Underlings fear his wrath. Governors kowtow to his enormous political power. He might even have been prosecuted a decade ago if not for a bungled criminal investigation. But does all that make the new Inquirer owner, you know, a bad guy?
In a story this profane, a story about power and legacy, fathers and sons, a story in which F-bombs rain down in a kind of grid pattern designed to make sure offense is taken, it’s probably best to warm up, first, with an inappropriate reference to the female anatomy.
In this bit, George Norcross III, one of the new owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, calls Bill Ross on his cell phone and asks him to put out a press release.
“I want you,” he says, “to condemn the Teamsters.”
There was an inflatable rat going up outside the Inquirer building on North Broad Street—the why doesn’t really matter—and Norcross wanted Ross’s help. This struck Ross as odd. As executive director of the Newspaper Guild, representing editorial, advertising, circulation and finance employees, Ross generally tries not to hurl invective at the unions representing other disciplines.
“No,” he said.
But the thing about Norcross is, he asks. Then he cajoles. Sometimes, if circumstances dictate, he makes an offer. According to Ross, Norcross called back and said, “Look, if you put out the release, I’ll let you pick the brand of coffee we provide free to employees.”
Now, in terms of incentives to compromise on his union principles, picking a type of coffee doesn’t reach Ross’s bar. He remained a no. The next day, another newspaper union issued a release critical of the Teamsters. So Norcross called again. He made an assessment of Ross, this man with whom he would later be negotiating, and went right after his manhood.
“You’re a pussy,” he said.
The relationship between Ross and Norcross, such as it is, has never really improved, especially considering the thing with the water bottle.
That event took place in person, in the conference room down the hall from Ross’s office, where one day last spring Norcross showed up, unannounced. He told Ross that the new ownership group needed to renegotiate all the preexisting contracts it had inherited when it bought the company weeks before. Moreover, he wanted Ross and the Newspaper Guild to let go of any seniority protections: If there were layoffs, tenure should offer no sanctuary.
He sat there, confident, in French cuffs, swigging from a water bottle, his pile of white hair looming, and he said to Ross, “My father used to say that seniority will be the death of the labor movement as we know it.”
Norcross’s late father, George Norcross Jr., served as president of the AFL-CIO unions in South Jersey. But Ross didn’t believe any labor leader would attack seniority, retorting: “I’m sure your dad never said that.”
“We need to get rid of the deadwood,” Norcross responded. “We’re paying your members just to breathe.”
“You’re talking to me like I’m a jerk-off,” said Ross at one point.
“No, not at all,” Norcross shot back. “I think you’re the smartest labor guy I ever worked with.”
“Now you’re just patronizing me,” Ross retorted. He ended the meeting, “Why don’t you just get the fuck out—and take your water bottle with you.”
Norcross responded by securing his water bottle tightly in his right hand and flinging it off the far wall—nowhere near Ross, but in a sense, right at his crotch. Then he walked out the door.
There are some disagreements over the particulars of these stories. (Norcross, for instance, doesn’t remember offering Ross a chance to pick the brand of coffee.) But what everyone can agree on is that both stories sound just like what we’d expect of George Norcross—a man many of us have heard of, and none of us actually knows.
An insurance executive and the unquestioned leader of the South Jersey Democratic party, Norcross holds unshakable influence over offices from the mayor of Collingswood to the Camden County freeholders to the state senate. Within New Jersey, he boasts true omnipotence—his alliances with North Jersey Democrats are so strong that no governor can ignore his wants, and he is second only to Governor Chris Christie in terms of influence. But despite his great power over public offices, he has seemed to prefer that we not know him. For decades, through the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s, Norcross kept to the shadows. He built a fortune in the relative anonymity of the insurance business. He led meetings in the political back rooms. And the little that leaked out to the rest of us cast him in villainous terms. On clandestine law-enforcement recordings, made public in 2005, Norcross boasted of his power and promised to make a profane end of his opponents—rapid-firing F-bombs and saying he’d see to it that those who crossed him were “punished,” “fired” and “crushed.”
He used the kind of language we associate with the Mob, and practiced an old-school bossism in which he engineered and exacted political victories and revenge. And this image of him, as a man reveling in power and gluttonous for more, seemed indelible. But in the past few years, something shifted.
George Norcross III started behaving in new and surprising ways. He emerged from the political back rooms. He started speaking publicly, eloquently, delivering a new narrative, in which he is the devoted son of a dedicated father, in which he has always held our best interests at heart. He started pursuing community-building initiatives in poverty-stricken Camden. He even extended his reach across the river and into Philadelphia, where this past year he became a driving owner behind the new group in charge of philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News.
And so the question is how we should react to this change. We could be happy that he has gone public, and we could accept his presence and his aid, gratefully, because cities like Camden and institutions like the Inquirer and regions like ours can use all the help we can get. If that’s the case, what’s a little naughty language among friends? But those who feel run over by the Norcross machine would probably express a different desire: to see their assailant get the same rough treatment he’s so infamous for delivering; to see the rich and powerful George Norcross III finally, as he himself might put it, get fucked.
Mayors, governors, congressmen and senators come and go—striding into the spotlight of public office and toddling off to a comparatively quiet life. But the power of George Norcross III seems only to expand.
Norcross, a millionaire many times over, continues to preside over Marlton-based Conner Strong & Buckelew—an insurance firm on a large campus punctuated by a helicopter landing pad. Residents of the populated area objected to the helipad, but this is Norcross territory, politically, and he won the necessary approvals, enabling him to fly to and from meetings, his arrival announced by the ominous whup! whup! whup! of rotor blades.
Of late, some of his ends—the expressions of his power—are at least arguably, if not definitively, good. He worked with Christie to force a new, closer relationship between South Jersey’s state universities, Rutgers and Rowan, that figures to benefit both. He has presided over a half-billion-dollar expansion of Cooper University Hospital, in Camden, including the opening of a prestigious new medical school. He recently got the go-ahead to build KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in Camden’s Lanning Square neighborhood. And he has held numerous meetings with prominent South Jersey citizens, passionately extolling the virtues of switching to a county-based police force, a move he believes will bring better services at a reduced cost.
All of these initiatives are aimed, ostensibly, principally, at improving the future prospects of Camden, the most poverty-stricken city in America. And it seems that if this were the beginning and end of the George Norcross story, he would be in line for some serious attaboys, if not outright tearful hugs.
The issue is that the George Norcross story is so much more, a story in which the ends, while themselves sometimes dubious, are often overshadowed by the means, which are frequently repugnant. Consider the manner in which Norcross’s power seems to threaten, well, democracy, as if the whup! whup! of the rotor blades bearing him aloft signals an invasion from the highest, most distant tax bracket above. In the past few years, Norcross used that lofty power, wealth and influence to direct, if not dictate, the course of lower and higher education, government pensions and health care, and the effective delivery of law enforcement—all without holding a publicly elected office, or even an official position in the Democratic party. (He stepped down as Camden County chairman in 1993.)
Cherry Hill, for instance, happens to like its current Cherry Hill-run police force just fine and has no desire to cede its management to Camden County. But just the same, its leaders found themselves engaged in an odd wrestling match with a “political leader” who can’t be voted out of office and therefore can’t be stopped. They declined a county takeover, for the time being. But every observer believes the subject will rise again and again till—whup! whup!—Norcross wins.
Is this democracy?
It’s a question I asked pretty much all my interview subjects for this story, and the answers ranged from an emphatic “Of course not!” to a meandering “Ye-es” to a grossly realistic “It’s the only democracy we have.”
Some names of the wounded have surfaced over the years. Mark Lohbauer, a Jersey businessman and Republican, has said that 11 years after he ran against one of Norcross’s candidates for county freeholder in the ’90s, Norcross made him pay. Then a planner with the Schools Construction Corporation, a state agency in charge of building schools in low-income neighborhoods, Lohbauer lost his job in October 2002 when he says the CEO told him he had to let him go from the non-politically appointed job. “I like you,” he said. “I want to keep you. But [Governor McGreevey’s office] told me George Norcross wants you gone.”
Today, Norcross adamantly denies the accusation, adding he doesn’t even know Lohbauer. The governor’s office and the CEO denied it, too. The problem is that—true or not—the Lohbauer story, like the pussy story and the water bottle story, sounds just like George Norcross. And the reason I can write that, with authority, is because we can all log onto the Internet, anytime, and hear him for ourselves. In 2000-2001, as part of a corruption investigation, George Norcross III was recorded in conversation with a Palmyra councilman, John Gural Jr., who claimed he was being pressured to fire a political enemy of Norcross, city solicitor Ted Rosenberg.
The Palmyra Tapes, as they are known, are now legendary in South Jersey political circles, capturing George Norcross III in a full-throated political bull roar:
“Rosenberg is history and he is done and anything I can do to crush his ass, I wanna do cause I think he’s just a, just an evil fuck. … ”
In another instance, Norcross talks about making a political opponent he can’t crush a judge, just to get him out of the way: “Make him a fucking judge, and get rid of him! … John Harrington is going to become a judge.” (John Harrington, by the way, became a judge.)
He orders another associate not to fraternize with an enemy: “Finally one day I sat him down … and said, ‘Herb, don’t fuck with me on this one … ’cause I’ll tell you if you ever do that and I catch you one more time doing it, you’re gonna get your fucking balls cut off.’”
He talks about urging a committeeman to hire a politically connected firm as township engineer: “ … [W]e said to Harry, ‘Wait a second, JCA was going to be the engineer of record. I don’t care about your fucking review process.’”
He brags of his political accomplishments: “No one will ever, ever again, not include or look down or double-cross South Jersey. Never again will that happen. Because they know we put up the gun and we pulled the trigger and we blew their brains out.” And he boasts about his hold on the governor’s office: “I’m not going to tell you this to insult you, but 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.”
The investigation languished for years before the state Attorney General’s office effectively punted, asking in 2005 for then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie to review the case. Christie assigned two veteran prosecutors to the task before declining to issue any indictments. The case was so controversial that Christie took the highly unusual step of writing a public letter explaining his position: that the investigation had been mishandled before it ever reached his desk.
Norcross, who says he is “embarrassed” by his language but committed no “illegality,” emerged from the entire stressful affair without any criminal charges, yet still operating under a kind of moral cloud. Why? Well, because even if he committed no crime, his behavior was, not to mince words, frightening, even disgusting. In sum, the Palmyra Tapes make for a kind of holy shit! experience, clueing us in to the fact that if the smaller and weaker among us try to engage in running our borough, our town, our city, some really powerful guy like George Norcross III might chop off our balls.
What is so remarkable is that up close, the man behind all this drama is charismatic, warm, funny, a snazzy dresser, the kind of man you’d like to drink a beer with, the kind of leader you’d follow to hell, profane, volatile and suddenly talking.
At 57, George Norcross III is in impressive shape, with a trim gut and the sleek build of a man who keeps up regular tennis and golf matches. For our first meeting, at Cooper University Hospital, where he is chairman of the board, he dressed in a deep blue suit and French cuffs, his head topped by an avalanche of thick white hair.
I had been warned, by a half-dozen reporters, that Norcross would limit access and insist most of the conversation be kept private. But our two meetings encompassed 10 hours, most of it on the record.
“This is like therapy,” he said at one point, before clarifying that he’s never been in therapy.
Where to begin? Well, Norcross maintains that he is less involved in politics than he used to be. And he denies the existence of the much-ballyhooed “Democratic machine.” In terms of his public history, these disavowals have always seemed the most disingenuous aspect of Norcross’s back pages, since his operation appears to hold great influence over government jobs, contracts and political fund-raising. And what is that, if not an old-school Tammany Hall-style political machine?
In person, however, Norcross holds his ground. “The massive number of government jobs and contracts that used to exist just don’t anymore,” he says. “What we have here, and I say ‘we’ because it’s not just me, is a sophisticated apparatus that … achieves a result.”
A machine performs a prescribed function. The “apparatus” Norcross speaks of adapts to win. The image he conjures is of a political Transformer: It’s a car! It plants lawn signs! It’s a kick-ass purple robot!
The Norcross apparatus, as he describes it, also seems a valid tool to use, whether the goal is winning a race or running a newspaper. And the first thing it allows him to do is climb over his own biases. “We all think we know,” he says. “But until we do the research, we don’t know.”
He pores over the relevant data and, like a military commander, plots out a campaign that will bring victory. It happened in the early ’80s when he won his first big insurance contract, at the Garden State Park race track. He came in better prepared, familiar with every layer of coverage necessary for an idiosyncratic industry comprised of horses, riders and grandstands. But the particular subject is never important. In talking about his career, for instance, he betrays no passion for the industry that provided his wealth.
What engages Norcross is besting a challenge with an apparatus that produces a desired result. He could work in politics, insurance, bomb building, or the construction of a better mousetrap, and he’d enjoy the same electric charge emanating from the same place. “Clearly,” he says, “I like challenges … to a kind of extreme degree.”
The words indicate his meaning. But his body language conveys his feeling: His butt shifts suddenly in his seat. A crooked smile shades his face pink. His eyebrows twist with real curiosity, and his eyes begin casting around, wildly alight, as if the answer to the Riddle of Him might be written on one of the walls in this Cooper University Hospital conference room. In short, it seems Norcross still cannot fully process just why he wants what he wants. But he knows his apparatus is always geared up to produce the result.
One would think there might be great joy in this life, coptering over the common man to make millions; telling the governor what you want and knowing he’ll pay attention; building a new cancer center and erecting a prestigious new medical school—the first in New Jersey in 35 years—in Camden, the land he feels bound to by blood, the land that needs a champion like him. And there is: Norcross grins about as much as you’d expect from a fabulously wealthy, healthy man. But he also grimaces. He is not happy that he has been, as he puts it, “caricatured” as a bad guy. He is, however, resigned to this fate.
“Look,” he says. “In this lifetime, I can’t win. That’s the reality. I just can’t win.”
His image, for too many people, is set.
“My biggest mistake was allowing myself to be defined and branded in the ’90s,” he continues. “I stayed in the background because I thought that’s what political bosses did. And I got portrayed, you know, as the guy with the cigar and the horns.”
Norcross’s critics believe he’s not difficult to understand. “It’s all about power,” says John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police. “Wherever he can get it, he wants more.”
But the truth is more nuanced. The wonder Norcross conveys at his own zeal for confronting obstacles suggests that his restless journeying between political, business and social challenges isn’t something he understands or perhaps even controls. On the Palmyra Tapes, between venomous howls, he sounds compelled—a man overwhelmed by his own pace; “I’m up at four o’clock in the morning to go to North Jersey to attend meetings,” he says on the tapes. “Plus this company, plus whatever else I’m doing, and you know I’m nuts, I’m gonna have a heart attack.”
Behind all this striving, Norcross has also maintained a network of admirers. Former Inquirer reporter and current ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio, who plays tennis with Norcross, still gratefully remembers how his friend responded when Paolantonio’s daughter was admitted to Cooper in 2005 with a subdural hematoma. Norcross not only made calls about the daughter’s treatment; he showed up at 5 a.m. the morning after the operation to visit the Paolantonios in the intensive care unit.
“I think George is wrong when he says he can’t win,” says Paolantonio. “I think he can win. And he does win. I understand, as a reporter, why the Palmyra Tapes incident has to be part of the George Norcross narrative. But it does not define who he is.”
Norcross’s allies cite his intense loyalty. And they say his primary motivation isn’t power, but his love for his father, which they describe as moving in its sincerity and unusual in its depth. “I think if you know George and you spend time around him,” says one longtime friend, attorney Arthur Makadon, “it’s obvious that he’s just a man who is looking over his shoulder.”
George Norcross Jr., whom admirers called “Big George” and “Chief,” was a longtime AFL-CIO president. Through the ’60s and ’70s, he made a practice of bringing “Young George” to meet New Jersey governors, senators, congressional leaders and business people. Outfitted in a suit and bow tie, Young George sat quietly in meeting spaces all over New Jersey. “Don’t say anything,” his father told him. “You can learn just by observing.”
Afterward, on the way home, Young George would pepper his dad with questions. And the Chief revealed the meanings behind veiled words and silences. The education ruined Young George for college. Norcross remembers sitting in a political science course at Rutgers-Camden, a 19-year-old making mental note of his professor’s ignorance. “Everything he was saying was just … wrong,” he recalls. “He knew less about how politics is actually practiced than I did.”
So Young George dropped out and found his way, ultimately making more money, in the insurance industry, and garnering more power, in politics, than the Chief ever even sought. As the years passed, Norcross sometimes joked that he was different enough from his dad—fierce and ambitious, where the Chief was gentle and content; feared, where his dad was beloved—that he wondered if he had been adopted or left on the doorstep. “I am an aggressive Type-A-on-steroids personality,” he says. “I regretfully do not have my father’s personality.”
His dad knew success. He was a labor leader and served as a trustee of Cooper University Hospital. But as his career neared its end, in the late ’80s, the entire South Jersey region still operated as a kind of beggar in relation to the north. So the softer Chief also knew defeat: When the governor nominated him for appointment to the New Jersey Racing Commission, a Republican senator named Lee Laskin blocked him. When he received the support of governor Brendan Byrne in 1975 for the concept of a med school at Cooper, the Republican legislators of North Jersey made sure nothing got built. The Chief died, in 1998, with that promise unfulfilled.
Ascending to the chairmanship of the Camden County Democratic Committee at the tender age of 31, Young George, a high-school soccer and basketball player, brought the jock-ready jargon and just-win mentality of the locker room to state politics. He called his closest supporters the “Can Do Club” and lived by high-achiever mantras like “Second Place Is First Loser.” In a pivotal 1991 election, he worked with TV adman Neil Oxman and paid for $400,000 in commercial spots to dethrone Laskin, an unheard-of move in a state election. “At the time,” recalls Norcross, “four hundred grand was like $4 million.”
For the next 20 years, Norcross focused on the battlefield of New Jersey politics, to the point that he is now said to “own” South Jersey. The Camden County Democratic party has ratcheted down its fund-raising in recent years—incumbents don’t need as much money—but still ranks fourth among all the counties in the state, and when he wants a race badly enough, he flattens opponents under the heft of cash. He raised $2 million, for instance, for the 2003 state senate race that installed unknown challenger Fred Madden over incumbent George Geist. It was the most expensive senate race in the history of New Jersey, which raises a question: Is this democracy—or an auction?
Jay Lassiter, a longtime Democrat in Camden County who’s worked on campaigns for such Norcross-backed candidates as John Adler and Rob Andrews, calls the matter “debatable,” then goes on to count the ways in which Norcross’s critics fail to appreciate his more visionary qualities.
“His candidates do bring a certain level of competence,” he says. “And the stands they take on the issues reflect the values of any true blue-dog Democrat.”
It’s a deep irony that Norcross, so often singled out for criticism in the media, routinely produces candidates who win newspaper endorsements from the Inquirer and Courier-Post. And even his nepotism hasn’t embarrassed him. He cleared the way for his brother, Donald Norcross, to get a state senate seat in 2010 when then-senator Dana Redd was elected Camden’s mayor, but Donald has since earned respect and an Inquirer endorsement.
The problem, then, isn’t that George Norcross is incompetent. He’s not. The issue is that he simply holds too much power for any one man, a state of affairs that South Jersey Dems experience intimately, always aware of who’s sipping from the trough. “I am not in the Norcross bubble,” says Jay Lassiter. “But a lot of people I care about are, so in deference to them, I wouldn’t want to say anything negative. And that said, if George Norcross came at me with some money, to be part of another campaign, I’d do it, gratefully. … For God’s sake, buy me! I’m not that expensive!”
The debate, at least in this instance, is over. This is an auction. And Norcross plays an enviable role as both the highest bidder and the guy who reaps the greatest proceeds. He’s long been criticized for doing insurance business with many of the governments with which he has ties as a political leader. But his power seems to yield various forms of return.
Famously, during the trial of state senator Wayne Bryant, we learned that the State of New Jersey had been doling out what government officials dubbed “Norcross Grants.” These were discretionary funds to be given to worthy causes. Norcross said that he received a phone call in 2004 from then-governor Richard Codey telling him that he—George Norcross III, a private insurance executive—could steer $500,000 in public money any way he saw fit. Norcross chose Pennsauken High School, his alma mater, and the private Lawrenceville School that his daughter Lexie attended.
Norcross has also benefited from his connections to the Delaware River Port Authority. When DRPA issued its final disbursements in 2011, Cooper University Hospital received $6 million. The money raised some eyebrows. Indeed, DRPA’s purported purpose was to promote transportation throughout the region, and Cooper was the only hospital ever to receive money from DRPA, the vice chair of which was—go figure—Jeffrey Nash, a longtime Norcross ally.
In another DRPA-related transaction, Norcross’s insurance firm received $410,000—not for actually doing the authority’s insurance work, but for referring that business to another insurance firm, Willis of New Jersey. While a report last year from the New Jersey comptroller was critical of that arrangement, it also noted that there was technically nothing unlawful about it, a point Norcross reiterates when I bring it up. “Look,” he says, “the report itself says nothing happened that was illegal.”
Jennifer Beck, a Republican legislator from Monmouth County, has since proposed a bill to plug up this hole in the public trough. But a year later, her fix continues to languish in a committee chaired by Nia Gill, an Essex County Democrat who is—again, go figure—allied with Norcross’s Southern Jersey crew.
Norcross’s critics remain fixated on these sorts of stories. But there is a larger portrait here—of the political operator as artist, and the artist as an aging, more reflective man. “Things have evolved,” says Norcross. “And … I’m getting older now. It’s only natural to wonder when my number will come up.”
In other words, as the finish line looms in the distance, Norcross has tuned his apparatus to securing a legacy—and the result is his broadest, most civic-minded set of aims yet. Is this altruism? Or self-interest? The best answer might be both: In fortifying Cooper University Hospital, Norcross ensures some vibrant legacy for his family. But to be certain Cooper will succeed, he must consider the health of the city as a whole.
And so Norcross has turned his sights on all of Camden, America’s poorest city. “We’ve got to make it safer here,” he says, “and we’ve got to improve the quality of education, or no one will move here and anyone who achieves any measure of success won’t stay.”
The Camden Norcross seeks to create is both modernized and tech-savvy. Cooper’s medical school yields prestige and a much-needed influx of youth and smarts. His promotion of a biomedical research facility and a closer allegiance between Rutgers and Rowan should yield greater academic status and potentially foster future economic spin-offs. The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a five-school, 2,800-student behemoth to be built on land near Cooper, might “stabilize the children and families of an entire neighborhood,” Norcross says. And reframing the Camden city police as a county-led force is, he says, designed to save money and free up budgetary room to put more officers on the street.
But can the guy with “the cigar and the horns” really save a city, or can he only serve himself? “Look,” says Ali Sloan El, a longtime city activist, “George is for George.”
By this theory, the land now set aside for the KIPP Cooper charter might never house a school at all—and instead wind up serving as land on which Cooper University Hospital can expand. And the police force—which has at least temporarily waived the civil-service exam process in order to staff up—will become a giant patronage mill, churning out government jobs for good little Camden County Democrats.
Norcross rejects such talk as “wild conspiracy theories.” But here’s the rub: Camden residents have no power with which to reject him. And yet there he is—influencing even the direction of their police force.
No city, let alone one with Camden’s crime problems, has ever replaced half its force with such speed before. So the risk is simple overreach.
“Nothing he does,” says historian Howard Gillette, “is all bad. He is a smart, competent man. But what’s extraordinary about him is that he has all this wealth, and this power, and this prestige, and there is no effective counterweight to him. That’s, understandably, a concern.”
“A few years ago,” says Neil Oxman, the adman with whom Norcross has continued to work, “George told me there are only two things he still wants in life: to play at the Augusta National golf course, and to have lunch with his father.” Oxman, who moonlights as a caddie for Tom Watson, got him on the Augusta golf course. “But I can’t do anything about that lunch.”
The Chief suffered a stroke in 1996, severely damaging his short-term memory, so Norcross isn’t sure if he ever understood just how successful his son had grown in business. The Chief also never saw the med school he’d pursued finally come into being.
I ask Norcross what he’d say if he could have lunch with his father.
“I heard from some people, after he died, that he had been concerned about me,” he says, “and whether or not I was going to be successful.”
Norcross considers all his words, slowly, then says: “I’d just want him to know that everything worked out all right.”
The new investor group in charge of the city’s largest, most prestigious media property came in saying all the right things. That group, including Norcross, Gerry Lenfest, developer Bill Hankowsky and executive Lew Katz, described themselves as investing “patient capital,” and suggested they would take their time trying to heal a faltering operation out of a sense of civic duty.
A year later, however, their actions seem to belie those words. What they really saw was a business opportunity—and in Norcross’s case, one of those much-beloved challenges.
During our second interview, Norcross seems perhaps more at ease, and excited, discussing his thoughts on his new property more than anything else. “Our position is that we essentially have three products to sell,” he says. “Philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News. And the audience for these three products is very different.”
As a result, the new owners want to establish their three products as separate entities. The Inquirer will focus on “local, local, local news,” as Norcross describes it, along with “investigative reporting and sports coverage” around the region. The Daily News will keep to its city focus. Both papers will be tucked behind pay walls, on their own websites. But philly.com will remain free while being recast as a kind of regional Huffington Post.
The same dynamic is in play at boston.com, which publishes a selection of material, for free, from the Boston Globe’s pay site, which went live in September 2011. If that’s the model, and publisher Bob Hall says it’s very similar, it isn’t encouraging. To date, the Globe online edition has only garnered around 28,000 digital subscribers. “If I didn’t think we have a real opportunity to make these publications financially healthy, I wouldn’t be involved,” says Norcross. “The fact that it might be hard is just … a part of what interests me.”
Thus far, Norcross seems to be setting the new ownership’s tone. The political bruiser who took Lee Laskin’s seat with a concentrated TV advertising blitz has linked up with Oxman again to produce ads reintroducing the Inquirer and Daily News. He also seems to have steered the company’s relationship with its new employees. First, he advised Ross in a pair of meetings that the company would be seeking contract concessions—and the elimination of seniority as a consideration during layoffs. Then he removed himself from further contact.
Instead, Lenfest took part—his comments undercutting any claims the new owners initially made about serving as “patient capital.” “This is not a charitable venture for me,” Lenfest told the Guild’s executive board, including Bill Ross. “If we do not get the concessions we need, we will liquidate the company in a week.”
The tough line has gotten the Guild’s attention. To start with, it agreed to begin contract negotiations several months before the previous deal was slated to expire. In those negotiations, the Guild managed to preserve seniority for its members, but offered up a separate concession that may prove even more important. For many decades, the Guild has refused to agree to any sort of formal employee-review. The new deal, however, allows the new owners to develop such a process, with performance standards set at its “sole discretion.” If an employee doesn’t measure up, he or she can be fired.
Bill Ross vows to fight in court if the owners begin using the provision unfairly, but Norcross seems unlikely to stick around for any legal tussles. His words hint at the divisive final solution suggested by Gerry Lenfest: “I’ll tell you this,” he says, in his office at Conner Strong. “We have no intention of fighting with unions. If we can’t get what we need to make this operation successful, we will just walk away.”
A framed, enlarged copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album cover looming on the wall over his shoulder, Governor Chris Christie shakes my hand and sits down in his Trenton office to talk about the only real rival to his power in the state of New Jersey: George Norcross.
In many ways, this should be a triumphant interview for Norcross, in which Christie, the North Jersey Republican, arguably the most popular politician in the United States of America, talks up the civic merits and vision of his unlikely Democratic ally to the south. And for a time, it is just that.
“This is a guy who has a very fertile mind,” Christie says of Norcross, “and is always thinking about things. Whenever I meet with George, he’s got a list of things he wants to go through.”
Of late, the piece of paper Norcross carries into his meetings with the Governor displays a lot of items on which they agree: the radical new changes in the Camden police department, the regionalization of public safety services, the Rutgers-Rowan partnership, K-12 education reform, and tough stances on union pensions and benefits.
The role of a private business executive, in the year 2013, rarely if ever means such deep engagement and power in the realms of public policy. But Christie denies that any problem, any real threat to democracy, is associated with Norcross’s almost paternal role in South Jersey.
“I think,” says Christie, assessing Norcross’s power, “more times than not, George wins these arguments in South Jersey based on the merits. I’ve never seen George in a situation, you know, [say] ‘You’ll do this or else. … ’ And a lot of the stuff [he’s doing] is laudable.”
If “a lot” of the stuff is laudable, I wonder, is the Governor aware of something that isn’t?
“I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that hasn’t been laudable,” Christie replies. “But I’m sure there’s plenty of them over time. He’s been involved in some—some bare-knuckle politics. So I’m sure not all of it was, you know, charitably motivated.”
For students of Jersey politics, the elephant in the room, of course, is Christie’s role in the Palmyra investigation, and those notorious tapes of George Norcross practicing politics. I ask Christie to discuss the subject.
“I made it a practice not to talk about that kind of stuff from when I was U.S. Attorney, in terms of ‘shining any new light’ on things,” he replies. “I think if you want to know what my view of the investigation was, then read the letter I sent to the acting Attorney General.”
In that letter, addressed to the state Attorney General’s office, and ultimately disseminated to the media, Christie explained that he would be unable to prosecute Norcross because investigators bungled the case. They failed to obtain wiretaps on their principal subjects, including Norcross, and didn’t equip an informant with a wire at one key political function. Christie even wondered, in print, if the investigation had been purposefully undermined for political reasons.
Federal prosecutors, as a rule, don’t discuss their decision-making. So the New York Times covered the largely unprecedented event. “In a scathing letter,” reads a 2006 Times story, “Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, wrote that his office would be unable to bring charges against Mr. Norcross because lawyers for the state attorney general had mishandled their investigation before turning it over to his office in 2004.”
“Reviewing the letter again,” I say to Christie, “as I did this morning … you look like a guy lamenting the one that got away. Right? And one of the ones that got away there was George Norcross.”
The entire time I speak, Christie sits there nodding. Then he responds: “Well, listen, you know, you change roles. Um, I’m now—here I was the United States Attorney, a prosecutor, and I was doing my job as I saw it. And now I’m the governor. And now I’m a political leader, on top of being a governmental leader. And so certain things that I couldn’t do as a prosecutor, I can do now, and I’m really obligated to do, and certain things that I could do as a prosecutor I can’t do anymore. So, you know, your power is in some ways expanded and your power in some ways is limited, as the governor, as compared to being U.S. Attorney.”
When I relay Christie’s answer to Norcross, he contends that the response doesn’t bother him at all. “That’s fine,” he says.
Of course, what the letter said was only that there would be no prosecution, not that there was no crime. So Christie’s response strikes me as a bad one for Norcross—driving us back to his darkest public days. Seeking to influence the dispersal of contracts, to get an enemy fired as a form of political retribution? All Norcross can muster, by way of apology, is to say he remains “embarrassed” by his own foul language. “My wife and mother should have washed my mouth out with soap,” he says. “But there was no illegality, as was determined.”
He smooths his hair back. He shifts in his seat. The conversation about Palmyra goes on for several minutes, but we never get to anything new, and Norcross doesn’t see the need to say anything he hasn’t said already. “It was an embarrassing moment,” he says. “It was certainly my most embarrassing moment in the region.”
George Norcross welcomes me into his private office at Conner Strong & Buckelew, his Marlton-based insurance firm. A table is laid out with fine china, silverware, fruit, raw vegetables and hummus. He takes me on a tour of the photographs lining the walls.
The images cover everything from his daughter Lexie’s graduation from NYU to family vacations, numerous political events, and old sepia-haunted photos of himself, as a boy, with his father. He spends several long minutes narrating the circumstances of each. His tone, at times, grows distant, as though the images on the wall have pushed him from the spot where he is standing to the moments they were taken.
The most moving, in terms of his own personal story, are the ones of him and his dad. In photo after photo, Young George gazes with innocent eyes at some governor of New Jersey—Richard Hughes in 1966, Cahill in ’63, Meyner in ’62. His dad stands there, beaming, and Young George is learning that the hand of a state governor is accessible to him. The natural question, given how open he’s been, is if he might let me borrow and scan some of these photos to publish as part of the story. “No,” he says.
“Really,” he replies. “They’re off the record. This is all off the record.”
“Why?” I ask. He maintains a steady stream of unrelated patter, clearly sending me the signal to move on. But I don’t. This tour of his past, of photos capturing events we had discussed on the record, is to be put off the record?
“Yes,” he says again.
The moment strikes me as telling. And in the coming days, I decided to write about this exchange. For one thing, by the rules of journalism, a source can’t retroactively put quotes or a scene off the record. He needs to request such an arrangement before speaking with a reporter—and Norcross hadn’t. But I didn’t want to write about this in order to prove any point about journalistic rules. I wanted to convey this scene because of what I thought the moment suggested—that on some level, he needed to reach out and exercise control. He needed to express his power. He needed, in spite of feeling that he had been wrongly defined over the years, to stay, well, as unknown as possible. And as a consequence, he tried to wipe away even these photos that bring some sense of duty and romance to his story—that soften his sometimes brutal image.
The overall effect, not just of this episode but of spending 10 hours with George Norcross III, is that he is asking to be seen in the best possible light without ever really emerging from the shadows. And so, in the end, it might not matter how many medical schools he builds or charter schools he founds or media companies he sells or saves. Because what we really need from him is something deeper and more intimate than all these things.
We need him to step out. We need him to apologize—to openly acknowledge that, crime or no crime, he is guilty. He has done wrong. He has lorded over—whup! whup! whup!—and undermined the democratic process of an entire region.
But the best Norcross can muster is to say he is embarrassed he swore. For that reason, he will likely go on feeling that he can’t win.
Not in this lifetime.
Because without that apology—without him letting go of some of his power—this region’s relationship with him will remain tainted by an unquenched desire: to see George Norcross III climb onstage, stand before a podium, and take a deep and holy breath. To see George Norcross III hang his head—flashbulbs popping—and assume the position.