George Norcross, a wealthy insurance executive, has for decades run New Jersey’s most vaunted Democratic political machine, a seemingly unstoppable behemoth that carries huge influence over who leads the state Legislature and what bills become law.
But after a series of political and legal setbacks over the past year, culminating in Amy Kennedy’s landslide primary victory Tuesday over a Norcross-backed candidate in southern New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, some Democrats see signs that the machine’s grip on power is starting to slip.
It’s a stunning turn of events. Just over a year ago Norcross, incensed by a state investigation that dug up dirt on his insurance brokerage and his allies, made a semi-veiled threat of a primary challenge to Gov. Phil Murphy.
Fourteen months later, the question in New Jersey political circles isn’t whether the governor will face such a challenge. Rather, it’s just how weakened the Norcross machine has become, and whether his most influential ally, state Senate President Steve Sweeney, has reached the end of his time atop the chamber after more than a decade in power.
“You heard it here first: Steve Sweeney will not return as Senate President. And George Norcross should set sail on his yacht as fast as the winds blow, over to the Cayman Islands, his kinda paradise, where taxes are optional,” Sue Altman, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and a chief Norcross critic, said in a mass email Wednesday. “All Empires crumble.”
Many New Jersey political observers who hold less of a grudge against Norcross than Altman don’t think his machine is on the verge of crumbling. But even a substantial weakening of it would mean huge changes for large-scale, machine politics in New Jersey. It would force rewrites of playbooks on how to win elections for local, state and federal office, and reshape the legislative process in Trenton, where Sweeney has been a towering figure whose influence can rival the governor’s.
It’s been a rough year for South Jersey Democrats, for years the most sophisticated political operation in the state, with Tuesday’s Democratic primary win for Kennedy the starkest example yet. Norcross and Sweeney went all in early for Brigid Harrison, a political science professor. A super PAC unofficially controlled by Norcross spent almost $500,000 to boost Harrison in the last two weeks of the election.
But Kennedy — a member of the political dynasty who was backed by Murphy, public sector unions and progressive groups — won handily, dealing the Norcross machine a stunning defeat on its own turf.
Although Kennedy went hard at Norcross during the campaign, comparing him to a villain on “Game of Thrones,“ she did not refer to him during her brief victory speech Tuesday night, instead focusing on her opponent in the general election — Democrat-turned-Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew — and President Donald Trump.
In a phone interview Wednesday evening, Kennedy — who now has little reason to criticize the machine she just defeated — said, “I’m hoping that everybody in South Jersey is on the same page.”
“I can only take this for the individual race that it is, and what I think this means is just that people are really hungry for change in South Jersey and, specifically, we’re looking for a strong candidate to put up against Van Drew for November,” she said.
In a statement Wednesday, Norcross spokesperson Dan Fee said “we look at [the election] another way — there’s politics and the associated parlor games that go along with that and there’s what matters to real life people.”
Fee cited economic development in Norcross’ base of Camden, the successes of Cooper University Hospital there, and the fact that Norcross’ brother, Democratic U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, did not face a primary challenge despite threats by Altman. He also pointed to police reforms in Camden — undertaken by Norcross and his allies — which some have credited with staving off violence that plagued recent protests in other cities, including just across the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
“We are looking at different things to measure success,” Fee said. ‘It’s hard to argue all three haven’t had pretty good — even great — years.
“Donald [Norcross] is George’s electoral priority,” Fee said. “Despite some early rumblings of a challenge — including from some of the people who are being critical elsewhere — he was unchallenged in the primary because he has broad support from across the party, including Governor Murphy, both Senators, the [New Jersey Education Association], [Communications Workers of America], environmental groups, women’s groups, really everyone.“
Many New Jersey political insiders are unwilling to write off a machine that has used a powerful voting bloc of lawmakers to successfully push policy and politics in Trenton, exerting its influence in Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Some attributed Kennedy’s victory, in part, to the power of her name — she’s married to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — and the family’s considerable political resources.
But, they acknowledge, a string of losses is impossible to ignore.
Until Tuesday, the biggest defeat for the Norcross machine was an attempt by South Jersey Democrats to oust the state Democratic chairman, John Currie, a Murphy ally, in favor of Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones. A year of insider political maneuvering produced a stalemate, and in December, Jones broke with Norcross, cutting a deal with Currie that would leave the chairman in power for a year-and-a-half and make Jones the presumptive pick to succeed him.
South Jersey Democrats, though they were pledged a spot on the 2021 state legislative redistricting commission as part of the agreement, were not party to the deal.
Jones acknowledged he and Norcross had a tense break over his decision to compromise with Currie.
“I didn’t appreciate his style. I’m an open-minded individual and I’m not going to be dictated or talked to in any kind of way,” Jones said in a phone interview. “And for that I can’t tolerate an individual who believes that he is mightier and holier than everyone. And that disconnected any kind of relationship. I never really had a solid one with him. Just a periodic conversation. But no, I’m not that guy.”
There have been other setbacks.
A Murphy-appointed task force delved into a tax incentive program that was designed in part by the law firm of one of Norcross’ brothers, Phil, cosponsored in the state Senate by then-Sen. Donald Norcross, and ultimately used by George Norcross’ insurance brokerage and partner to finance a new headquarters building in Camden.
George Norcross tried to shut the down probe in a lawsuit against Murphy, but the effort was rejected by a Superior Court and on Monday by a state appellate panel.
State and federal authorities have subpoenaed records from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority related to the tax incentive program, and a legal filing last month said Camden-based Holtec — an energy technology company on whose board George Norcross sits — is under “criminal investigation” over a false answer on its application for a $260 million tax credit, which was the second biggest in state history.
Fee said the tax incentives, which spurred several businesses to open offices in Camden, made it “more likely that workers return to the city“ than elsewhere once the pandemic has passed.
Last year, Democrats in South Jersey lost a Senate seat and two Assembly seats to Republicans — the only Democratic incumbent legislative losses in the state.
And after a decade as Senate president, there are signs Sweeney’s grip on power isn’t as absolute as it once was. He was unable to corral enough Democratic votes to eliminate a religious exemption on vaccines for public school students, and stripped state Sen. Joe Lagana of his post on the influential Judiciary Committee when the Bergen County Democrat wouldn’t come on board — a move that some in the caucus saw as overly harsh retaliation.
Sweeney has also had trouble convincing Democratic members to join a committee he announced in May that will be tasked with investigating the Murphy administration’s response to the pandemic, including the state’s high death toll in nursing homes.
In addition, Democratic senators have been baffled by Sweeney’s resistance to replace Michele Brown, a confidant of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, with Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano on the board of directors of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, a plum patronage position that pays $77,000.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who came to power in 2018 as part of a power-sharing deal with South Jersey Democrats, has been increasingly making political decisions independent of Sweeney. Most recently, Coughlin decided to move with a multi-billion dollar borrowing plan Murphy proposed, but Sweeney has resisted.
Middlesex County Democrats, who have built up their own political clout in recent years, will likely play a big role in deciding whether Sweeney remains as Senate president when his term expires in January 2022. And while talk of a potential replacement is furtive, it exists. Names mentioned include state Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Joe Cryan (D-Union), Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen).
“If people float my name, they can float my name. It would be an honor to serve, but right now Steve is our senate president and I support him,” Vitale said.
Ruiz and Cryan declined to comment, and Sarlo did not return to a phone call.
Sweeney did not respond to a request for comment. As to Norcross’ influence that selection, Fee said Sweeney has “deep relationships among his colleagues, but it’s not something an outsider has a real role in.”
Micah Rasmussen, a political science professor at Rider University, said that while Kennedy’s loss is a blow to the Norcross machine, her circumstances were different than a normal challenger. Her name is famous, for instance, and she was able to draw on family contacts to out-fund Harrison.
“I don’t know you can say anybody’s in trouble. But here’s the thing: What last night showed is there are a particular set of circumstances or a road map you can follow and maybe do well against the machine,” Rasmussen said. “Maybe it encourages more people to challenge Norcross. Maybe he doesn’t seem as daunting as he once was.”