.
Norcross is plugged in at home as well. Those around-the-clock drivers
he's hired? Ex-state cops.

Now the gubernatorial combatants are squaring off, and the GOP is
out to hang Norcross around Corzine's neck. But Corzine may be the only
one in a position to take on the Norcross machine in a year when at
least 75 of Norcross's chums are on the ballot — and that's a
conservative estimate. Corzine is the sole Democrat whose pockets are
deeper than all those Norcross can dig into. With Trenton merely a
stopover in Corzine's inexorable march toward a presidential run, he
could make dismantling New Jersey's boss system the biggest achievement
on his thin political résumé.

Still, the future for Norcross's foes seems bleak, given that the
North Jersey billionaire who could potentially topple the South Jersey
superboss gave Norcross $700,000 in one year alone, prompting a
campaign contribution limit nicknamed "Corzine's Law." Corzine, it
seems, also likes to be on the winning team.

There is one question he knows he can't dodge. Norcross has told
friends that his behavior on the Palmyra tapes is an embarrassment, an
aberration, a moment of bravado, like an actor playing a role. But what
about his behavior in John Bennett's Senate office? Over dinner back at
Lamberti's, he grimaces, rolling his lips up over his teeth, then
speaks in a slow, measured clip.

"It was a moment I was not proud of," he says. "The only consolation
was that I was fighting for South Jersey. There have been times when my
passion and intensity have gotten the better of me, and I've acted in
ways that would not have made my mother proud. … Running for office is
not for the squeamish or faint of heart. They are intimidated to run
against us. They are intimidated by our potential to raise money, by
our use of network television and our intense research of public

What Norcross either won't admit or can't see is that the guy on
those tapes is the same one who went toe-to-toe with Bennett. It's not
an act. It's not theater. What he truly regrets is not his Don Corleone
posturing — just that he was stupid enough to let some toadies he could
easily have ignored or eliminated lead him into a federal probe and a
public embarrassment. One wonders if in all his competitive bravado,
his hardwired need to win at tennis, or golf, or with his hospital vs.
theirs and North against South, he's lost sight of what it's all about.
When asked if he could leave all this behind, he says he'd like to,
someday, maybe once his son leaves for college, maybe sooner. He'd have
to say goodbye to New Jersey, though, or else they'd pull him back in.
He'd like to head to Florida, he says. (Two weeks later, Commerce
announces its expansion into the Sunshine State.) No, he's not
concerned with who would run the shop. Successor? Doesn't know. What if
the wheels fall off once he's gone? Norcross is speechless.

He doesn't separate what's best for him from what's best for South
Jersey because he truly believes it's one and the same. Good politics,
good government, the best and brightest, join the can-do club, with us
or against us, help me help the kids and the cancer patients or we'll
fucking destroy you. Running counties like businesses comes at a price
— Commerce Bank isn't a democracy, and right now, Camden County doesn't
look like one, either. They know what South Jersey needs,
and if you don't like it, well, tough shit; they can direct you to the
bridges their friends oversee. As deeply entangled as Norcross has
become in the fibers that hold South Jersey together, his is a
dangerous point of view to hold. He and his friends have done plenty to
improve life in South Jersey, and guys like Jim Beach and others seem
to have the best intentions. They, however, are accountable. George
Norcross is not considered a lobbyist under New Jersey law. You can't
get him on the phone. You can't vote him out of office.

The restaurant is nearly deserted by the time we get up to go, and
though I never see Norcross call for his driver, his chariot is already
idling curbside, ready to carry him off to parts unknown. Cars fly by
on Route 70, and I recall an anecdote about a union electrician who saw
Norcross on this same highway recently, not far from where we're
standing. "Don't let the papers get you down!" he yelled to his hero
from his pickup. "Fuck 'em!"

"So what kind of story is this going to be?" Norcross asks. Don't
know yet, I say. Might explore whether you're the best thing to happen
to South Jersey, or Satan with a Commerce Bank lapel pin. His face
registers no response.

"I don't think I'd like that," he says. Minutes later, as the
taillights of his Lincoln fade from view, Norcross disappears into the

Originally published in Philadelphia magazine, August 2005

Change text size Print
Write a comment

Digg It Reddit Stumbleupon Del.icio.us Technorati User comments
No users have posted comments on this article.
Post a comment
(* = required field.)

Your Email Address*

First Name*

Last Name*

Display name
Remain anonymous

Subject line of your comment*

Your comments (200 words max)*

Enter the code shown to the right.
This helps prevent automated form submissions.
Sign me up to receive email alerts and newsletters from Philadelphia magazine

Related Posts with Thumbnails