UNTOUCHABLES DEMAND INDICTMENTS AS MORE NATIONAL PUBLICATIONS PICK UP ON MASSIVE RACKETEERING IN NEW JERSEY
January 7, 2006
No Title and No Elective Office, but Influence Across New Jersey
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI
It was a piece of legislation that could reshape New Jersey's landscape and affect the lives of millions of people.
In the spring of 2004, Gov. James E. McGreevey was pushing the Highlands Preservation Act, a proposal to severely limit new construction near the streams and reservoirs in northern New Jersey, to protect the source of drinking water for half of the state's nine million residents and rein in the growing problem of sprawl in the country's most densely populated state.
As the bill was being crafted in the State Legislature, it had the support of environmentalists and much of the business community, but ran into one major obstacle: George E. Norcross III, the political leader from Camden County.
Mr. Norcross holds no elective office or party title, and he is based at the other end of the state, but he had enough loyalty within the Legislature to be able to kill the program if he and his political and business associates did not like what was in the bill.
Mr. Norcross's legislative allies held out for changes that would make it easier for developers to build in the overcrowded suburbs, according to people involved in the negotiations.
At the same time, the involved parties say, they used the opportunity to pressure the state to block an oil company's plan to establish a nature preserve on Petty's Island, in the Delaware River near Camden. Mr. Norcross and his political and business associates argued that the oil company was simply trying to avoid the cost of cleaning up pollution on the island, and maintain that their plan to build a golf resort and housing development there would help revitalize the blighted area.
Mr. McGreevey eventually got the votes he needed for the Highlands plan, and Mr. Norcross walked away with what he wanted, too: both the so-called fast-track provision and the revised plan for Petty's Island. The achievements cemented his status as the state's most influential power broker.
Through a network of union leaders, legislators, developers and lawyers, Mr. Norcross has grown from a regional figure in Camden to a pivotal player in state politics. He has a say in a wide range of major decisions made by the state government, as well as in smaller government actions shown to enrich his allies and to cost taxpayers.
He has also helped Commerce Bank, where he is C.E.O. of the insurance division, win contracts in 31 of the 37 municipalities in Camden County.
Pulling State Funds South
Mr. Norcross rarely speaks in public, and when he does, he describes himself as "an activist" for South Jersey, where residents have long complained that they are overlooked by a state government dominated by the wealthier, more densely populated counties to the north.
He is proud to take credit for helping South Jersey residents receive infusions of state money and job appointment in recent years, including $175 million designated to rehabilitate sections of Camden and millions for Cooper Hospital there.
"I'm part of a great team of South Jersey Democrats," Mr. Norcross said, in the only remarks he would allow to be quoted for this article. "We've worked hard in recent years to bring South Jersey its fair share."
But Mr. Norcross's activities and interests clearly extend far north of New Jersey's geographic midpoint, the Raritan River. His ability to raise millions in campaign money has allowed him to donate generously in Bergen, Essex and Mercer Counties, gaining influence there.
It has enabled him to demand a seat at the table when Democratic leaders choose their nominees for governor or other high office. It also gives him an important voice on virtually every major state issue, from property taxes to the plan to build a hockey arena in downtown Newark and one in Pennsauken, where at the time he owned the rights to a minor-league franchise.
Mr. Norcross earned unwelcome notoriety last year when two Democratic political rivals revealed secretly recorded audio tapes in which he made expletive-laden threats about his adversaries and boasted of his ability to make political appointments.
"In the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they're all going to be with me," Mr. Norcross said in the most memorable sound bite, which was disseminated on television, radio and the Internet and in Republican campaign advertisements. "Not that they like me, but because they have no choice."
Federal prosecutors are investigating whether his statements constitute official corruption, but Mr. Norcross's lawyer, William Tambussi, said that was nothing more than tough talk.
Governor-elect Jon S. Corzine brushed off Mr. Norcross's statements as unfounded chest beating, and insists he will not be pressured by political leaders or contributors.
"I don't think I've talked to that person more than once in the past year," Mr. Corzine said of Mr. Norcross during a recent interview. "And he's certainly not going to have any more say in state policy than anyone else."
But when he takes office on Jan. 17, Mr. Corzine will have to contend with more than a dozen legislators who receive substantial financial support from Mr. Norcross, including his former partner in a chain of optometry stores, Joseph J. Roberts Jr., who recently became Assembly speaker.
Mr. Norcross's ascent is a testament to the resilience of New Jersey's political power brokers. Fifty years ago, they ran gritty urban organizations that derived much of their influence from union halls, housing projects and church basements. The growth of suburbia diluted the power of political machines in many other parts of the country.
But New Jersey's lax campaign-contribution laws and strong tradition of home rule, which gives municipal officials broad powers to make decisions regarding development issues, allowed the county bosses to adapt and flourish.
Mr. Norcross's organization mirrors the changes that have reshaped the state in the last half-century. His political coalition includes investment bankers, laborers, suburbanites and city dwellers, and cuts across racial and ethnic lines. That diversity also extends to those who contribute to the various campaign funds that Mr. Norcross controls; they include unions, government contractors, lawyers, engineering firms and his associates in banking and insurance.
He has used that money to become the most technologically innovative of the state's Democratic political leaders, investing millions to provide his candidates with state-of-the-art polling, target marketing and opposition research.
Although Mr. Norcross, a self-professed "Reagan Democrat," often urges elected officials to practice fiscal restraint, he is not reluctant to spend with abandon to help them win elections. In 2003, Mr. Norcross and the Camden County Democratic Organization raised $4.4 million to help a former state police superintendent, Fred Madden, win a State Senate seat that has an annual salary of $49,000.
When Mr. Corzine ran for the United States Senate in 2000, Mr. Norcross threw his organization's weight behind his opponent in the primary, former Gov. Jim Florio. Mr. Corzine won, but only after spending $30 million. The two men later made peace, and records show that Mr. Corzine has given more than $700,000 to Mr. Norcross's various political committees.
Mr. Norcross, 49, said he learned to act decisively and cherish political loyalty from his father, George Jr., who served for years as the president of the Southern New Jersey A.F.L.-C.I.O. Central Labor Council.
County Chairman in His 30's
After Mr. Norcross dropped out of Rutgers University at Camden in the late 1970's, his father helped him start a small insurance company and introduced him to the mayor of Camden, who appointed him to the only government position he has ever held: chairman of the city's parking authority. By 1989, he had shown such skill at running campaigns and mobilizing unions that he rose to the chairmanship of Camden County's Democratic organization.
Mr. Norcross left the post in 1995. His brother Donald, a union leader, runs it now. A year later, Commerce Bancorp bought Mr. Norcross's insurance company and brought him in to start up its insurance division, and both he and the bank began to take a far more prominent role in state affairs.
Commerce, based in Cherry Hill, opened or acquired dozens of branches across New Jersey. Its political action committee doled out $1.5 million to New Jersey political candidates between 1998 and 2003, much of it in communities that gave Commerce banking, insurance and bond underwriting work.
The insurance division run by Mr. Norcross now brings the bank more than $50 million a year in premiums from various municipal governments and authorities.
David Flaherty, a spokesman for the company, has said that Commerce has attracted business from governments around the state because it is a New Jersey-based company and provides quality service at a reasonable price.
Mr. Norcross is paid $1.3 million a year by Commerce. According to financial records filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, he now holds bank stock worth more than $100 million.
Mr. Norcross is up by 4 a.m. most days to coordinate his political work, is at the office by 6 a.m., and often works late into the evening. He and his wife, Sandy, have two children - Lexie, 18, and Alex, 9 - and despite his long hours, he prides himself on being an involved father.
When Mr. McGreevey sought support for the Highlands protection plan, Mr. Norcross told the administration and legislative leaders that he considered the plan hostile to the business community, according to people involved in the talks.
Senator Stephen M. Sweeney of Gloucester County, vice chairman of the environmental committee, balked at bringing the matter to a vote. Mr. Sweeney, whose record-setting $1.8 million campaign for the Senate in 2001 had received sizable contributions from Mr. Norcross and the Camden County Democratic organization, first wanted the administration to support his proposal to speed the pace of construction elsewhere in the state.
As the standoff dragged on, Mr. Norcross's brother Phil, the managing partner of a prominent law firm, negotiated with Mr. McGreevey's legal advisers at the Marriott hotel, a few blocks from the State House, people familiar with the effort at the time said. Phil Norcross did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages requesting comment.
In the General Assembly, meanwhile, the Budget Committee chairman Louis D. Greenwald, of Camden County, pressed the administration for assurances that it would not permit Citgo Petroleum to establish a nature preserve on Petty's Island, where Mr. Norcross's associates were hoping to build a hotel, golf resort and residential development.
The McGreevey administration ultimately relented on both fronts.
When Mr. Corzine becomes governor he will have the opportunity to reverse both of those decisions.
Petty's Island still needs many state approvals before development can begin. Mr. McGreevey signed the fast-track bill, but later, in the lame-duck period after he announced he was resigning because of a sex scandal, he issued an executive order postponing it. Mr. Corzine has said that he is undecided about Petty's Island, but that he opposes the fast-track law.
Mr. Norcross declined to speak specifically about either issue. But Senator Sweeney said that the fast-track bill would spur economic growth and sensible development by cutting bureaucracy.
"We're not going away on this one," Mr. Sweeney said. "We're going to keep fighting."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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