Category Archives: 2014


Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg had a plan to reform Newark’s schools. They got an education.
May 19, 2014 ISSUE



Late one night in December, 2009, a black Chevy Tahoe in a caravan of cops and residents moved slowly through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Newark. In the back sat the Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, and the Republican governor-elect of New Jersey, Chris Christie. They had become friendly almost a decade earlier, during Christie’s years as United States Attorney in Newark, and Booker had invited him to join one of his periodic patrols of the city’s busiest drug corridors.

The ostensible purpose of the tour was to show Christie one of Booker’s methods of combatting crime. But Booker had another agenda that night. Christie, during his campaign, had made an issue of urban schools. “We’re paying caviar prices for failure,” he’d said, referring to the billion-dollar annual budget of the Newark public schools, three-quarters of which came from the state. “We have to grab this system by the roots and yank it out and start over. It’s outrageous.”
Booker had been a champion of vouchers and charter schools for Newark since he was elected to the city council, in 1998, and now he wanted to overhaul the school district. He would need Christie’s help. The Newark schools had been run by the state since 1995, when a judge ended local control, citing corruption and neglect. A state investigation had concluded, “Evidence shows that the longer children remain in the Newark public schools, the less likely they are to succeed academically.” Fifteen years later, the state had its own record of mismanagement, and student achievement had barely budged.

Christie often talked of having been born in Newark, and Booker asked his driver to take a detour to Christie’s old neighborhood. The Tahoe pulled to a stop along a desolate stretch of South Orange Avenue, where Christie said he used to take walks with his mother and baby brother. His family had moved to the suburbs in 1967, when he was four, weeks before the cataclysmic Newark riots. An abandoned three-story building, with gang graffiti sprayed across boarded-up windows, stood before them on a weedy, garbage-strewn lot. Dilapidated West Side High School loomed across the street. About ninety per cent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and barely half of the freshmen made it to graduation. Three West Side seniors had been shot and killed by gangs the previous school year, and the year before that, on a warm summer night, local members of a Central American gang known as MS-13, wielding guns, a machete, and a steak knife, had murdered three college-bound Newark youths, two of them from West Side. Another West Side graduate had been badly maimed.

In the back seat of the S.U.V., Booker proposed that he and Christie work together to transform education in Newark. They later recalled sharing a laugh at the prospect of confounding the political establishment with an alliance between a white suburban Republican and a black urban Democrat. Booker warned that they would face a brutal battle with unions and machine politicians. With seven thousand people on the payroll, the school district was the biggest public employer in a city of roughly two hundred and seventy thousand. As if spoiling for the fight, Christie replied, “Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark. Why not do the right thing?”

So began one of the nation’s most audacious exercises in education reform. The goal was not just to fix the Newark schools but to create a national model for how to turn around an entire school district.

The abysmal performance of schools in the poorest communities has been an escalating national concern for thirty years, with universities, governments, and businesses devoting enormous resources to the problem. In the past decade, a reform movement financed by some of the nation’s wealthiest philanthropists has put forward entrepreneurial approaches: charter schools, business-style accountability for teachers and principals, and merit bonuses for top performers. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created Race to the Top, a $4.3-billion initiative to induce states to approve more charter schools and to rate teachers based on student performance.

Christie’s response to Booker—“Why not do the right thing?”—reflected the moral tone of the movement. Reformers compared their cause to the civil-rights movement, aware that many of their key opponents were descendants of the old civil-rights establishment: unions and urban politicians determined to protect thousands of public jobs in cities where secure employment was rare. Decades of research have shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods have far more influence on children’s academic achievement than classroom instruction. But reformers argued that well-run schools with the flexibility to recruit the best teachers could overcome many of the effects of poverty, broken homes, and exposure to violence. That usually meant charter schools, which operated free of the district schools’ large bureaucracies and union rules. “We know what works,” Booker and other reformers often said. They blamed vested interests for using poverty as an excuse for failure, and dismissed competing approaches as incrementalism. Education needed “transformational change.” Mark Zuckerberg, the twenty-six-year-old head of Facebook, agreed, and he pledged a hundred million dollars to Booker and Christie’s cause.
Almost four years later, Newark has fifty new principals, four new public high schools, a new teachers’ contract that ties pay to performance, and an agreement by most charter schools to serve their share of the neediest students. But residents only recently learned that the overhaul would require thousands of students to move to other schools, and a thousand teachers and more than eight hundred support staff to be laid off within three years. In mid-April, seventy-seven members of the clergy signed a letter to Christie requesting a moratorium on the plan, citing “venomous” public anger and “the moral imperative” that people have power over their own destiny. Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families’ fear and anger: “My mom—she would’ve been fit to be tied with some of what happened.” But he characterized the rancor as “a sort of nadir,” and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. “That’s pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.”
Booker was part of the first generation of black leaders born after the civil-rights movement. His parents had risen into management at I.B.M., and he grew up in the affluent, almost all-white suburb of Harrington Park, about twenty miles from Newark. Six feet three, gregarious, and charismatic, Booker was an honors student and a football star. He graduated from Stanford and went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then to Yale Law School. Ed Nicoll, a forty-year-old self-made millionaire who was studying law at Yale, became one of his close friends. He recalled Booker telling inspirational stories about his family during abstract class discussions, invariably ending with a point about social justice. “He got away with it and he enchanted everyone from left to right,” Nicoll said. “In a class where everybody secretly believed they’d be the next senator or the next President of the United States, it was absolutely clear that Cory had leadership written all over him.”

Instead of pursuing lucrative job prospects, Booker worked as a lawyer for Newark tenants; he was paid by a Skadden fellowship in 1997. He lived in low-income housing in an area of the Central Ward that was riddled with drugs and crime, and he got to know community activists and members of the national media. Later, CBS News and Time featured him staging hunger strikes to demand more cops in drug corridors. He ran for city council with enthusiastic support from public-housing tenants. Nicoll took time off before going back to finance to help Booker raise money. His advice was simple: tell wealthy donors your own story. Over lunch at Andros Diner, Booker told me that Nicoll taught him an invaluable lesson: “Investors bet on people, not on business plans, because they know successful people will find a way to be successful.”

Booker raised more than a hundred and forty thousand dollars, an unheard-of sum for a Newark council race. A Democratic operative said of enthusiasts on Wall Street, “They let Cory into their boardrooms and offices, introduced him to people they worked with in hedge funds. As young finance people, they looked at a guy like Cory at this stage as if they were buying Google at seventy-five dollars a share. They were talking about him being the first black President before he even got elected to the city council, and they all wanted to be a part of that ride.” In the spring of 1998, Booker, at the age of twenty-nine, edged out the four-term councilman George Branch.

“This better be important.”

The school-reform movement, then dominated by conservative white Republicans, saw Booker as a valuable asset. In 2000, he was invited to speak at the Manhattan Institute, in New York. He was an electrifying speaker, depicting impoverished Newark residents as captives of nepotistic politicians, their children trapped in a “repugnant” school system. “I define public education not as a publicly guaranteed space and a publicly run, publicly funded building where our children are sent based on their Zip Code,” he said. “Public education is the use of public dollars to educate our children at the schools that are best equipped to do so—public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, Baptist schools, Jewish schools.”


Booker told me that the speech launched his national reputation: “I became a pariah in Democratic circles for taking on the Party orthodoxy on education.” But he gained “all these Republican donors and donors from outside Newark, many of them motivated because we have an African-American urban Democrat telling the truth about education.” He became a sought-after speaker at fund-raisers for charter and voucher organizations, including a group of hedge-fund managers who ultimately formed Democrats for Education Reform. They supported Democrats who backed reforms opposed by teachers’ unions, including the 2004 U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama.

There was no question that the Newark school district needed reform. For generations, it had been a source of patronage jobs and sweetheart deals for the connected and the lucky. As Ross Danis, of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education, put it, in 2010, “The Newark schools are like a candy store that’s a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling.”

The ratio of administrators to students—one to six—was almost twice the state average. Clerks made up thirty per cent of the central bureaucracy—about four times the ratio in comparable cities. Even some clerks had clerks, yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate. Most school buildings were more than eighty years old, and some were falling to pieces. Two nights before First Lady Michelle Obama came to Maple Avenue School, in November, 2010, to publicize her Let’s Move! campaign against obesity—appearing alongside Booker, a national co-chair—a massive brick lintel fell onto the front walkway. Because the state fixed only a fraction of what was needed, the school district spent ten to fifteen million dollars a year on structural repairs—money that was supposed to be used to educate children.

What happened inside many buildings was even worse. In a third of the district’s seventy-five schools, fewer than thirty per cent of children from the third through the eighth grade were reading at grade level. The high-school graduation rate was fifty-four per cent, and more than ninety per cent of graduates who attended the local community college required remedial classes. Booker was elected mayor in 2006, and, with no power over district schools, he set out to recruit charter schools. He raised twenty million dollars for a Newark Charter School Fund from several Newark philanthropies; from the Gates, Walton, Robertson, and Fisher foundations; and from Laurene Powell Jobs. With his encouragement, Newark spawned some of the top charter schools in the country, including fifteen run by Uncommon Schools and KIPP. Parents increasingly enrolled children in charters—particularly in wards with the highest concentrations of low-income and black residents, which had the worst public schools. Many district schools were left with a preponderance of the students who most needed help.
It wasn’t always this way. The Newark public schools had a reputation for excellence well into the nineteen-fifties, when Philip Roth graduated from the predominantly Jewish Weequahic High School and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), the late African-American poet, playwright, and revolutionary, attended the predominantly Italian-American Barringer High School. But Newark’s industrial base had been declining since the Depression, and it collapsed in the sixties, just as the migration of mostly poor African-Americans from the rural South reached its peak. Urban renewal, which was supposed to revive inner cities, displaced a higher percentage of poor residents in Newark than in any other city. As slums and dilapidated buildings were bulldozed to make way for office towers and civic plazas, displaced families were concentrated in five large housing projects in the city’s Central Ward. The program became known, there and elsewhere, as “Negro removal.”

Middle-class whites fled the city. Interstate 280, which linked downtown to the western suburbs and had an exit for Livingston, where the Christies moved, decimated stable Newark neighborhoods. Within a decade, the city’s population shifted from two-thirds white to two-thirds black. According to Robert Curvin, the author of the forthcoming book “Inside Newark,” it was the fastest and most tumultuous turnover of any American city except Detroit and Gary, Indiana. Remaining white students transferred out of largely African-American schools, where substitutes taught up to a quarter of the classes. “In schools with high Negro enrollments,” the N.A.A.C.P. reported, “textbooks were either not available or so outmoded and in such poor condition as to be of no value.” Some classrooms contained nothing but comic books.

Many in Newark still refer to the 1967 riots as “the rebellion.” A flagrantly corrupt and racist Italian-American political machine controlled City Hall and the school district. The mayor, Hugh Addonizio, previously a U.S. representative, said, when he returned, “There’s no money in Washington, but you can make a million bucks as the mayor of Newark.” In 1970, he was convicted, with four others, of having extorted $1.4 million from city contractors. The next two mayors, Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James, both African-American, also became convicted felons. Booker is the first Newark mayor in fifty years not to be indicted.

In 1967, Governor Richard Hughes appointed a committee to investigate the causes of the riots. The report concluded of urban renewal, “In the scramble for money, the poor, who were to be the chief beneficiaries of the programs, tended to be overlooked.” And, because of “ghetto schools,” most poor and black children “have no hope in the present situation. A few may succeed in spite of the barriers. The majority will not. Society cannot afford to have such human potential go to waste.”

The legislature rejected a bid by Hughes to take over the schools, and the cycle of neglect and corruption continued. In 1994, Department of Education investigators found that the district was renting an elementary school infested with rats and containing asbestos and high levels of lead paint. The school board was negotiating to buy the building, worth about a hundred and twenty thousand dollars, for $2.7 million. It turned out to be owned, through a sham company, by two school principals prominent in Italian-American politics. (They were indicted on multiple charges and acquitted.) In a series of rulings in the nineties, the state Supreme Court found that funding disparities among school districts violated the constitutional right to an education for children in the poorest communities. The legislature was instructed to spend billions of dollars to equalize funding. In 1995, the state seized control of the Newark district. Christie, though, has allocated less than is required for low-income districts, pleading financial constraints.

Decades after the Hughes report, Newark’s education system was still dominated by “ghetto schools.” Forty per cent of babies born in Newark in 2010 received inadequate prenatal care or none at all—disadvantaged before drawing their first breath. Forty-four per cent of children lived below the poverty line—about twice the national rate—and many were traumatized by violence. Ninety-five per cent of students in the school district were black or Latino.

The history of abandonment and failed promises sowed a deep sense of isolation and a wariness of outsiders. “Newark suffers from extreme xenophobia,” Ronald C. Rice, a city councilman, said. “There’s a feeling that whites abandoned the city after the rebellion but there will come a time they will come back and take it away from us.”

Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped “Confidential Draft,” titled “Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.” It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. “Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,” the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to “make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.” The plan called for an “infusion of philanthropic support” to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations; build sophisticated data and accountability systems; expand charters; and weaken tenure and seniority protections. Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending. Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors.

In the previous decade, the foundations of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the California real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton family (of the Walmart fortune), and other billionaires from Wall Street to Silicon Valley had come to dominate charitable funding to education. Dubbed “venture philanthropists,” they called themselves investors rather than donors and sought returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. In addition to financing the expansion of charter schools, they helped finance Teach for America and the development of the Common Core State Standards to increase the rigor of instruction.

“Have you tried turning off your conscious mind and turning it back on again?”

At the start of Booker’s career, Ed Nicoll had introduced him to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Marc Bodnick, who became an admirer. Bodnick was an early investor in Facebook, and he married the sister of Sheryl Sandberg, who later became the company’s chief operating officer. In June, 2010, Bodnick tipped off Booker that Mark Zuckerberg was planning “something big” in education. Bodnick also told him that in July Sandberg and Zuckerberg would be attending a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Booker was scheduled to speak. Booker said Bodnick told him to be sure to seek out Sandberg, who would connect him to Zuckerberg.

Booker by then was a national celebrity. Since his election as mayor of Newark, he had won widespread attention for presiding over a major decline in homicides—from a hundred and five in 2006 to sixty-seven in 2008. That year, for the first time in almost half a century, there were forty-three days without a single murder. Developers were negotiating deals to build the first downtown hotels in forty years, the first supermarkets in more than twenty. Philanthropists were paying to redevelop parks. A popular cable-TV series—“Brick City,” a reality show about Booker’s battle against crime—was about to begin its second season. Booker spoke at college commencements and charity dinners and appeared on late-night talk shows. His Twitter following, which was more than a million, outnumbered Newark residents almost four to one. Oprah Winfrey, a friend since the early two-thousands, pronounced him the “rock-star mayor of Newark.”

Booker met Zuckerberg over dinner on the deck of the Sun Valley retreat of Herbert Allen, the New York investment banker who hosted the conference. Zuckerberg invited Booker to go for a walk. He said that he was looking for a city that was ready to revolutionize urban education. Booker remembered responding, “The question facing cities is not ‘Can we deal with our most difficult problems—recidivism, health care, education?’ The real question is ‘Do we have the will?’ ” He asked, Why not take the best models in the country for success in education and bring them to Newark? You could flip a whole city! Zuckerberg told reporters, “This is the guy I want to invest in. This is a person who can create change.”

Zuckerberg was disarmingly open regarding how little he knew about urban education or philanthropy. Six years earlier, as a sophomore at Harvard, he had dropped out to work on Facebook. He had recently joined Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to give half his wealth to charity. He’d never visited Newark, but he said he planned to learn from the experience and become a better philanthropist in the process.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, whom he met at Harvard, embarked on education philanthropy as a couple, but they brought different perspectives. Chan grew up in what she has described as a disadvantaged family in Quincy, Massachusetts. Her Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant parents worked eighteen hours a day, and her grandparents took care of her. Chan was the first in her immediate family to go to college, and credited public-school teachers with encouraging her to reach for Harvard. While there, she volunteered five days a week at two housing projects in Dorchester, helping children with academic and social challenges. She had since become a pediatrician, caring for underserved children. She came to see their challenges at school as inseparable from their experience with poverty, difficulties at home, and related health issues, both physical and emotional.

Zuckerberg told me that he had been more influenced by a year, after college, that Chan spent teaching science at an affluent private school in San Jose. People that he and Chan met socially often “acted like she was going to do charity,” he said. “My own view was: you’re going to have more of an impact than a lot of these other people who are going into jobs that are paying a lot more. And that’s kind of a basic economic inefficiency. Society should value these roles more.” Zuckerberg had come to see teaching in urban schools as one of the most important jobs in the country, and he wanted to make it as attractive to talented college graduates as working at Facebook. He couldn’t succeed in business without having his pick of the best people—why should public schools not have the same?

Zuckerberg attracted young employees to Facebook with signing bonuses far exceeding the annual salary of experienced Newark teachers. The company’s workspace had Ping-Pong tables, coolers stocked with Naked juice, and red-lettered motivational signs: “STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING”; “MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS”; “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID?” In the Newark schools, nothing moved fast, and plenty of people were afraid. Like almost every public-school district, Newark paid teachers based on seniority and on how many graduate degrees they had earned, although neither qualification guaranteed effectiveness. Teachers who changed students’ lives were paid on the same scale as the deadwood. “Who would want to work in a system like that?” Zuckerberg wanted to know.

A month after their walk in Sun Valley, Booker gave Zuckerberg a six-point reform agenda. Its top priority was a new labor contract that would significantly reward Newark teachers who improved student performance. “Over the long term, that’s the only way they’re going to get the very best people, a lot of the very best people,” Zuckerberg told me. He proposed that the best teachers receive bonuses of up to fifty per cent of their salary, a common incentive in Silicon Valley but impossible in Newark. The district couldn’t have sustained it once Zuckerberg’s largesse ran out.

Booker asked Zuckerberg for a hundred million dollars over five years. “We knew it had to be big—we both thought it had to be bold, eye-catching,” he said. Zuckerberg stipulated that Booker would have to raise a second hundred million dollars, and that he would release his money only as matching dollars came in. Booker also promised that the current superintendent would be replaced by a “transformational leader.” Christie recounted his call from Booker afterward: “He said, ‘Governor, I believe I can close this deal. I really do. I need you, though.’ ” Christie did not grant Booker’s request for mayoral control of the schools but made him an unofficial partner in all decisions, beginning with the selection of a superintendent.

Zuckerberg and Chan flew to Newark Liberty Airport and met Booker and Christie in the Continental Airlines Presidents Club. Booker got Zuckerberg to agree to announce the gift on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” timed to coincide with the début of the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” and its major marketing campaign. The film chronicled families’ desperate efforts to get children out of failing traditional public schools and into charters, and blamed the crisis largely on teachers’ unions.

Sheryl Sandberg, who vetted the agreement for Zuckerberg, e-mailed updates to Booker’s chief fund-raiser, Bari Mattes: “Mark is following up with Gates this week. I will call David Einhorn”—a hedge-fund manager—“this week (my cousin). Mark is scheduling dinner with Broad. . . . AMAZING if Oprah will donate herself? Will she? I am following up with John Doerr/NewSchools Venture Fund.” Doerr is a venture capitalist.

Ray Chambers, a Newark native who made a fortune in private equity and for decades had donated generously to education, learned of the deal and offered to coördinate a million-dollar gift from local philanthropies as a show of community support. But Mattes wrote to Booker in an e-mail, “I wouldn’t bother. $1 M as a collective gift over 5 years is just too insignificant for this group.” The e-mails were obtained by the A.C.L.U. of New Jersey.

On September 24, 2010, the team described their plan for Newark on “Oprah.” “So, Mr. Zuckerberg,” Oprah asked, “what role are you playing in all of this?” He replied, “I’ve committed to starting the Startup:Education Foundation, whose first project will be a one-hundred-million-dollar challenge grant.” Winfrey interrupted: “One. Hundred. Million. Dollars?” The audience delivered a standing ovation. When Winfrey asked Zuckerberg why he’d chosen Newark, he gestured toward Booker and Christie and said, “Newark is really just because I believe in these guys. . . . We’re setting up a one-hundred-million-dollar challenge grant so that Mayor Booker and Governor Christie can have the flexibility they need to . . . turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” This was the first that Newark parents and teachers had heard about the revolution coming to their schools.

Zuckerberg knew that there had been resistance to education reform in other cities, particularly in Washington, D.C., where voters had rebelled against the schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s autocratic leadership and driven Mayor Adrian Fenty from office. But he was confident that Booker, twice elected by wide margins, had the city behind him. On the day of the “Oprah” announcement, Zuckerberg posted a note on his Facebook page saying that Booker would focus as single-mindedly on education in his second term as he had on crime in his first.


A very different picture of Newark appeared, however, in the daily reports of the Star-Ledger. The city was experiencing its bloodiest summer in twenty years. As Booker negotiated the Zuckerberg gift, he was facing a potentially ruinous deficit, aggravated by the recession. He was laying off a quarter of the city’s workforce, including a hundred and sixty-seven police officers—almost every new recruit hired in his first term. The city council was in revolt over Booker’s bid to borrow heavily from the bond market to repair a failing water system. Meanwhile, he was managing a busy speaking schedule, which frequently took him out of the city. Disclosure forms show $1,327,190 in revenue for ninety-six speeches given between 2008 and May, 2013. “There’s no such thing as a rock-star mayor,” the historian Clement Price, of Rutgers University, told me. “You can be a rock star or you can be a mayor. You can’t be both.”

Three days after “Oprah,” Booker appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with Christie and Arne Duncan, and vowed, “We have to let Newark lead and not let people drop in from outside and point the way.” But Newark wasn’t leading. As matching dollars were pledged, Zuckerberg’s gift moved from his foundation, in Palo Alto, into the new Foundation for Newark’s Future, in Newark. F.N.F.’s board included the Mayor and those donors who contributed ten million dollars or more. (The figure was later reduced to five million, still far beyond the budget of local foundations.) F.N.F. agreed to appoint a community advisory board, but it wasn’t named for another two years, and by then most of the money was committed—primarily to new labor contracts and to the expansion and support of charter schools. In one of the foundation’s first expenditures, it paid Tusk Strategies, in New York, $1.3 million to manage the community-engagement campaign. Its centerpiece was ten public forums in which residents were invited to make suggestions to improve the schools. Bradley Tusk had managed Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 reëlection campaign and was a consultant to charter schools in New York.

Hundreds of residents came to the first few forums and demanded to be informed and involved. People volunteered to serve as mentors for children who lacked adult support. Shareef Austin, a recreation director at Newark’s West Side Park, said, “I have kids every day in my program, their homes are broken by crack. Tears come out of my eyes at night worrying about them. If you haven’t been here and grown up through this, you can’t help the way we can.” Calvin Souder, a lawyer who taught for five years at Barringer High while he was in law school, said that some of his most challenging students were the children of former classmates who had dropped out of school and joined gangs.
Austin said that he and others who volunteered to help were never contacted: “I guess those ideas look little to the people at the top, but they’re big to us, because we know what it can mean to the kids.”

Booker participated in several of the meetings. He was excited to hear principals asking for more autonomy—one of his goals. He told one crowd, “It’s destiny that we become the first city in America that makes its whole district a system of excellence. We want to go from islands of excellence to a hemisphere of hope.”

Meanwhile, teachers worried about their students’ bleak horizons. David Ganz devised a poetry exercise for his all-boys freshman literacy class at Central High School. He put the word “hope” on the board and gave students a few minutes to write. Fourteen-year-old Tyler read his poem to the class:

We hope to live,
Live long enough to have kids
We hope to make it home every day
We hope we’re not the next target to get sprayed. . . .
We hope never to end up in Newark’s dead pool
I hope, you hope, we all hope.
Another student, Mark, wrote, “My mother has hope that I won’t fall victim to the streets. / I hope that hope finds me.” And Tariq wrote, “Hope—that’s one thing I don’t have.”

Booker asked Christopher Cerf, his longtime unofficial education adviser, to plan the overhaul. Cerf, then fifty-six, had become a central switching station for the education-reform movement. Until 2005, he led Edison Schools, a for-profit manager of public schools. He attended Eli Broad’s management training program for public-school leaders. In 2006, he became chief deputy to the New York schools chancellor, Joel Klein, sometimes called the “granddaddy of reform.” For the Newark project, Cerf created a consulting firm, Global Education Advisers. Booker solicited grants from the Broad Foundation and Goldman Sachs, to begin paying the firm.

Cerf set out to develop a “fact base” of Newark’s financial, staffing, and accountability systems so that a new superintendent could move swiftly to make changes. He explained to me, “My specialty is system reform—micro-politics, selfishness, corruption, old customs unmoored from any clear objectives.” Ultimately, Zuckerberg and matching donors paid the firm and its consultants $2.8 million, although Cerf emphasized that he personally accepted no pay, and he left the firm in December, 2010. That month, Christie chose Cerf to be New Jersey’s education commissioner, which meant that the district’s chief consultant went on to become its chief overseer.
Speaking to representatives of Newark’s venture philanthropists, Cerf said, “I’m very firmly of the view that when a system is as broken as this one you cannot fix it by doing the same things you’ve always done, only better.” It was time for “whole district reform.” Newark presented a unique opportunity. The district, Cerf said, “is manageable in size, it’s led by an extraordinary mayor, and it’s managed by the state. We still control all the levers.” With no superintendent in place, Cerf’s office effectively ran the schools, with the consultants providing technical support.

During the next two years, more than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”


In February, 2011, the Star-Ledger obtained a confidential draft of recommendations by Global Education Advisers that contained a scenario to close or consolidate eleven of the lowest-performing district schools, and to make way for charters and five themed public high schools, to be funded by the Foundation for Newark’s Future. The newspaper ran a front-page article listing the schools likely to be affected and disclosed that Cerf, the state commissioner, had founded the consulting firm.

Newark’s school advisory board happened to be meeting the night the article was published. The board has no real power, since it’s under state control, and meetings were normally sleepy and sparsely attended. Teachers’ union leaders had been poised to attack the reform effort, and that evening more than six hundred parents and union activists showed up. One mother shouted, “We not having no wealthy white people coming in here destroying our kids!” From aisles and balconies, people yelled, “Where’s Christie!” “Where’s Mayor Hollywood!” The main item on the agenda—a report by the Newark schools’ facilities director on a hundred and forty million dollars spent in state construction funds, with little to show for it—reinforced people’s conviction that someone was making a killing at their children’s expense. “Where’d the money go? Where’d the money go?” the crowd chanted.

On a Saturday morning later that month, Booker and Cerf met privately on the Rutgers-Newark campus with twenty civic leaders who had hoped that the Zuckerberg gift would unite the city in the goal of improving the schools. Now they had serious doubts. “It’s as if you guys are going out of your way to foment the most opposition possible,” Richard Cammarieri, a former school-board member who worked for a community-development organization, told them.
Booker acknowledged the missteps, but said that he had to move quickly. He and Christie could be out of office within three years. If a Democrat defeated Christie in 2013, he or she would have the backing of the teachers’ unions and might return the district to local control. “We want to do as much as possible right away,” Booker said. “Entrenched forces are very invested in resisting choices we’re making around a one-billion-dollar budget.” Participants in the meeting, who had worked for decades in Newark, were doubtful that reforms imposed over three years would be sustainable.

“I liked you better as a distant memory.”

Cerf said his motives were altruistic: “Public education embodies the noble ideal of equal opportunity. I know equal opportunity was a massive lie. It’s a lie in Newark, in New York, in inner cities across the country. Call me a nut, but I am committing my life to try to fix that.” He and Booker pledged to engage Newark residents, and Booker asked the group of civic leaders for their public support. “If the purpose is right for kids, I’m willing to go down in a blaze of glory,” he said, leaning over the table with both fists clenched.

Ras Baraka, the principal of Central High School and a city councilman, emerged as the leading opponent of change. His father, Amiri Baraka, was the most prominent radical voice in recent Newark history. Ras Baraka delivered speeches in the style of a street preacher, rousing Newark’s dispossessed as forcefully as Booker inspired philanthropists. The Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg strategy was doomed, he said, since it included no systemic assault on poverty. He told his students that Christie needed them to fail so that he could close Central High and turn it over to charters. “Co-location is more like colonization,” he said of placing charters in unused space inside district schools. Powerful interests wanted the district’s billion dollars.

Many reformers saw Baraka as the symbol of all that ailed urban education. Like a number of New Jersey politicians, he held two public jobs, and he earned more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. His brother was on his city-council payroll. Central High had abysmal scores on the proficiency exam in 2010, Baraka’s first year as principal, and it was in danger of being closed under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But Baraka mounted an aggressive turnaround strategy, using some of the reformers’ techniques. “I stole ideas from everywhere,” he told me. With a federal school-improvement grant, he extended the school day, introduced small learning academies, greatly intensified test prep, and hired consultants to improve literacy instruction. He also summoned gang members who had roamed the halls with impunity for years and told them their battles had to stop at the school door. Students anointed him B-Rak.

Still, results were mixed. In 2011, Central’s proficiency scores rose dramatically, and Cerf spoke at an assembly to congratulate the students. But only five per cent of Central students qualified as “college ready” in reading, based on their A.C.T. scores.
In private, Baraka supported many of the reformers’ critiques of the status quo, including revoking tenure for teachers with the lowest evalutions. Although he publicly embraced the unions’ positions, he told me he opposed paying teachers based on seniority and degrees, as Newark did under its union contract. “We should make a base pay, and the only way to go up is based on student performance,” he said. He told me that many in Newark quietly agreed. But, he insisted, “this dictatorial bullying is a surefire way to get people to say, ‘No, get out of here.’ ” He laughed. “They talk about ‘Waiting for “Superman.” ’ Well, Superman is not real. Did you know that? And neither is his enemy.”

In 2011, Booker paid a visit to SPARK Academy, a charter elementary school run by Newark’s KIPP network. He was accompanied by Cari Tuna, the girlfriend (now the wife) of Facebook’s co-founder, the billionaire Dustin Moskovitz. Booker wanted her to witness the teachers’ intensive training program. Tuna and Moskovitz had started their own foundation, and Booker hoped they would help match Zuckerberg’s hundred million dollars. (They later pledged five million dollars.) SPARK had recently moved to George Washington Carver Elementary School, taking over the third floor. Carver was in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Newark. Joanna Belcher, the SPARK principal, asked the Mayor to give the teachers a talk on the “K” in SPARK, which stands for “keep going.” Booker invoked the Selma march for voting rights, in 1965, and thanked the SPARK teachers for advancing the cause—“freedom from the worst form of bondage in humanity, imprisonment in ignorance.” (My son later took a teaching job at a KIPP school in New York.)

Disagreements over school reform tended to center on resources shifting from traditional public schools to charter schools. When students moved to charters, public money went with them. The battle often intensified when spare classroom space in district schools was turned over to charters, with their extra resources and freedom to hire the best teachers. But Belcher and her staff developed a close working relationship with Carver’s principal, Winston Jackson. They were alarmed that Carver, whose students had among the lowest reading scores in the city, had for years been a dumping ground for weak teachers. Several SPARK teachers asked Booker what he planned to do for children who occupied the other floors of the building.

“I’ll be very frank,” Booker said. “I want you to expand as fast as you can. But, when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way. We need to close them and start new ones.”

Jackson had never got the police to respond adequately to his pleas for improved security. Gangs periodically held nighttime rites on school grounds, and Jackson reported them without result. One night, a month after SPARK settled into Carver, a security camera captured images of nine young men apparently mauling another. When Jackson and Belcher arrived the next morning, they found bloody handprints on the wall and blood on the walkway. His and Belcher’s calls to police and e-mails to the superintendent’s staff went unanswered. At Jackson’s request, Belcher e-mailed the Mayor, attaching three pictures of the bloody trail on “the steps our K-2 scholars use to enter the building.” Twenty minutes later, Booker responded: “Joanna, your email greatly concerned me. I have copied this email to the police director who will contact you as soon as possible. Cory.” The police director, Sam DeMaio, called, and the precinct captain and the anti-gang unit visited the school. Police presence was stepped up, and the gang moved on.


Zuckerberg and Sandberg were increasingly concerned. Six months after the announcement on “Oprah,” Booker and Christie had no superintendent, no comprehensive reform plan, and no progress toward a new teachers’ contract. On Saturday, April 2, 2011, they met with Booker at Facebook’s headquarters, in Palo Alto. If these are the wrong metrics for measuring progress, they asked, what are the right ones? They were holding Booker accountable for performance, just as he intended to hold teachers and principals accountable. Booker was contrite. “Guilty as charged,” he replied.

Zuckerberg urged him to find a strong superintendent quickly, and after the meeting he sent him one of Facebook’s motivational posters: “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT.” Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg had tried to recruit John King, at that time the Deputy Commissioner of Education for New York State, who had led some of the most successful charter schools in Boston and New York City, but he had turned down the job. According to several of his friends, King worried that everyone involved was underestimating how long the work would take. One of them recalled him saying, “No one has achieved what they’re trying to achieve—build an urban school district serving high-poverty kids that gets uniformly strong outcomes.” He had questions about a five-year plan overseen by politicians who were likely to seek higher office.

After Booker returned from California, Cami Anderson emerged as the leading candidate. Thirty-nine years old, she was the daughter of a child-welfare advocate and the community-development director for the Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. She had spent her entire career in reform circles. She’d taught in Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America, then joined her executive team in New York. Anderson later worked at New Leaders for New Schools, which trained principals as reform leaders. One of its founders, Jon Schnur, became an architect of Race to the Top. She’d been a senior strategist for Booker’s 2002 mayoral campaign and had been superintendent of alternative high schools under Joel Klein, in New York.

Anderson had two apparent marks against her: she was white and she was known for an uncompromising management style. Since 1973, Newark had had only African-American superintendents. But Anderson had an interesting backstory. She often mentioned that she had grown up with nine adopted siblings who were black and brown. Her partner, Jared Robinson, is African-American, and their son is named after Frederick Douglass. As for her methods, her friend Rebecca Donner, a novelist, said, “She has her own vision and she won’t stop at anything to realize it. If you’re faint of heart, if you’re easily cowed, if you disagree with her, you’re going to feel intimidated.” Cerf and Booker came to see that as a virtue. As Cerf put it, “Nobody gets anywhere in this business unless you’re willing to get the shit absolutely kicked out of you and keep going. That’s Cami.”

“There’s always one annoying piece left over.”

Christie appointed Anderson in May, 2011. It quickly emerged that she differed with her bosses about the role of charter schools in urban districts. She pointed out that, with rare exceptions, charters served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English. Moreover, charter lotteries disproportionately attracted the “choosers”—parents with the time to navigate the process. Charters in Newark were expected to enroll forty per cent of the city’s children by 2016. That would leave the neediest sixty per cent in district schools. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg expected Anderson to revive the district, yet as children and revenue were siphoned off she would have to close schools and dismiss teachers. Because of the state’s seniority rules, the most junior teachers would go first. Anderson called this “the lifeboat theory of education reform,” arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink as if on the Titanic. “Your theories of change are on a collision course,” she told Cerf and Booker. As Anderson put it to me, “I told the Governor . . . I did not come here to phase the district out.”

Anderson acknowledged the successes of the top charter schools, but Newark faced the conundrum common to almost every urban school system: how to expand charters without destabilizing traditional public schools. Christie and Booker agreed to her request for time to work on a solution, even though Zuckerberg and other donors had already committed tens of millions of dollars to expand charters.

Anderson turned her immediate attention to the district’s schools. She gave principals more flexibility and introduced new curricula aligned to the Common Core standards. Using $1.8 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, she hired the nonprofit consulting group TNTP, in part to develop more rigorous evaluation systems. In her first year, the foundation gave her a four-million-dollar grant to hire consultants at her own discretion.

One of her prime initiatives in her first two years was to close and consolidate the twelve lowest-performing kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools into eight “renew schools.” Each was assigned a principal who, borrowing from the charter model, would choose his or her own teaching staff. The schools also got math and literacy coaches and smart boards, along with the new curricula. Teachers worked an extended day and two extra weeks in the summer. Anderson intended to create “proof points” that would show how to turn around failing district schools.

The eight consolidated schools opened in the fall of 2012, and most won strong support from parents. At the hundred-year-old Peshine Avenue School, in the South Ward, Chaleeta Barnes, the new principal, and Tameshone Lewis, the vice-principal, both had deep Newark roots, and parents, teachers, and children responded well to their insistence on higher standards. They replaced more than half the previous year’s teachers, and the new staff coördinated efforts to improve instruction and address individual students’ academic and discipline issues.

Teachers worked closely with children who couldn’t keep up, and many of them saw improvement, but the effects of children’s traumas outside school posed bigger problems. The father of a student in Shakel Nelson’s fifth-grade math class had been murdered early in the school year. When Nelson sat beside his desk and encouraged him, he sometimes solved problems, but as she moved on he put his head down and dropped his pencil. A girl who was excelling early in the year stopped trying when her estranged, emotionally disturbed parents resumed contact and began fighting.

The quality of teaching and the morale in most of the renew schools improved, but only Peshine made modest gains in both math and literacy on state tests. Six others declined in one subject or both, and the seventh remained unchanged in one and increased in one. This wasn’t surprising. It takes more than a year for reforms to take hold and show up in test scores. Across the district, in Anderson’s first two years, the percentage of students passing the state’s standardized tests declined in all but two of the tested grades. She questioned the validity of the tests, saying that they had become harder and the students needier, although she used them to determine which schools were failing and required overhaul. After her first year, she announced a ten-per-cent gain in the high-school graduation rate, but A.C.T. scores indicated that only two per cent of juniors were prepared for college.

Anderson recognized that the schools needed more social and emotional support, but pointed out that Newark already spent more money per student than almost every other district in the country. She urged principals to shift their existing budgets accordingly. “There’s no pot of gold,” she said.

In fact, there was a pot of gold, but much of it wasn’t reaching students. That was the reformers’ main argument against the wasteful administrations of urban schools. More than half of the Newark district’s annual budget paid for services other than instruction—often at inordinate prices. Charter schools received less public money per pupil, but, with leaner bureaucracies, more dollars reached the classroom. SPARK’s five hundred and twenty students were needier than those in most Newark charters. To support them, the principal, Joanna Belcher, placed two teachers in each kindergarten class and in each math and literacy class in grades one through three. Peshine could afford only one in each. SPARK also had more tutors and twice as many social workers, who provided weekly counselling for sixty-five children. Last year, SPARK’s inaugural class took New Jersey’s third-grade standardized tests. Eighty-three per cent passed in language arts and eighty-seven per cent in math, outscoring the district by almost forty points in each.

Reformers also argued that teachers must be paid according to competency. “Abolish seniority as a factor in all personnel decisions,” Zuckerberg wrote in September, 2010, in a summary of his agreement with Booker. Tenure and seniority protections were written into state law, so the negotiations took place both in the legislature and at the bargaining table. After arduous talks with the state teachers’ union—the biggest contributor to New Jersey politicians—a major reform measure was passed that made tenure harder to achieve and much easier to revoke. But, in return for union support, the legislature left seniority protections untouched.

Soon afterward, in November, 2012, the Newark Teachers Union agreed to a new contract that, for the first time, awarded raises only to teachers rated effective or better under the district’s rigorous new evaluation system. Those who got the top rating would receive merit bonuses of between five thousand and twelve thousand five hundred dollars.

All of this came at a steep price. The union demanded thirty-one million dollars in back pay for the two years that teachers had worked without raises—more than five times what top teachers would receive in merit bonuses under the three-year contract. Zuckerberg covered the expense, knowing that other investors would find the concession unpalatable. The total cost of the contract was about fifty million dollars. The Foundation for Newark’s Future also agreed to Anderson’s request to set aside another forty million dollars for a principals’ contract and other labor expenses. Zuckerberg had hoped that promising new teachers would move quickly up the pay scale, but the district couldn’t afford that along with the salaries of veteran teachers, of whom five hundred and sixty earned more than ninety-two thousand dollars a year. A new teacher consistently rated effective would have to work nine years before making sixty thousand dollars.

The seniority protections proved even more costly. School closings and other personnel moves had left the district with three hundred and fifty teachers that the renew principals hadn’t selected. If Anderson simply laid them off, those with seniority could “bump” junior colleagues. She said this would have a “catastrophic effect” on student achievement: “Kids have only one year in third grade.” She kept them all on at full pay, at more than fifty million dollars over two years, according to testimony at the 2013 budget hearing, assigning them support duties in schools. Principals with younger staffs were grateful. Far fewer of the teachers left than Anderson had anticipated. She hoped Christie would grant her a waiver from the seniority law, allowing her to lay off the lowest-rated teachers, a move that both the legislature and the national teachers’ union promised to fight.

Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and two hundred million dollars in philanthropy was going broke. Anderson announced a fifty-seven-million-dollar budget gap in March, 2013, attributing it mostly to the charter exodus. She cut more than eighteen million dollars from school budgets and laid off more than two hundred attendance counsellors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents with few comparable job prospects. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she lamented to a group of funders. “It’s a hard thing to wrestle with.”

School employees’ unions, community leaders, and parents decried the budget cuts, the layoffs, and the announcement of more school closings. Anderson’s management style didn’t help. At the annual budget hearing, when the school advisory board pressed for details about which positions and services were being eliminated in schools, her representatives said the information wasn’t available. Anderson’s budget underestimated the cost of the redundant teachers by half.

The board voted down her budget and soon afterward gave a vote of no confidence—unanimously, in both cases, but without effect, given their advisory status. At about the same time, Ras Baraka declared his candidacy for mayor, vowing to “take back Newark” from the control of outsiders. He made Anderson a prime target. “We are witnessing a school-reform process that is not about reforming schools,” he told a packed auditorium in his South Ward district. He gave no hint that although he detested the reformers’ tactics, he shared a number of their goals.

“Forgive the informality – my secretary is on vacation.”

In May, with Baraka leading the charge, the city council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on all Anderson’s initiatives until she produced evidence that they raised student achievement. Later that month, Anderson sent a deputy to ask Baraka to take a leave of absence as principal of Central High. She argued that he had a conflict of interest: as a mayoral candidate, he was opposing initiatives that he was obliged to carry out as a principal. He refused, and a video of his defiant account of the incident was e-mailed to supporters with the question “Are we all going to stand by like chumps, and allow this ‘Interloping Outsider’ to harass one of our own?”

Hundreds of Baraka’s supporters, including union leaders and activists, attended a school-board meeting that month, to defend him and to denounce Anderson. Her assistant superintendent asked renew-school leaders and parents to testify at the meeting. As Peshine parents and teachers spoke, Anderson’s opponents held aloft signs saying “Paid for by Cami Anderson.” A Peshine teacher confronted Donna Jackson, an activist and perennial detractor of Booker and Anderson, asking why she would deride Newark teachers who were helping children. “I’m sick of hearing these good things about Peshine,” she said. “That just gives Cami an excuse to close more schools.”

On September 4, 2013, Christie said he planned to reappoint Anderson when her term expired, at the end of the school year: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.” But Anderson was increasingly on her own. Christie was campaigning for reëlection and laying the groundwork for a Presidential campaign. Booker was running for the Senate in a special election to replace the late Frank Lautenberg. Six weeks later, he won, and left for Washington.

Many reformers were unhappy with Anderson, too. They objected to her postponement of the dramatic expansion of charter schools that Booker had promised, saying she was denying children the chance for a better education.


Anderson spent much of the fall working with data analysts from the Parthenon Group, an international consulting firm that received roughly three million dollars over two years from Newark philanthropy. She wanted to come up with a plan that would resolve the overlapping complexities of urban schooling. How could she insure that charters, as they expanded, enrolled a representative share of Newark’s neediest children? How could district schools be improved fast enough to persuade families to stick with them? How could she close schools without devastating effects on the neighborhoods? How could she retain the best teachers, given that, by her estimate, she would have to lay off a thousand teachers in the next three years? “This is sixteen-dimensional chess,” she said.

She called her plan One Newark. Rather than students being assigned to neighborhood schools, families would choose among fifty-five district schools and sixteen charter schools. An algorithm would give preference to students from the lowest-income families and those with special needs. In a major accomplishment for Anderson, sixteen of twenty-one charter organizations had agreed to participate, in the name of reducing selection bias. Of the four neighborhood elementary schools in the South Ward slated to close, three were to be taken over by charters, and the fourth would become an early-childhood center. In all, more than a third of Newark’s schools would be closed, renewed, relocated, phased out, repurposed, or redesigned. Beginning in early January, thousands of students would need to apply to go elsewhere. Anderson said that the entire plan had to be enacted; removing any piece of it would jeopardize the whole, and hurt children.

In the fall, she held dozens of meetings explaining the rationale for One Newark to charter-school leaders, business executives, officials of local foundations, elected officials, clergy, and civic leaders. But participants said she didn’t present the specific solutions, because they weren’t yet available. Similarly, parents learned in the fall that their schools might be closed or renewed, but they would not get details until December. During the week before the Christmas vacation, Anderson sent her deputies to hastily scheduled school meetings to release the full plan to parents. She anticipated an uproar—“December-palooza,” she called it to her staff—which she hoped would diminish by January.

Instead, parents demanded answers and didn’t get them. Anderson said that students with learning disabilities would be accommodated at all district schools, but the programs hadn’t yet been developed. Families without cars asked how their children would get to better schools across town, since the plan didn’t provide transportation. Although Anderson initially announced that charters would take over a number of K-8 schools, it turned out that the charters agreed to serve only K-4; children in grades five through eight would have to go elsewhere.

The biggest concern was children’s safety, particularly in the South Ward, where murders had risen by seventy per cent in the past four years. The closest alternative to Hawthorne Avenue School, which was losing its fifth through eighth grades, was George Washington Carver, half a mile to the south. Jacqueline Edward and Denise Perry-Miller, who have children at Hawthorne, knew the dangers well. Gangs had tried to take over their homes, tearing out pipes, sinks, and boilers, and stealing their belongings, forcing both families temporarily into homeless shelters. Edward and Perry-Miller took me on a walk along the route to Carver. We crossed a busy thoroughfare over I-78, then turned onto Wolcott Terrace, a street with several boarded-up houses used by drug dealers.

Edward said, “I will not allow my daughter to make this walk. My twenty-eight-year-old started off in a gang, and we fought to get him out. My twenty-two-year-old has a lot of anger issues because Daddy wasn’t there. I just refuse to see another generation go that way.” Then, as if addressing Anderson, she asked, “Can you guarantee me my daughter’s safety? . . . Did you think this through with our children in mind or did you just do this to try to force us to leave because big business wants us out of here?” Anderson told me that she will address all safety issues, either with school buses or by accommodating middle-schoolers in their neighborhoods. Hawthorne parents said they had not heard this.

Shavar Jeffries, Baraka’s thirty-nine-year-old opponent in the mayoral election, to be held May 13th, could have been a key ally for Anderson. He was a member of the school advisory board when she arrived, and supported most of her agenda, including the expansion of charter schools and reforms in district schools. But he was also a strong opponent of state control, and he challenged her publicly a number of times, saying she had not shared enough information with the board. He was among those who voted against her 2013 budget. Afterward, according to former aides to Anderson, she told potential donors to his campaign that he was not a real reformer, citing his vote against her budget. (Anderson denied saying this.)

He believed that public schools and charter schools could work in tandem and that education reform could take hold in Newark, but only if residents’ voices were heard and respected. “Our superintendent, unfortunately, has in recent times run roughshod over our community’s fundamental interests,” he said in a campaign speech on education. “I say this as a father of two: no one is ever going to do anything that’s going to affect my babies without coming to talk to me.”

The day after the release of One Newark, Ras Baraka held a press conference in front of Weequahic High School, denouncing the plan as “a dismantling of public education.… It needs to be halted.” Enrollment at Weequahic was plummeting, and Anderson intended to phase it out over three years, moving a new all-girls and an all-boys academy into the building. Weequahic was the alma mater of the long-decamped Jewish community and of thousands of Newark community leaders, politicians, athletes, and teachers, who were protesting vociferously. Photos and video footage of Baraka in front of the building, which has a famous W.P.A. mural—the “Enlightenment of Man”—appeared in newspapers, on television, and on blogs and Web sites. “You could feel a shift in the momentum on that day,” Bruno Tedeschi, a political strategist, told me. “I said to myself, ‘He’s trying to turn the election into a referendum on her. From this point on, it doesn’t matter what she does.’ She’s a symbol of Christie and the power structure that refuses to give Newark what it feels rightly entitled to.” Civic leaders and clergy, whom she expected to endorse the plan, backed off. Several weeks later, Anderson agreed to keep Weequahic intact for at least two years.

Christie met with Anderson in Trenton in late December and promised to support her no matter how vocal the opposition. But two weeks later the Bridgegate scandal broke, and Christie had his own career to consider. Anderson moved out of Newark, telling friends she feared for her family’s safety.

“I’m trapped in an elevator – wait, it gets worse.”

On January 15th, at the Hopewell Baptist Church, Baraka held a rally for people affected by One Newark. Four principals of elementary schools in the South Ward argued that deep staff cuts over four years had made failure inevitable. Anderson suspended them, and instructed her personnel staff to investigate whether the principals were thwarting enrollment in One Newark. The move set off such a furor that Joe Carter, the pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church, told Christie he feared civil unrest. Christie told Cerf to get a handle on the matter, and within a week Anderson lifted the suspensions. The principals have since filed a federal civil-rights case alleging violation of their freedom of speech.

In late January, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke at a school-board meeting at First Avenue School in Newark. Five hundred people filled the auditorium; another three hundred and fifty listened in the cafeteria, and more than a hundred stood outside, demanding entry. Weingarten pledged the A.F.T.’s support “until this community gets its schools back,” and declared, “The nation is watching Newark.” Baraka demanded Anderson’s immediate removal, prompting the crowd to cheer and chant “Cami’s gotta go!” as they hurled invective and waved signs reading “Cami, Christie, stop the bullying!”
Then the mother of an honor-roll student at Newark Vocational High School, which Anderson planned to close, stood up and demanded of her, “Do you not want for your brown babies what we want for ours?” She said that Anderson “had to get off East Kinney because too many of us knew where you were going.” Anderson reddened, shook her head, and said again and again, “Not my family!” Moments later, she gathered her papers and left. She has not attended a school-board meeting since. “The dysfunction displayed within this forum sets a bad example for our children,” she wrote in a statement distributed by the district. Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, who was the board president at the time, responded, “You own this situation. For the third year in a row, you have forced your plans on the Newark community, without the measure of stakeholder input that anyone, lay or professional, would consider adequate or respectful.”

“This is the post-Booker era,” Ras Baraka said recently at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in downtown Newark. “The stage has been set, the lights are on, people are in the theatre—it’s time for us to perform.” He was speaking about this week’s mayoral election, which he was favored to win, but he could have been describing the city’s battle over education. Baraka is heavily backed by education workers’ unions, and Jeffries by the school-reform movement. Booker has maintained a public silence about the Newark schools since being sworn in as a senator. Christie has been trying to salvage his Presidential prospects. Almost all of Zuckerberg’s hundred million dollars has been spent or committed. He and Chan gave almost a billion dollars to a Silicon Valley foundation to go toward unspecified future gifts, but they have not proceeded with reforms in other school districts, as originally planned. Cerf left his job as New Jersey’s education commissioner in March to join Joel Klein, who, in 2010, had resigned as New York schools chancellor to run Rupert Murdoch’s new education-technology division at News Corp. Anderson declined to say whether she had signed a new three-year contract. She said that she could have done more to engage the community, but she’d worried that the process would be coöpted by “political forces whose objective is to create disruption.” Nor could she vet the plan as it evolved with individual families. “That is the nature of sixteen-dimensional chess,” she said. “You can’t create concessions in one place that then create problems in another.”

Across the country, the conversation about reform is beginning to change. On April 30th, the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit venture-philanthropy firm, which donated ten million dollars to the Newark effort, held its annual summit for the education-reform movement. “The people we serve have to be a part of their own liberation,” Kaya Henderson, the successor to Michelle Rhee, in Washington, D.C., said. James Shelton, Arne Duncan’s deputy at the Department of Education, acknowledged the need for more racial diversity among those making the decisions. “Who in here has heard the phrase that education is the civil-rights movement of our age?” he asked. “If we believe that, then we have to believe that the rest of the movement has to come with it.”

In Newark, the solutions may be closer than either side acknowledges. They begin with getting public-education revenue to the children who need it most, so that district teachers can provide the same level of support that SPARK does. And charter schools, given their rapid expansion, need to serve all students equally. Anderson understood this, but she, Cerf, Booker, and the venture philanthropists—despite millions of dollars spent on community engagement—have yet to hold tough, open conversations with the people of Newark about exactly how much money the district has, where it is going, and what students aren’t getting as a result. Nor have they acknowledged how much of the philanthropy went to consultants who came from the inner circle of the education-reform movement.

Shavar Jeffries believes that the Newark backlash could have been avoided. Too often, he said, “education reform . . . comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in coöperation with people.” Some reformers have told him that unions and machine politicians will always dominate turnout in school-board elections and thus control the public schools. He disagrees: “This is a democracy. A majority of people support these ideas. You have to build coalitions and educate and advocate.” As he put it to me at the outset of the reform initiative, “This remains the United States. At some time, you have to persuade people.” ♦

Camden’s ‘Tent Cities’ for Homeless Cleared Again

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Andy McNeil, Courier-Post

7:55 a.m. EDT May 14, 2014

Aaron Howe had survived on an island surrounded not by water but by asphalt.

For two years, the 39-year-old was among those staying in a Camden homeless encampment some call “Little Tent City.”

The teardrop-shaped site sits on a wooded patch of land owned by the state Department of Transportation and encircled by the ramp for 10th Street between Federal Street and Admiral Wilson Boulevard.

Howe, a Riverside resident turned unofficial mayor of the encampment, found himself homeless in recent years after his trucking business tanked in the economic recession.

“I had 48 trucks at one time — lost it all,” he mused. “Lost my house, lost everything.”

Howe added the encampment to his list of losses Tuesday. With a loader and a brush cutter, workers cleared the site — also referred to as “The Bowl” — and several like it on nearby state-owned property.

While the encampments have been cleared before, officials claimed Tuesday’s effort would yield different results.

“They won’t have the option to come back as they have in the past,” said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Schapiro said the push was prompted by complaints, namely from Cooper University Hospital.*

“These encampments are unhealthy — in terms of they’re unsanitary — they’re unsightly, and they’re unsafe,” Schapiro added.

Another issue, officials said, is contractors illegally dumping construction waste at a trash-strewn encampment off Admiral Wilson Boulevard.

Howe’s site was much cleaner by comparison, something he attributed to its residents abiding by self-made rules.

But the encampments also have become hot spots for drugs, according to Keashen. The Camden County spokesman said county health workers filled half of a 5-gallon bucket with used syringes.

“We’re not all drug addicts,” Howe insisted. “I don’t use.

“A lot of the guys, yeah, they might be ex-felons, but they’re trying to get their life together. They might be an ex-felon, but at least they’re trying to find a job.”

Gino Lewis, chairman of the Homeless Network Planning Committee, said everyone in the encampments has been offered shelter.

“Anyone who showed up and wanted to get into VOA (Volunteers of America) shelters, we’ve been able to accommodate them.”

Lewis said 33 beds were available as of Monday.

Howe said the encampment had 23 people living in more than a dozen tents.

About 18 people were put into shelters Tuesday, according to Keashen. Others declined help.

Howe was holding out for a shelter that would accommodate both him and his pregnant girlfriend.

“They want to split us up.”

Howe explained they can’t get into a shelter for families because their child has not yet been born.

“We don’t know where we’re going,” he added. “I have a tent in the bag over there. I might throw up a tent someplace else and keep moving it every day.”

Howe said the site once had as many as 37 people staying there. Among current residents was Melissa Tamaska.

The 27-year-old said she had worked at a school cafeteria in Washington Township for about five years. An addiction to prescription painkillers eventually led her to heroin and Camden’s streets.

Tamaska, a former Mantua resident, has been staying under an overpass near Howe’s encampment for the past few months. The fenced-off area was among the sites workers cleared out.

“Some of these people have been here for years, and it’s like you just got to get up and leave,” she observed.

According to Keashen, homeless outreach groups informed those living at the sites of the state’s plans at least a month and a half ago. Lewis said getting the encampments’ residents into shelters or more permanent housing has been an ongoing project.

Tamaska, who hopes to get clean someday, expressed concern about the availability of beds in shelters, pointing out space is not guaranteed.

“I don’t see no harm in people living right here,” she added of the encampment.

Reach Andy McNeil at or (856) 486-2458. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_McNeil.

  • *George E. Norcross, III, is the Chairman of Cooper Hospital – Camden Civil Rights Project

Homeless and Living in Camden

By Blake Ellis

February 12 2014 07:58 PM ET

“A place to call home”

homelessness aaron howe
  • Name: Aaron Howe
  • Age: 39

Aaron Howe is the “mayor” of one of Camden, N.J.’s “tent cities.” Though there was no formal vote, he has taken charge of gathering supplies, like food, clothing and propane from local aid organizations and distributing them among residents. He also sets the rules and decides who’s allowed to stay and who needs to go.

Howe arrived in the tent city two years ago after his 18-year-old trucking business collapsed as a result of the financial crisis.

“It’s just a place to call home until you get out of here,” he says.

Living conditions are far from safe, however, and some homeless people in nearby tent cities are known for picking fights.

“I was pistol-whipped and everything else. They fractured my skull,” he said. “There are guys out here who have guns, there’s guys who have baseball bats, there’s guys who have rods with spikes sticking out of them — it’s just a matter of knowing who to watch out for.”

Watch: Braving the cold in Camden’s tent city

“I hate to lose”

homelessness kendall
  • Name: Kendall
  • Age: 57

Up until a couple of years ago, Kendall was sleeping in an abandoned house — but then he was attacked by bats.

“Something kept poking me and poking me, and then it stopped and then it poked me again, and the next thing I know I’d taken my shirt off [because they had climbed inside of it],” he said. “I’ll never go into an abandoned house again.”

He saved up enough money from his Social Security benefits to rent an apartment, but he was evicted last week for falling behind on payments. This is now the second time he has been homeless — the first time was between 2000 and 2012, after he and his wife divorced.

Despite his situation, Kendall, a former electrician, is still optimistic.

“Now I’ll be back on the street … [but] by my faith and my strength and hating to lose — I hate to lose — I will save my money and get back into my apartment.”

“I try to live good”

homelessness michael powell
  • Name: Michael Powell
  • Age: 52

Michael Powell was locked up at the age of 18 for murdering two men.

He served some 22 years in jail and then spent some time in a mental institution. For more than a decade, he has been living in a tent off of a highway in Camden.

“I try to live good,” he says, wearing a black long sleeve shirt with no jacket in the 12-degree weather. He stands next to his tent, which holds a couple mattresses, some plastic drawers, a propane heater and a knife. “These people walk around here all dirty — that’s unnecessary. If you respect yourself, then you wash every day. Wet wipes — baby wipes — you wash with them.”

Between his criminal record and little work experience, Powell has had a hard time finding a job. He has picked up some occasional work — like doing carpentry for a friend — but he hasn’t had a stable income.

kareim nurdeen
  • Name: Kareim Nurdeen
  • Age: 48

Even Kareim Nurdeen’s family doesn’t know he’s homeless. His two daughters tell him to come to them if he needs anything, but he is determined not to let them see him like this.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago, Nurdeen stopped taking the medication for his condition because it was too expensive. He is unable to work and has fallen in and out of homelessness for the last five years.

“It’s not easy for me … there are times when I walk on the streets and I’m thinking something’s crawling on me, or I’m hearing my mother’s voice but she’s been dead for years,” he said. “All I can do is try to isolate myself.”

He recently became homeless after discovering he had been renting a room from someone who didn’t actually own the building — it was really an abandoned house. When the house was taken over by the city a couple months ago, they were both kicked out on the street.

Nurdeen has been staying at Joseph’s House for the past week after another shelter ran out of funding and was forced to shut down.

“I pray, I pray, and I think ‘I’m a good guy’ … so sometimes I ask, ‘Why me?,'” he said.

“You wake up cold”

homelessness chris thom
  • Name: Chris Thom
  • Age: 31

With just one year left before getting his bachelor’s degree in advertising design from Savannah College of Art & Design, Chris Thom is now living in a tent in Camden, N.J.

“Drugs led me here,” he says. “I didn’t have a bad childhood, I have parents who are still together … when I was a teenager I started dealing with depression issues that led eventually to drugs.”

When he first arrived in Camden, he moved in with friends who were also doing drugs. But when they moved and he couldn’t afford the rent on his own, he moved into a tent right off the highway in cluster of trees, with several other homeless people.

He’s been doing odd jobs, like shoveling snow for churches, but he knows he needs to get clean before he can land a full-time gig. His family says he can move back home with them, but he is determined to get himself back on track first.

It’s been hard though — especially during such a frigid winter.

“You go to sleep cold and you wake up cold,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to deal with what I’m able to deal with … I wake up every morning with frozen shoes — I feel like I’m putting on wooden clogs — and it’s freezing cold every night, but you deal with it.”

“So many homeless”

homelessness ar rasheed bey
  • Name: Ar-Rasheed Bey
  • Age: 70

Ar-Rasheed Bey, a retired bus driver, has been living in an abandoned condominium ever since his month long stint in jail.

But now a bank is taking over the “abandominum,”as Bey likes to call it, so he will be kicked out any day. He receives $755 a month in retirement benefits and $189 per month in food stamps, so he has been trying to save up enough money to rent an apartment again.

With a growing number of homeless people looking for affordable housing, he hasn’t had much luck. “I’ve never seen so many homeless people in my life,” he says.

Bey says he would rather go to jail and get three meals a day and a bed than sleep outside on the concrete in the cold. “I would throw a brick in the window of the police department until they came to take me to jail before I would live on the streets,” he said.

Watch: On the street, counting the homeless

“I lost myself, in Camden”

homelessness meda bush
  • Name: Meda Bush
  • Age: 46

Meda Bush has been homeless for a little over a year, after her boyfriend was laid off and she relapsed on heroin. Drugs are everywhere in Camden, and she said it was just too hard for her to stay clean.

“I lost myself, in Camden. I just got lost,” she said.

After bouncing between shelters and sleeping on cardboard in the streets for the past year, she recently arrived at Joseph’s House.

It’s been a nice change from the streets. “You have no idea what it’s like to get up and not knowing where you’re gonna sleep or shower, where you’re gonna’ be safe,” she said. “There’s been many of times where me and my boyfriend, we’ve been robbed — we wake up and our stuff’s missing and knives have been at us.”

Bush said she used to have a “normal” life; she was happily married, had a good relationship with her two kids and owned a house. Now her youngest son doesn’t want anything to do with her, and she has no idea where her parents or brothers are.

Bush says she has been clean since arriving at Joseph’s a week ago, and she is determined to stay out of trouble. “I knew the life that I was leading was gonna’ kill me, and I didn’t want to become another statistic in Camden,” she said.

“I’ve got to beat this drug thing”

homelessness michael brown
  • Name: Michael Brown
  • Age: 47

When Michael Brown lost both his parents about six years ago, his drug addiction spun out of control. He spent all of his money on drugs and eventually lost his home. After staying with a friend for a while, he officially became homeless about a year and a half ago.

Since then, he’s been sleeping in shelters and job hunting every day. But he realizes he won’t get decent work until he can stay clean.

“You can go to all the rehabs, you can go to all the counseling, but if it’s not in your heart, you’re not gonna’ do it — and I made up my heart and my mind that this drug thing, I’ve got to beat it, because if I don’t it’s gonna beat me,” he said.

“This is heaven”

homelessness terry hinton
  • Name: Terry Hinton
  • Age: 46

Terry Hinton says his life started spiraling downward two years ago when his parents died within six months of one another. Shortly afterward, the home they left him caught fire. And since Hinton was unable to insure the house, he lost it.

Even before his parents passed away, Hinton was struggling with addiction. He hasn’t had a full-time job in more than 20 years. Instead, he has been taking whatever odd jobs he can get paid under the table.

While it’s cold, Hinton has been staying at Joseph’s House. Under the shelter’s program, he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and then volunteers at a soup kitchen from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. to stay warm and busy. Then he comes back to the shelter for dinner and to sleep.

“This is heaven, somewhere where you can eat, you can take a shower, somewhere where you can lay your head,” he said.

“Just a big drug market”

homelessness brian barrett
  • Name: Brian Barrett
  • Age: 43

Like many of Camden’s homeless, Brian Barrett’s slide into homelessness was sparked by an addiction that began several years ago. A former bricklayer, Barrett’s growing heroin habit began consuming his paychecks. It got so bad he even started stealing from his mother.

By the summer of 2012, he was homeless.

Barrett has been in jail three times for drug-related offenses over the past year. With a criminal record, it’s been challenging to find work. “Even for a dishwashing job they do background checks now, it’s just crazy,” he said.

He had been living in an abandoned storage trailer on the Rutgers University campus. But several weeks ago, when it become too cold to bear, he came to New Life Ministries, a church providing 75 cots for the homeless.

He says he’s been sober for 57 days now, and he spends days in the library and nights in the shelter to avoid the streets.

“Camden is just a big drug market, that’s all it is,” he said. “I’ve talked to [my family] every day since I’ve got out of jail and I’m just trying to make amends right now, and hopefully that will lead to me going back with them.”

Read More at:

Crossing Christie

What the bridge scandal says about the Governor’s political style, and his future.


The Political Scene APRIL 14, 2014 ISSUE


On April 1st, Chris Christie, the beleaguered Republican governor of New Jersey, attended a celebrity roast, in Newark, to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Brendan Byrne, the state’s governor from 1974 to 1982. “He’s an inspiration,” Christie told the audience, referring to Byrne, who won reëlection against long odds, because he has “shown that political comebacks can actually happen.”

Christie sat on a long dais with five former governors and five local comedians, listening to the guitarist John Pizzarelli sing an ode to the state: “I may leave for a week or two, but I’m always coming back.” Christie was seated next to former Governor Thomas Kean, a longtime supporter, but he did not say hello or shake his hand, and he glared at the comedians as they delivered their lines. “You scare the shit out of me,” Stewie Stone said to Christie during his routine.
Just five months earlier, Christie had won a sweeping reëlection, securing nineteen of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties, sixty per cent of the vote, and endorsements from Democratic officeholders. He won fifty-one per cent of the Hispanic vote and twenty-one per cent of the African-American vote. His plan was to shed part of his Jersey persona, and perhaps a few more pounds, and begin in earnest the transition from state politician to Presidential candidate.

But the past was catching up with him. In September, an unusual incident had occurred in Fort Lee, the small town on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Without warning, the number of access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s toll plaza had been reduced from three to one. The lanes were closed for four days, and the resulting traffic jams caught the attention of several Democratic legislators. They opened an investigation and eventually accused the Christie administration of engineering a plot to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his failure to endorse Christie’s reëlection. The accusation seemed so ludicrous that Christie belittled a reporter for asking about it. “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he said during a press conference in early December. But on January 8th an e-mail surfaced showing that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, had instructed David Wildstein, who was the Governor’s second-highest appointee at the Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridge, to engineer the gridlock. Months of scrutiny and withering criticism followed, and Christie’s approval rating fell twenty points.


From left: Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein

Christie had spent the week before the Byrne event trying to repair the damage. He hired lawyers who, on March 27th, released a report declaring that he knew nothing about the plan and placing the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. The next weekend, Christie flew to Las Vegas and met with Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing billionaire who is looking for a Presidential candidate to fund. Christie managed to offend Adelson, who is a major supporter of the conservative Likud Party, in Israel, by publicly referring to the “occupied territories,” a term to which Adelson objects. (“Occupied territories” is common parlance among both Democrats and Republicans, but Christie, fearful of losing Adelson’s favor, apologized.)

The Newark roast wasn’t going well, either. The speakers aimed much of their fire at Christie. “You knew whose ass to kiss,” Stone said, referring to Christie’s trip to Vegas. “ ‘Whatever you say, Sheldon! Whatever you say!’ ” Vince August, a New Jersey judge turned comedian, noted, “It really is an honor to be standing next to what could be the next President of the—.” He shuffled some papers on the lectern. “I’m sorry, these are the wrong notes. I’m doing a roast next week with Jeb Bush.” Even Byrne got in a dig, about Christie’s waistline. “Somebody referred to that bronze statue of me that’s in the courthouse,” he said. “Actually, that was supposed to be Governor Christie, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for all that bronze.”

Joy Behar, the former co-host of “The View,” was even more pointed. “When I first heard that he was accused of blocking off three lanes on the bridge, I said, ‘What the hell is he doing, standing in the middle of the bridge?’ ” After another barb, Christie interrupted her. “This is a Byrne roast,” he said. He stood up and tried to grab her notes. The audience laughed awkwardly. “Stop bullying me,” Behar said as he sat down. Christie said something out of earshot and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?” Christie stood up again and moved in front of the lectern as Behar retreated.  “At least I don’t get paid for this,” he said.

Christie sat down and Behar continued, though she was noticeably rattled. “I really don’t know about the Presidency,” she said. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”

THE VIEW - Actress Lea Michele appeared today, March 6, 2013 on
Joy Behar of  “The View.”
(Photo by Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty Images)

Before the bridge scandal, Christie was known as a governor who transcended New Jersey’s reputation for toxic politics and toxic dumps. He took on the exploding costs of the state’s pension system, reformed property taxes, and worked with his opponents in the legislature, and he provided decisive leadership after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But the scandal hinted at a darker story line: that Christie’s barrelling style, and the dealmaking that had secured his rise through New Jersey politics, might as easily undo him.

Recently, Governor Kean, during a long interview in his office, in Far Hills, New Jersey, forty-five minutes west of Manhattan, told me that he has reconsidered his support of Christie. Kean is now seventy-eight years old; he served from 1982 to 1990 and is a revered figure in state politics. He became well known nationally when, in 2002, George W. Bush appointed him chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the widely praised investigation into the 2001 terrorist attacks. Kean is also arguably the most important political figure in Christie’s career. Christie was born in Newark in 1962, but, after race riots there in the summer of 1967, his parents moved to suburban Livingston, which, like Newark, is in Essex County, the most Democratic county in New Jersey. When Christie was fourteen years old, he heard Kean, who was then a member of the state legislature, speak at his junior high school. He told his mother that he wanted to become a politician; she drove him to Kean’s house and told him to knock on the legislator’s door.
“Sir, I heard you speak,” he told Kean. “I think I want to get into politics. How do I do it?”

“I’m going up to speak in Bergen County tonight,” Kean told him. “Why don’t you come with me and see if you like it?”

Kean became Christie’s political mentor. Christie, who was class president throughout high school, practiced a kind of suburban political activism. When a local diner barred him and his friends, because, the owner said, they didn’t order any food, he organized a boycott. (The owner eventually negotiated a settlement with Christie.) When Christie’s position as the starting catcher on the high-school baseball team was threatened by a transfer student, Christie and his father briefly considered taking action to block the student’s enrollment. Christie was benched for most of the season.

Christie worked on Kean’s gubernatorial campaigns, and in 2001, when Christie was nominated by Bush to be the United States Attorney for New Jersey, Kean wrote a letter validating his qualifications. When Christie ran for governor, in 2009, Kean told me, he was the first major figure to endorse him. “I campaigned with him a lot, and raised money for him,” he said. On Election Night last November, Kean spent time with Christie and his family before his victory speech, which was nationally televised. But they hadn’t spoken since that evening. Christie has a way of distancing allies, and he and Kean have had a falling out.
“He doesn’t always try to persuade you with reason,” Kean said. “He makes you feel that your life’s going to be very unhappy if you don’t do what he says.” He added that one of Christie’s flaws “is that he makes enemies and keeps them. As long as you’re riding high, they’ll stay in the weeds, because they don’t want to get in your way. But you get in trouble, they’ll all come out of the weeds, and come at you.” Although I didn’t ask, Kean told me that if Christie ran for President he wouldn’t necessarily endorse him. “I haven’t decided whether I’m going to support him or not,” Kean said. “There are a lot of people I don’t know that well”—he mentioned John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush, among other potential 2016 Republican Presidential nominees—“and I’d like to get to know them better.”

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Gov. Chris Christie and Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean

Christie has sometimes found himself embarrassed by his state’s unique political culture. He had a distant relative who was a mobster, whom he once visited in jail. On a trip to Washington in 1980, as a high-school senior, he and a classmate were scheduled to meet their senators, Harrison Williams and Bill Bradley. The day before they arrived, news broke of a major sting operation involving several members of Congress, among them Williams, who was later indicted. An F.B.I. agent posing as a representative of a wealthy Arab sheikh had tried to bribe them. (The scandal, known as Abscam, was the subject of last year’s film “American Hustle.”) Senator Williams cancelled his meeting with the students, and Christie later said that he and his friend were “ashamed, and we got made fun of all week,” according to “Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power,” Bob Ingle and Michael Symons’s thorough biography.

Christie went to the University of Delaware, where he became the student-body president, and where he met his future wife, Mary Pat Foster, who was also involved in student government. In 2009, a former college friend told the Newark Star-Ledger that she was awestruck watching Christie lobby state officials for extra funding for the school. He went to law school at Seton Hall, and when he graduated, in 1987, he joined Dughi & Hewit, a small firm in Union County, which was another Democratic stronghold.

In 1992, Christie volunteered for the George H. W. Bush campaign, where he got to know Bill Palatucci, the executive director of both of Bush’s Presidential campaigns in New Jersey, which was then a more competitive state for Republicans. “We spent virtually every day together in the fall of 1992,” Palatucci told me. “He had a bird’s-eye view of a Presidential campaign in a targeted state with a lot of resources.” After Bush lost, Palatucci, who had a law degree but hadn’t practiced, joined Christie’s law firm, and they became a team. “He was teaching me how to practice law, and I was teaching him how to practice politics,” he said. “From the ’92 campaign he had made a lot of friends and contacts, and so he started to investigate, with my help, finding the right office to run for.” There was little prospect of winning a race in Essex or Union County, and Christie moved farther west, to Mendham Township, in Morris County, which is dominated by the Republican Party.

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Bill Palatucci, a Republican insider in New Jersey and a longtime political mentor to Christie. (William Perlman/Newark Star-Ledger)

Christie’s first attempts to get to Trenton, the state capital, as a lawmaker came to an ignoble end. In 1993, Christie tried to unseat the Republican state senator John Dorsey, who happened to be the majority leader, and therefore one of the most important Republicans in the state. Richard Merkt, a longtime G.O.P. politician in the area, told me that local Republicans were shocked. Sitting in a booth at the Morristown Diner, Merkt talked about Christie’s early years. “Chris was a brash kid,” he said. “He moves into Morris County and pretty quickly decides that he wants to be not a member of the governing body of the town, not a mere freeholder”—a county commissioner—“not even a mere assemblyman, but he wants to be a state senator right out of the box, because he used to deliver literature for Tom Kean during his gubernatorial campaigns. That was his credential. His reach exceeded his grasp.”
New Jersey has five hundred and sixty-six municipalities, made up of towns, townships, boroughs, and villages. About a third of these entities are smaller than two square miles. Christie began collecting petitions to get his name on the ballot in Mendham Borough, which he may not have known was not in the same municipality as his new home town, Mendham Township, and was outside the district he wanted to represent. Dorsey, his opponent, challenged Christie’s petition and officials found dozens of invalid signatures. His name wasn’t allowed on the ballot. “That campaign collapsed rather rapidly,” Merkt said.

Christie lowered his expectations and, for his second campaign, ran for freeholder. This time, he was a reform candidate, promising to restore honest government, and he produced a TV ad charging that three of his opponents in the nine-person Republican primary were being “investigated by the Morris County prosecutor,” a serious accusation that happened to be false. Christie won the primary and then the general election, in part by assuring a more socially moderate electorate, “I am pro-choice.” But his victory was marred by the divisiveness of the campaign. The three victims of Christie’s false ad, including a freeholder named Cecilia Laureys, successfully sued him for defamation, and, after he lost an appeal, as part of the settlement he was forced to apologize to them in local newspapers. Laureys died last July, but her son, Christopher, who was her communications director, told me, “This was beyond the pale of what anyone had ever done in politics in Morris County. He was a lawyer who said they were being criminally investigated. He looked into the camera and lied.”

Portrait of the Governor as a Young Man

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Chris Christie’s 1994 campaign ad  – The Washington Post

Within weeks of his swearing-in, Christie started planning a campaign for a state-assembly seat. In the open Republican primary in Morris County, the two candidates with the highest number of votes become the Party’s two nominees for the assembly, and candidates sometimes run together, as a pair. In 1995, Merkt teamed up with Christie. “It turned out to be the worst mistake I ever made in politics,” he told me. The incumbent assemblyman, Anthony Bucco, had supported Christie’s freeholder campaign, so he was surprised that Christie was trying to oust him from his job. Christie attacked him for supporting a repeal of New Jersey’s assault-weapons ban, calling the idea “dangerous” and “crazy.” After the campaign, Bucco described Christie’s style of politics as “character assassination.” In a Republican primary, which attracts the most conservative voters, Christie’s pro-choice record and anti-gun position were not embraced. He came in fourth.
Two years later, he lost his freeholder seat. “The folks he had torpedoed with the phony charge came back and used it against him,” Merkt said. Christie came in fifth out of five candidates. “ONCE-RISING STAR IN MORRIS FINDS IT HARD TO EMPTY DESK,” the headline in the Star-Ledger read, on December 21, 1997. Christie went back to his law firm and, in 1998, registered as a lobbyist, along with Palatucci. But that fall, when George W. Bush was reëlected governor of Texas, Christie saw an opportunity to reënter politics. Palatucci had first met Bush in 1988, when Bush came to New Jersey to campaign for his father and Palatucci picked him up at the airport. Ten years later, Palatucci bumped into Bush in a hotel in New Orleans just days after his reëlection as governor, and Bush introduced him to Karl Rove, his political strategist. Soon afterward, Palatucci took New Jersey’s top Republicans to Austin to endorse Bush’s nascent run for President. Christie tagged along. “He’s this former county official who got booted out of office!” Palatucci said. “Going there with the state senate president, the speaker, a couple of key state legislators, key county chairmen, and the best fund-raiser in New Jersey.” The group made three trips to Texas and locked up New Jersey, and Christie became Bush’s campaign lawyer for the state.

In mid-2000, a Bush victory looked plausible, and Christie became interested in the job of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. That fall, Palatucci mailed Christie’s résumé to Rove, and Kean added his letter of support. Bush announced Christie’s nomination on December 7th. Christie—a lobbyist, fund-raiser, and failed local politician—had no criminal or prosecutorial experience. “He wasn’t the most qualified,” Kean told me. “Just on legal expertise and law-enforcement expertise, there were people who wanted the nomination who were better qualified.”

Palatucci said that Christie was a good lawyer and a good communicator, and “he’d worked really hard for George Bush.” He added, “Others had bits and pieces of those three qualifications, but they didn’t have all three the way Chris did.” The politics of 9/11 secured Christie’s confirmation. Democrats had no interest in fighting Bush, whose approval rating reached ninety per cent. “In light of current events and the need for strong and immediate actions by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the war on terrorism,” New Jersey’s two senators, Jon Corzine and Robert Torricelli, both Democrats, said in a joint statement, “it is important to honor President Bush’s choice for this position.”

U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, right, looks on as former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft talks at a news conference in Newark, N.J., Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007, to announce that five makers of medical device implants have reached a $310 million agreement to resolve concerns over doctor kickbacks. Authorities said the companies paid orthopedic surgeons exorbitant amounts of money to be consultants and exclusively use their products. Ashcroft will be the federal monitor of one of the companies, Zimmer Inc., based in Warsaw, Ind., which has agreed to pay $169.5 million as part of the agreement. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)
U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, right, looks on as former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft talks at a news conference in Newark, N.J., on Sept. 27, 2007, to announce that five makers of medical device implants have reached a $310 million agreement to resolve concerns over doctor kickbacks.  (AP Photo/Mike Derer)

Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from January 17, 2002, until December 1, 2008. Less than a year afterward, he was elected governor. By all accounts, he was adept at using the powers of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which has strict rules about engaging in politics, to build a public profile and consolidate power in an increasingly Democratic state.

One Democrat who benefitted from Christie’s ascent was Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, who is considered the most powerful Democrat in North Jersey. “Anybody who runs statewide has to come through us,” he told me. Last year, he endorsed Christie’s reëlection. DiVincenzo, whom everyone calls Joe D., is sixty-one, and grew up in Newark. His father was a supervisor at a pickle company in nearby Perth Amboy, and his mother worked for the Charms candy company. I met with DiVincenzo in late February in his office, in Newark, during a weekly meeting with staff members from the county’s department of public works. They sat around a conference table in a room decorated with stuffed animals and faded forest-themed tapestry, reviewing a list of twenty-five major construction projects: a seven-million-dollar job to improve Turtle Back Zoo, in West Orange; a two-million-dollar bridge project for the Orange Reservoir. DiVincenzo had talked to Christie on the phone earlier in the day, and after the meeting he travelled to Trenton to meet with him privately. “The Republicans get upset with the Governor because of my friendship with him,” DiVincenzo told me. “They get upset because they feel Joe D. gets everything.”
DiVincenzo’s relationship with Christie began after F.B.I. agents raided the office in which we were sitting, in 2002. At the time, the office was occupied by James Treffinger, DiVincenzo’s predecessor, who was a Republican and was being investigated for corruption. Treffinger was running for the U.S. Senate against Torricelli, and DiVincenzo, who was president of the county board of freeholders, one floor above, was running to replace Treffinger. A few months after searching Treffinger’s office, federal agents arrested him on various charges, including mail fraud, leading him away in handcuffs and leg irons as the media took photos. The Star-Ledger reported that some prosecutors in Christie’s office “were appalled, and saw it as a cheap attempt to score political points.” Treffinger pleaded guilty to two of the charges against him, and served thirteen months in jail.

I asked DiVincenzo about his early impression of Christie as the U.S. Attorney. “Scared shit of him!” he said. “The guy was on a mission.” DiVincenzo said that his opponent in the 2002 race tried to connect him to Treffinger by running an ad with footage of the F.B.I. agents removing boxes from the government building in Newark that they shared. In the middle of the campaign, Christie sent DiVincenzo’s lawyers a letter saying that their client was “not a subject or target of the grand jury investigation.” DiVincenzo won the race.


Chris Christie, left, gets the endorsement of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo at McLoone’s Boat House in West Orange, N.J.

Christie, intent on running for office, made corruption his central issue. Public cynicism about politicians, especially in New Jersey, was high, and the local press loved tales of political scandals. Christie already had a connection to an influential new political Web site, then known as PoliticsNJ and later as PolitickerNJ, run by an anonymous blogger, who received regular scoops from Christie’s office. In addition, New Jersey’s thirteen hundred units of local government—municipalities, school districts, fire districts, and local authorities that deal with sewage and other services—made the state a good target for political stings, with thousands of people responsible for handing out government contracts. From his days as a freeholder, when he campaigned as a reformer, Christie was intimately familiar with the patronage and pay-for-play ethos at the local level. He initiated his own Abscam-style operations. DiVincenzo recalls Christie saying, “If you’re getting an envelope with cash, it’s coming either from your mother, because it’s your birthday, or from one of my agents. Don’t take it unless it’s your mother.”
Some politicians took the envelopes, and even some who didn’t became ensnared. In 2003, Governor Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, was caught on tape using a code word that signalled to a Christie informant that McGreevey was privy to an illegal scheme for gathering campaign contributions. Christie had chosen the code word “Machiavelli.” McGreevey insisted that his use of the word was coincidental, but the scandal escalated until, on August 12, 2004, the Governor announced his resignation, revealing that he was “a gay American.” Although McGreevey’s lover had been threatening to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit that would expose their relationship, Christie’s criminal investigation seemed to be a factor in McGreevey’s decision.

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Former Gov. James McGreevey announces his resignation during a 2004 press conference.

Even as Christie was investigating McGreevey, he was considering running to replace him, but when he realized that he would face a competitive primary he decided to skip the race. In 2005, Corzine, the former head of Goldman Sachs, won a relatively comfortable victory over the Republican Douglas Forrester, a former mayor of West Windsor. By early 2006, Christie had prosecuted eighty-six political figures. DiVincenzo had consolidated his power in Essex County; two people on his payroll were state senators, and still are. He told me that he regularly called Christie to vet people who wanted to work for Essex County. “If I was interested in hiring somebody,” DiVincenzo said, “I would kick it off him.” If the person had issues, Christie would tell DiVincenzo, “You should keep searching.”

As a student, Christie had expressed shame at the corruption of state politicians. As an investigator, he rooted it out with a heavy hand. In April, 2006, a con artist named Solomon Dwek was arrested for trying to cash a fraudulent twenty-five-million-dollar check at a drive-through bank window. In return for a lighter sentence, Dwek’s lawyer offered to make Dwek a confidential informant for Christie, according to “The Jersey Sting,” by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin, a detailed insider account of the operation. Dwek promised that he could infiltrate his own Syrian Jewish community, but Christie and his prosecutors gave Dwek a second assignment: exposing political corruption. Christie unleashed Dwek on Hudson County and the surrounding area, and Dwek worked for him for the next three years.


Solomon Dwek is the central figure in a three-year undercover sting operated by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office that became known as Bid Rig III.

Dwek’s Hudson County sting was unlike any investigation in the state since Abscam. Dwek posed as a developer seeking to fast-track construction projects by repeatedly offering politicians FedEx envelopes filled with thousands of dollars. The future mayor of Hoboken took one. The mayor of Secaucus took one. The deputy mayor of Jersey City took one. As Dwek infiltrated the county, Christie turned his attention to Robert Menendez, then a Jersey City congressman, who was running for the Senate against the former Governor’s son, Thomas Kean, Jr. In September, 2006, weeks before Election Day, Christie subpoenaed information from a nonprofit organization that rented office space from Menendez, who had helped the group receive federal funds. News of the subpoenas, and an investigation into a potential quid pro quo, leaked to the press. Kean ran ads describing Menendez as “under federal criminal investigation.” Menendez won the race, but he became an implacable enemy of Christie. It took him five years to secure a letter from the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, where the case had been transferred, clearing him of any wrongdoing.


In April 2015, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) again became the center of federal corruption investigation. He is accused of using the influence of his office to advance the business interests of a longtime friend and political supporter in exchange for luxury gifts, lavish vacations, prostitutes and more than $750,000 in campaign donations.​

By the end of 2008, as Christie was preparing to run for governor, prosecutors began planning to simultaneously arrest all of their targets in the Dwek case. The lines between Christie’s political campaign and the work of the prosecutors often seemed blurry. With Barack Obama’s victory in November, Christie knew that he would soon be replaced by an Obama appointee. He resigned in December and, six weeks later, announced that he would challenge Corzine. During the campaign, Christie’s relationship with his colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office became a source of controversy. Michele Brown, one of the top lawyers in the office, was sending Christie five hundred dollars a month to repay a forty-six-thousand-dollar personal loan he had extended to her. Christie failed to report the payments on his state and federal ethics forms. In February, at a campaign event hosted by Bill Baroni, then a state senator, Christie noted that he had “a group of assistant U.S. Attorneys sitting down in Newark still doing their job. They are watching the newspapers. And, after we win this election, I’m going to take a whole group of them to Trenton with me and put them in every one of the departments.”


A 2008 photo of Chris Christie and acting first assistant U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Michele Brown. Jerry McCrea/The Star-Ledger.

In the early morning of July 23rd, three months before Election Day, Christie’s former colleagues arrested forty-four people, an odd mixture of New Jersey criminals connected by Dwek’s two-track sting: rabbis involved in money laundering and organ trafficking and local politicians ensnared in Dwek’s ruses. Among those targeted was Joseph Doria, a member of Corzine’s cabinet. F.B.I. agents raided his home, and though they didn’t arrest him, Corzine asked him to resign. It took Doria years to clear his name. “The night before the F.B.I. came to my house,” Doria, who now teaches at Rutgers, told me, “the individual who took the money said he never had given me the money and had told the F.B.I. he had kept all the money.” He added, “It wasn’t a pleasant time.”


Joseph Doria, a member of former Gov. Jon Corzine’s cabinet targeted in an F.B.I. corruption sting is currently an adjunct professor at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics.

New Jersey corruption, Christie’s top issue, dominated the gubernatorial race. Christie insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the timing of the arrests, though he happened to be campaigning in Hudson County the day they occurred, and he made himself available to the press. Corzine considered getting out of the race. On Election Day, DiVincenzo told me, he called Christie. “Chris, you ran a great campaign,” he told him. “I just want to wish you the best. I’m going to be there with you. You’re always going to be my friend.” DiVincenzo added, “I think he was happy that I called him to show respect.”

Later that evening, Corzine, who had long been suspicious of DiVincenzo’s loyalties, called him, asking for the margin of victory in Essex County: “What’s your number?” In 2005, Corzine had won the county by eighty-eight thousand votes. DiVincenzo said it was going to be seventy-five thousand this time. “That’s not good enough,” the Governor shouted. DiVincenzo, who told me that the campaign’s goal was only sixty-two thousand, threw his phone across the room in frustration. Christie beat Corzine by three and a half points. Corzine, who tried to make a campaign issue out of Christie’s politicization of his office, later said that he lost the race because of high unemployment.


Former Gov. Jon Corzine and then Gov.-elect Chris Christie attend an event in Newark in November 2007. Matt Rainey/The Star-Ledger

Other New Jersey Democrats are less charitable to Christie. Jerramiah Healy, the mayor of Jersey City, complained that the July arrests had affected the voter-turnout operation in Hudson County. “Jersey City had a good turnout for Corzine in his first win,” he told me. “That’s why this character Dwek was sicced on us.” (Christie’s spokesperson, Maria Comella, said this was “absolutely not true.”) In a new book, “Ruthless Ambition,” which also accuses Christie of politicizing his office, Louis Michael Manzo, a former assemblyman unsuccessfully targeted by Dwek, reveals that a copy of Dwek’s psychiatric evaluation, released during Dwek’s sentencing hearing, showed that he had “a history of serious mental disorder.” Michele Brown and several other former colleagues from the Newark office joined the new Christie administration. In 2010, the anonymous blogger from PolitickerNJ revealed that he was David Wildstein, a member of Christie’s high-school baseball team who later went to work for him at the Port Authority.

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Former Jersey City Assemblyman Louis Michael Manzo.

The day after the election, DiVincenzo attended a Christie event in Newark. With Hudson County’s political machine damaged, DiVincenzo was now even more powerful. Christie walked over and said hello. “Thanks for the call, Joe,” the Governor-elect said. He shook DiVincenzo’s hand and gave him a hug. “Let’s see what we can do together.”

Only about a quarter of the state’s population lives in South Jersey, an area that generally includes everything below Trenton. But what the south lacks in population it compensates for in political power, personified by George Norcross III, New Jersey’s most influential Democratic political boss. “By gaining control of the legislature, he’s brought a lot of stuff to South Jersey,” Kean told me. “He’s able to make sure it gets more than its fair share of everything.” He added, “His influence is huge around the state, greater than any nonelected leader in my lifetime. And he’s made a fortune in the process.”


George Norcross III, left, and Chris Christie speaking at the ribbon cutting for Cooper’s medical school at Rowan University in 2012. – (Aaron Houston / NJBIZ)

The few Democrats who agreed to talk about Norcross attested to his power. “He’s No. 1 in the state without a doubt—I don’t think anybody disputes that,” Ray Lesniak, a longtime state senator from Elizabeth, in North Jersey, said. James Florio, a Democrat who served as the governor from 1990 to 1994, said, “He’s very smart, very smart.” Like Norcross, Florio is from Camden and has known him for decades as both an enemy and an ally. “I got along with him reasonably well. He can be a—” He paused. “Strong personality.” Early in Christie’s first term, Kean advised him that he had to have a good relationship with the top Democrats in the legislature, which meant cultivating their political bosses. “He got the most powerful governorship in the country,” Kean told me, “but he can’t get everything he wants without the support of Norcross.”

Camden, across the river from Philadelphia, is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. But at its center is a core of new development, anchored by Cooper University Hospital, which Norcross helped to build and where he is the chairman of the board. In early March, Christie broke ground on the latest Norcross project, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a charter school that will be built near the hospital. When Norcross introduced Christie at the ceremony, he teased the Governor openly. He reminded the audience that, despite Christie’s impressive reëlection, he failed to win any new Republican seats in the legislature. Then he touched on a sensitive issue. Norcross sponsors an annual ten-kilometre race across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, connecting Philadelphia and Camden. “There’s one thing the Governor, with all his power, has not been able to achieve,” he said. “I’m the one who’s able to shut down a bridge.”


George Norcross III to Chris Christie: “I’m the who’s able to shut down a bridge.”

Norcross had not warned Christie about the joke, and Christie looked surprised. As the audience laughed, Norcross went on to praise Christie for his “bold leadership.” He said, “In my lifetime there has never been a governor of either party who has worked harder and more diligently to help South Jersey, the city of Camden, and many of the things that we’re so proud of in this region.” Christie had no stinging retort. “Ol’ George is something, isn’t he?” he said. “Kicks me around, and then he says all those nice things to me right before I come up here. He’s the master.”

Afterward, I met Norcross for lunch in the cafeteria of the hospital, and then we took the elevator to the tenth floor, where he showed me the Camden skyline and outlined his plans for reviving the city. Norcross is fifty-eight, thin and compact, with a politician’s head of side-parted white hair and gleaming teeth. He told me that he couldn’t remember ever doing a taped interview with a reporter, and glared at my recording device.

In the late nineteen-seventies, the Democratic Party in Camden was divided between those loyal to Florio, then a young congressman, and those loyal to Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden and a state senator. (Errichetti is the basis for the character of Carmine Polito, Camden’s corrupt mayor in “American Hustle.”) Norcross’s father had a poor relationship with Florio. “They had a bit of a falling out,” he said. “And, of course, if my father didn’t like somebody I didn’t like him, either, even though I didn’t know him. So we had this big political war, Errichetti against Florio.”

By 1981, the war in South Jersey was over: Florio became the Party’s gubernatorial candidate—he lost in the general election, to Kean, by fewer than two thousand votes—and controlled Camden’s Democratic organization. Errichetti was arrested in the Abscam scandal and served almost three years in prison. As Florio approached his next gubernatorial race, in 1989, he wanted to reform his Camden operation.

“Camden County government back in the late eighties had been the subject of a lot of ugly newspaper stories about high-level patronage, pinstripe patronage—a lot of bond houses, lawyers,” Norcross said, and added, “There’s probably some corruption involved.” In a surprise move, Florio put Norcross and Rob Andrews, a local Democratic freeholder, in charge of his machine. “He needed somebody to come in governmentally and clean it up and somebody to come in politically and clean it up,” Norcross said. “Rob Andrews became the freeholder-director of the board, and I became the political leader.”


Prior to becoming White House Chief of Staff or Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel investigated political opponents for George E. Norcross, III

Norcross brought in professional pollsters and hired opposition researchers to investigate political opponents. (His first researcher was a young Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago.) At thirty-two, Norcross emerged as a leading Democratic power broker. He became famous in New Jersey political circles when, in 1991, he executed a political-revenge plot against a politician who had crossed his family. In 1985, Governor Kean had appointed Norcross’s father to the New Jersey Racing Commission. “My father was a two-dollar bettor, loved the ponies,” Norcross said. Lee Laskin, the Republican state senator who represented the district where his father lived, in Camden County, blocked the appointment. Laskin, a conservative, was known in the legislature as Dr. No, because he voted against almost everything.

Norcross went to see him. “Senator, I come here as a son asking for a favor for his father,” Norcross said. “I don’t want my dad to know I ever came here to see you. This would mean the world to him. It would mean the world to me, and I would be forever indebted to you personally if you did this for my dad.”
“Senator, do you want to reconsider that? This is really important to me personally, and I really want you to do this for my dad.”

“No way!”

Six years later, Norcross persuaded John Adler, a Harvard-educated councilman from upscale Cherry Hill, to run against Laskin. Norcross took out a four-hundred-thousand-dollar personal loan, late in the campaign, so that Laskin wouldn’t see it on any campaign-finance reports, and created a TV ad accusing Laskin of mixing his law-office business with his official duties in the state senate. The barrage of negative ads on Philadelphia television destroyed him. Adler won, fifty-seven per cent to forty-three per cent. “We blew him away,” Norcross said. “It was the most exciting night I’ve ever had in politics in my life to this day.”


Former N.J. State Senator, John Adler, was the beneficiary of Norcross’ political revenge

Through the nineties, Norcross extended his political operation beyond Camden and solidified control over three other southern counties and several municipalities by recruiting and financing his own candidates. By 1999, he had a bloc of seats in the state assembly that owed allegiance to him. By 2007, he had a bloc of six seats in the senate. The Norcross bloc generally votes together on issues important to South Jersey, which is smaller and more homogeneous than the north. Because North Jersey bosses are often more divided, Norcross shifts his allegiances among leaders in Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, and Union Counties, or even to the Republican Party. “We have a unified political organization that knows that, in order to serve South Jersey, you must function in that manner,” Norcross said. “There are many times when we have strong differences of opinion on things, but we settle inside of a room, and we always come out unified.”

DiVincenzo told me that he envied Norcross’s power. “His people control the assembly, and they control the senators,” DiVincenzo said. “He controls their campaigns, he funds their campaigns. They don’t always all get along, but, when it comes down to a vote, they’ll all be together. I have two senators. He has seven senators, and he has about twelve assembly people.” He explained that Norcross’s power in the legislature made his own relationship with Christie all the more important. “I don’t have what George has. George has seven and twelve! I have two senators and five assembly people.”

Right after Christie’s election in 2009, Norcross and DiVincenzo worked out an arrangement: the south got to run the senate, and the north got to run the assembly. Stephen Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross’s, whom Norcross helped elect, in an upset victory, in 2001, became the president of the senate. Sheila Oliver, from East Orange, in Essex County, became the speaker of the assembly. “I called George, and that’s how we put it all together,” DiVincenzo said. “We got two votes for him, for Senator Sweeney. And he delivered our votes with our assembly people we had, and we were able to get the majority and she became the speaker.”


State Senator Stephen Sweeney  became the president of the state senate based on a deal between Norcross and DiVincenzo.

Short of having a legislature controlled by Republicans, the Norcross-DiVincenzo deal was the best outcome for Christie. They were the two Democratic bosses in the state with whom he had the best relationships. Some observers were suspicious of the fact that, in 2005, as U.S. Attorney, Christie had declined to indict Norcross, who was under investigation after a South Jersey town councilman told the police that he was being coerced and possibly bribed by Democrats to fire a municipal employee. The councilman, wearing a wire, recorded hours of conversations with South Jersey political figures. Norcross is heard on the tapes conducting the sometimes unpleasant business of running a small political fiefdom. “Don’t fuck with me on this one,” he says at one point. “I catch you one more time doing it, you’re going to get your fucking balls cut off.” But his most telling statement was a boast: “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.”

In January, 2006, in a six-page letter to the state attorney general that became public, Christie said that he wouldn’t indict Norcross because the investigation had been mishandled. For years, Democrats have accused Christie of dropping the case in order to turn Norcross into a political ally. Norcross, who has never discussed the case in depth, insisted that Christie would have indicted him if he had the evidence. “Christie, as I’ve come to know him now, is somebody who if he has a head shot he will take it,” Norcross told me. “If I had done something illegal, he would’ve indicted me. No doubt about it in my mind.” He said he wished that Christie had fully cleared his name. “I was very disappointed that he did not pronounce my innocence,” he said. “There are those who have speculated that that would’ve placed him in a position he didn’t want to be. People would’ve said, ‘Oh, you did a favor for the guy.’ ”

Norcross and his bloc of South Jersey legislators helped Governor Christie secure the major legislative achievements of his first term, including a bill to curb the costs of pension and health-care benefits for unionized teachers and government workers, whom Christie often attacked in his first term. “In the past, when we had difficult times, people would look for scapegoats—Jews, Catholics, Irish—and Christie provided public workers, teachers, and the civil-service system,” Florio told me. “From a policy perspective, he was very commendable in being clear. Now, I might be inclined to say it’s overly simple in the clarity, but, at times such as that, that’s what people are looking for.”

The fight against public employees made Christie a national celebrity among conservatives outside the state, and fuelled talk of him as a future Presidential candidate. That reputation was solidified when, in October, 2010, Christie cancelled a new multibillion-dollar train tunnel—the Access to the Region’s Core project—between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan, partly financed by the Port Authority. It seemed to be one of the most politically deft moves of Christie’s first term. Christie used the savings from the cancelled project to fund New Jersey’s transportation trust fund, which helped him keep a campaign commitment not to raise gasoline taxes. “He injected fifty to sixty political patronage jobs, as well as strategic political people, into Port Authority, with the view that he can use this entity to drive capital projects for New Jersey and satisfy campaign promises,” a top official at the Port Authority told me. Conservatives cheered the move, but Democrats saw it as a sign that Christie was using the Port Authority as a political tool. John Wisniewski, the head of the transportation committee in the assembly, passed a resolution granting his committee subpoena power, a rarity in the New Jersey legislature, and opened an investigation.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gestures as he speaks to media and homeowners about the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy in Manahawkin, New Jersey January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS DISASTER PROFILE TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
January 16, 2014 – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gestures as he speaks to media and homeowners about the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy in Manahawkin, New Jersey. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES –

Christie’s popularity began to dip in 2012, and leading New Jersey Democrats, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Stephen Sweeney, the senate president, began preparing gubernatorial campaigns. Christie’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in October, caused his approval rating to soar into the seventies, and both Booker and Sweeney decided not to challenge him. “God was not going to defeat him,” Norcross told me. With those two Democrats out of the race, DiVincenzo enthusiastically endorsed Christie’s reëlection, against State Senator Barbara Buono. Other Democrats were shocked. “You can’t be coerced into supporting the candidate on your ticket all the time,” Bill Pascrell, a congressman from Paterson*, said. “But there is an unwritten rule: then keep your mouth shut if you can’t.”

DiVincenzo said that Christie’s priority was to win over Democrats so he could launch a Presidential campaign based on his bipartisan record in New Jersey. “That’s why he wanted my support,” DiVincenzo said. “My relationship with the Hispanic community and the black community. It wasn’t about winning New Jersey with Joe D.—it was about a national story.” On January 24, 2013, Christie’s top political advisers compiled a private list of twenty-one Democratic mayors whose endorsement they coveted. Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, was the second name on the list. “We should get the targets to ‘sign on dotted line,’ ” a top aide wrote in an e-mail.

Jersey City’s new Democratic mayor, Steven Fulop, who is thirty-seven and a former marine, quickly learned what could happen to Democrats who didn’t coöperate. After Fulop was elected, in May, 2013, Christie showered him with attention. Top Christie officials were scheduled to meet individually with Fulop on July 18th. “They were going to roll out the red carpet,” Fulop told me. He considered endorsing Christie, but decided not to, partly because he realized that, if he ran for governor in 2017, the endorsement could be used against him in a Democratic primary. Bill Baroni, Wildstein’s boss, and Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, called and cancelled his meeting with Fulop. Baroni gave no explanation and made no offer to reschedule it. Michele Brown and three other Christie officials made similar calls within twenty-four hours. “Yes, it’s political retribution,” Fulop told me. “And it’s amateur and immature. But if I saw any indication that they were penalizing the city on something, that would’ve been a different animal.” He added, “It’s a dick move, but it is what it is.”

Christie rarely campaigned for Republican legislative candidates, especially in the south. “He left those areas alone,” Philip Alagia, DiVincenzo’s chief of staff, said. “He was with Sweeney more in photographs than he was with any Republican senate candidate in the state.” On September 12th, as the lane closings in Fort Lee entered their fourth day, Christie unveiled his first general-election television ad of the campaign, which emphasized his bipartisan record. “They said it couldn’t be done. New Jersey was too broken, too partisan,” the ad said. “They never met Chris Christie. Working with both parties, he made tough decisions.”

FILE In this March 5, 2014 file photograph, New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-West Deptford, N.J., right, gestures as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talks with influential Democrat George E. Norcross III, at a groundbreaking ceremony in Camden, N.J., for the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy school that Norcross' family foundation will help fund. As Christie potentially prepares to run for president, he has been talking a lot about how he has worked with Democrats to help turn around Camden. Under Republican Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey has paid more than $2 billion in state tax breaks since 2014, often to corporations with notable political connections and at least one developer who already owed millions of dollars in unpaid state loans, an Associated Press review found. (AP Photo/Mel Evans,file)
March 5, 2014 – New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-West Deptford, N.J., right, gestures as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talks with George E. Norcross III, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Kipp Cooper Norcross Academy charter school in Camden, N.J.. As Christie potentially prepares to run for president, the Associated Press reports that Christie has rewarded political insiders with more than $2 billion in state tax breaks . (AP Photo/Mel Evans,file)

Norcross didn’t endorse Christie, but there seemed to be an informal non-compete agreement between his organization and the Governor: Christie mostly stayed away from Norcross’s candidates, and Norcross mostly stayed out of the gubernatorial race. Norcross, who appeared with Christie at a major event in Camden on October 7th, a month before Election Day, insisted that there was no formal agreement. Christie said later, “I had no deal with George Norcross on politics.” But DiVincenzo told me there was obviously a détente. “There’s no question there must have been deals that were done,” he said. Kean said, “The Governor wouldn’t campaign in certain districts, and I know he wouldn’t raise money in certain districts in South Jersey.”

Despite Christie’s sixty-per-cent victory, the legislature remained under Democratic control. The Democrats from the south retained the senate presidency under Sweeney, and the Democrats from the north retained the speakership of the assembly. But Norcross, along with others, pressed northern Democrats to remove Oliver as speaker and put Vincent Prieto, from Secaucus, in the position. Christie also wanted to make a change. Tom Kean, Jr., was the senate minority leader. Unlike Christie, Kean, who will likely run for governor in 2017, worked hard to try to win legislative seats for Republicans, especially in seven southern districts, where Norcross and Sweeney control eighteen out of twenty-one seats. Kean even ran a strong Republican candidate against Sweeney. “It was a nasty thing between Sweeney and Kean,” DiVincenzo said.

With Sweeney’s support, Christie attempted to engineer a coup against Kean for the minority leadership. Thomas Kean, Sr., told me, “The day after the election, a friend of mine called me and said, ‘You know there’s a guy calling around saying he’s got the Governor’s support running against your son.’ And I said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense, because I was with the Governor last night, and he didn’t say anything.’ ” Kean, Jr., asked his Republican colleagues to sign a pledge of support. Kean, Sr., called “one of the Governor’s top people,” who told him that Christie had nothing to do with the plot.
On Wednesday, the night before the crucial vote to elect leaders for the new session, Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, who had been a prosecutor under Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s office, asked Kean, Jr., to come to the Governor’s office the following morning. There he told him that Christie wanted him to step aside. “I don’t think I’m willing to step aside,” Kean replied. O’Dowd disappeared to talk to Christie. When he returned, he told Kean that the Governor didn’t want to see him. Kean, Sr., didn’t expect his son to prevail. “I know how tough Chris is on people, and if you cross him he never forgets,” he said. “I didn’t think people were going to have the courage to take on the Governor after his reëlection.” Nevertheless, Kean retained his role as senate minority leader. Sitting in his leadership office in the basement of the Capitol, in Trenton, he smiled as we discussed his victory over Christie, at that time the most popular politician in America. “I won the vote,” he said.

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In November 2014, Christie’s Chief of Staff stepped down to accept an executive position with -Cooper University Hospital. George E. Norcross, III, is the Chairman of Cooper Hospital.

In Trenton, Christie’s failed coup attempt played as a sign of his imperfections, which the bridge scandal, already percolating, revealed more fully. “It was a mistake,” DiVincenzo said. A Democrat familiar with the episode said, “Christie thought he could snap his fingers and tell the senate what to do. It was the single most devastating thing he did in his governorship.”

Tom Kean, Sr., felt betrayed by Christie’s move against his son. “I thought at some point the Governor would call me and say, ‘Hey, you gotta understand this, I had to do this for this reason or that reason.’ Whatever. But he never called me. The last time I talked to him was Election Night.”

The bridge scandal might never have been revealed if not for the sleuthing of Loretta Weinberg, a seventy-nine-year-old self-described nosy Jewish grandmother who is also a Democratic state senator from Teaneck, New Jersey, just northwest of Fort Lee. “I bungled into the Port Authority issue, just out of my curiosity,” she told me.

In September, Weinberg read an item in the Bergen Record about the traffic jam. A commuter told the paper, “Other than after the 9/11 attacks, I’ve never seen such a fiasco of delays at the inbound, upper-level part of the bridge.” A senior official at the Port Authority promised Weinberg that he would “get to the bottom of it,” but when she didn’t hear back she became suspicious. “My training comes from having raised children through their adolescent years,” she told me. “ ‘What do you mean you didn’t have a party? You weren’t even smart enough to put the beer cans in someone else’s back yard.’ That’s my investigatory background.”


New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, special investigative committee co-chairs, are leading the panel of bipartisan politicians probing Bridgegate. Photo by Jennifer Brown/New York Daily News

Weinberg was elected to the state assembly in 1992 and to the state senate in 2005. In 2009, after the Dwek bust, when Corzine needed to prove his own anti-corruption bona fides, he chose Weinberg as his running mate. During Christie’s first term, she had several high-profile fights with him. The most famous incident came in 2011, after she criticized the Governor for defending DiVincenzo, who, through a quirk in state law, was drawing a pension for a job he still held. Weinberg, who was seventy-six years old and had lost her retirement savings to Bernie Madoff’s scam, was also drawing a public pension while still in office. Christie told reporters, “Can you guys please take the bat out on her for once?” On Weinberg’s desk, when I visited her recently, was a letter to the Governor that her seven-year-old granddaughter had written. “This is Loretaz grand datr,” it said. “I want you to ¡Stop ¡Bulieg Eevripati! Cris Cristi.” I asked if Christie ever apologized to her. “What, are you kidding me?” Weinberg said.

Throughout the fall, as Christie moved toward reëlection, Weinberg began attending the Port Authority’s public meetings. On October 2nd, the day after an article about the incident appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Baroni texted Wildstein that Maria Comella, Christie’s spokesperson, “didn’t think much of the story. Said nobody paying attention.” But other Christie aides were alarmed by Weinberg’s persistence and nervously monitored her actions. On October 16th, after a Port Authority meeting that Weinberg attended, Regina Egea, a top Christie aide, e-mailed three other senior staffers. “Sen Weinberg attended bd meeting but did not speak,” she wrote, adding, “Questions ensued on ft lee but holding to script of ‘all under review.’ She held post interview in hallway.”

Weinberg took Wisniewski, the transportation-committee chair, to one of the Port Authority meetings, and he soon joined the ranks of the bridge conspiracy theorists. Wisniewski, a tall, ambitious fifty-one-year-old lawyer, is from Sayreville, a suburb in Middlesex County. Like Weinberg, he had often opposed the Democratic leadership’s strategy of coöperating with Christie, and pursued numerous investigations of his administration, including the inquiry into why Christie cancelled the tunnel project in 2010. Although Wisniewski had the power to subpoena documents, the probes didn’t go anywhere.

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State Sen. Dick Codey (a former acting governor of New Jersey) suggested on MSNBC yesterday that unnamed unelected Democratic powerbrokers with whom Chris Christie is close were involved in trying to cover up the governor’s “BridgeGate” scandal.

Weinberg’s interest in the bridge scandal grew, she tried to persuade the senate, controlled by Sweeney, to give her subpoena authority, but he wasn’t interested. Some Democrats warned that the Party bosses were trying to protect Christie. Weinberg turned to Wisniewski, who had three months left before his subpoena power expired. Wisniewski asked Baroni to appear before his committee on November 25th to explain the lane closures. In the days before, Baroni worked with Christie’s senior aides to edit remarks he had prepared. Egea homed in on a picture with a bird’s-eye view of the bridge’s toll plaza that Baroni wanted to use. “Is there a picture from rush hour showing congestion?” she wrote in the margin. “Ideally w/little back up @ F.L. and more at other tolls?” Six days later, testifying before the committee, Baroni defended the closures as part of an important traffic study to determine whether Fort Lee had more than its fair share of access lanes. He came prepared with statistics on how many New Jerseyans from the committee members’ districts were potentially inconvenienced. “Every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee,” he said. He bombastically interrupted the committee members’ questions and changed the subject to the issue of political favoritism for Fort Lee. “Forty-two of your neighbors in Sayreville, they’re waiting in longer lines,” he lectured Wisniewski. “Maybe that’s O.K. When I was in the senate, I wouldn’t have gone back to my constituents and said that was fair.”

Wisniewski applauded the show. “Bravo to the theatre and to the turning of the tables,” he said to Baroni. “You’d always been good at that while you were a senator. You are a masterful dancer.” When the performance was over, Kevin O’Toole, a Republican state senator who is close to Christie, released a statement. “Why was a sweetheart deal done that gave Fort Lee three lanes and a dedicated exit?” he asked. The Governor’s office, where top aides listened to Baroni’s testimony live-streamed to their computers, also sent word of its approval. Charles McKenna, Christie’s chief counsel, and one of the former prosecutors Christie brought with him from the U.S. Attorney’s office, was apparently pleased. Wildstein texted Baroni, “Charlie said you did GREAT.”

But Weinberg and Wisniewski suspected that Baroni was lying. “I was willing to reserve judgment about what was happening until about ten minutes into Bill Baroni’s testimony,” Wisniewski told me. “It was so over the top and combative.” Wisniewski subpoenaed Wildstein, Baroni, and other Port Authority officials, and he brought Patrick Foye, the executive director of the agency, before his committee. Foye was an appointee of Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, and in September, when he learned what Wildstein and Baroni had done, he stopped their scheme and reopened the Fort Lee lanes. On December 9th, he was asked by Wisniewski’s committee about Baroni’s alleged traffic study. Christie listened to Foye while eating lunch. “I’m not aware of any traffic study,” Foye said.


Bill Baroni was indicted in April 2015 on conspiracy charges related to the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures. (Tony Kurdzuk | The Star-Ledger)

The traffic study turned out to be an elaborate cover story. “This guy just made this up,” Weinberg said. “They tried to make this into something that everybody else would get mad at.” She added, “The coverup wasn’t even good.”

In December, as the Christie administration’s story unravelled, the Governor publicly dismissed Weinberg and Wisniewski as being “obsessed” with the issue. “It just shows you they really have nothing to do,” he said on December 2nd. But privately Christie feared that the scandal was getting too close to him. On December 5th, Michael Drewniak, his press secretary, told Christie that he had had dinner with Wildstein the previous evening. He said Wildstein had said that, on September 11th, the third day of the traffic jam, he had told Christie about the traffic issue when the two men were together at a 9/11 anniversary event. Christie told Drewniak that Wildstein and Baroni “had to go,” and the following day he forced them to resign. Christie personally edited a press statement about Wildstein’s resignation, adding language to “thank him for his service to the people of New Jersey and the region.” It still seemed as if it might all go away. “You are a great friend and this too shall pass,” Drewniak texted Wildstein on December 8th.


Incoming NJ Assembly speaker,  Vincent Prieto, threatened to shut down the subpoena power of panel in GWB scandal

Despite the gathering momentum of the scandal, Vincent Prieto, the new Democratic speaker of the assembly, showed little interest in renewing Wisniewski’s subpoena authority. “We have a new speaker who wants to earn his credentials,” a Democratic legislator told me. “There was a long time there when we weren’t sure they were going to renew subpoena power.” Wisniewski knew that unless he found something explosive his investigation would be over.

In the late afternoon of December 23rd, the servers at the Office of Legislative Services, in Trenton, became overloaded as a cache of e-mails with enormous PDFs arrived. Wisniewski learned that thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents from Wildstein and Baroni had arrived. On December 26th, after Wisniewski’s family had gone to bed, he retreated to his home office and trudged through the unwieldy PDFs. He had been fruitlessly investigating Christie’s politicization of the Port Authority for four years, and he assumed there would be little of value in the new documents. “My expectation was, I’m going to go through these and there’s going to be a lot of stuff in here that’s just totally pointless,” he said. It was getting late, and he was close to giving up for the night.

Then an e-mail—one that could possibly ruin Christie’s political career—appeared on his screen. At first, Wisniewski said, he thought, “I’m not seeing this right. It just doesn’t make sense.” He started Googling the names. The e-mail was from Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, to Wildstein. The time stamp said it was sent at 7:34 A.M., on August 13, 2013.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.


In April 2015, Former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, pled guilty to conspiracy, alleging he had conspired with former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director William Baroni and Gov. Chris Christie’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly to “punish” Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election bid. Kelly denies the allegations.

Christie has responded to the scandal by distancing himself from the aides who knew about the lane closures and by arguing that the incident was an aberration. After Wisniewski uncovered the evidence that the bridge plot started in Christie’s office—with someone he has described as “one of my closest aides”—Christie fired Kelly and cut ties to Bill Stepien, his campaign manager and a senior political adviser, who also seemed to know about the plot. He hired lawyers to investigate and write a report about the incident, and they pinned the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. Some of Christie’s aides regard Wildstein with particular venom, choosing to believe that he ran a rogue operation and then foisted a fake cover story on the Governor. “I could claw his eyes out, pour gasoline in the sockets and light him up,” Drewniak wrote to an unidentified recipient on January 14th. “He became deluded in his belief that he had constructed a legit traffic study.”

One problem with this theory is that Wildstein’s antics were common knowledge before the bridge scandal. “Wildstein was known by us, and we communicated to New Jersey all the time that he was a cancer,” the top Port Authority official said. “So this wasn’t a surprise that he did something bad. It was just a surprise about how bad and how manipulative it was.” He added, “There was a culture that created some of this stuff in the whole Christie world. He was running for reëlection, and he wanted the Christie-crats, to get as many endorsements as he could. There was that list of names, and the culture was to get it done.”

The greatest danger to Christie’s political future comes from Paul Fishman, his successor as U.S. Attorney, who is conducting a criminal investigation into the Fort Lee lane closures. The circle of people who could potentially coöperate with Fishman and offer damaging information about Christie keeps expanding. First, Wildstein, Baroni, Kelly, and Stepien were pushed out of Christie’s orbit. Then, after Christie’s report was released, David Samson, Christie’s close ally and the chairman of the Port Authority, resigned.


Christie’s successor as U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman, was responsible for handing down the indictments in Operation Bid Rig III.

If Christie escapes Fishman’s inquiry, as well as Weinberg and Wisniewski’s, he still must overcome the damage to his reputation. Thomas Kean, Sr., said he believed Christie when he said that he knew nothing about it. “Now, there’s another question, about whether he created an atmosphere in which some of those people thought they were doing his will because they were getting back at people,” he said. “That’s possible.” He added, “If you cross Christie, he’ll come back at you, even years later. So his people might have picked up that kind of thing.”

“What if he did know?” I asked.

“And he’s just telling a lie to everybody?” Kean said. “Well, then he’s finished. As governor, too.” ♦

*An earlier version of this article misspelled Paterson.

(*Embedded photos and captions not part of original article)

Read the original article at:

Charter School Networks and Shady Political Dealings: The Camden, N. J. Story

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Guest post by Julia Sass Rubin.

[Editor’s note: A clarification has been added at the end of this post.]

Last week, while many of us were busy making plans for the summer, something much more sinister was happening in the halls of the State Capital in Trenton, N. J..

At 11 p.m., on Tuesday, June 24th, legislation was discussed and voted on by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly Budget Committees, without all the legislators understanding what they were approving.  “We didn’t have the bills in advance,” complained one of the Senators, “I didn’t know what the hell the bills were.” This legislation was then quickly pushed through the full New Jersey Senate and Assembly.

The legislation revised a 2012 law known as Urban Hope in order to enable two charter chains – Mastery and Uncommon Schools – to claim a large share of Camden’s public education dollars.  The charters’ efforts had been imperiled by the grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ, which had sent a series of letters in May to New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe.  The letters detailed how the two charter chains and the Camden state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard were violating various aspects of the Urban Hope law in their efforts to open new renaissance charter schools in Camden next fall.  The violations included using temporary facilities instead of building new schools; failing to provide key information required by the application; and not giving Camden residents the opportunity to review and comment on their applications.

Rather than stopping their illegal activities in response to the letters, the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to “fix” the problem by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal. [Editor’s Note: See clarification at the end of this post.]

Mastery and Uncommon also retroactively provided some of the information that had been missing from their renaissance charter applications, although they still did not make this information available to Camden residents, as required by the Urban Hope law.  Instead, the information could only be obtained through an Open Public Records (OPRA) request.

The public education advocacy group Education Law Center filed such a request and discovered that the Mastery charter network planned to create 6 renaissance charter schools in Camden, which could enroll up to 4,654 students. The Uncommon Schools charter network planned to create an additional four renaissance charter schools, which could enroll up to 2,260 students. A third renaissance charter, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, had been previously approved to build 4 schools that could enroll up to 2,800 students.  This could bring the total enrollment in KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon renaissance charter schools to almost 10,000 students by 2019.  At that level, the three renaissance charter schools would represent a significant majority of the 14,000 students currently enrolled in Camden’s public and traditional charter schools.

As part of last week’s revisions to the Urban Hope Law, legislators also added an extra year to the program’s duration, so that a fourth renaissance charter chain – the maximum allowed by the program – could be rushed through the application process and opened by the fall of 2015.  In total, the four  renaissance charter school chains could result in the complete destruction of Camden’s public schools.

The negative fiscal impact of the renaissance charter program is already being felt on the Camden District’s public schools.  Hundreds of teachers and staff members were fired this spring because of projected budget shortfalls caused by payments the district has to make to renaissance and regular charter schools.  Over the next few years, Camden parents are likely to see many more public school teachers laid off and extensive school reorganizations and closings as the privately-managed renaissance charters open more and more schools, aggressively competing for the public school dollars.

Camden parents already lament the constant harassment by those charter chains, whose representatives approach them at every venue, come to their homes, and even try to recruit their children on school playgrounds. One Camden father recounted to me that he had repeatedly told the paid renaissance charter recruiters who came to his house that he did not want to send his child to their charter school, only to have them return the next morning and resume their recruitment efforts.

The charter chains also send marketing emails and letters to parents’ homes.  Sometimes, this has been done with the assistance and endorsement of the state-appointed Camden District Superintendent, who has mailed the charter chains’ recruitment materials to parents along with District correspondence.  But parents also report receiving personally-addressed mail sent directly by the charter chains.  A Camden mother told me that she called the Mastery charter chain’s offices in Philadelphia after receiving such a personally-addressed recruitment letter from them and spoke with a woman who asked for her name and the names of her children and then found their address on a list in front of her.  Based on such experiences, Camden parents are convinced that the Camden School District’s state-appointed superintendent is giving their children’s personal information to the charter chains in order to facilitate the chains’ enrollment growth.

Rouhanifard, the Camden superintendent, is undeniably allied with the charter chains.  He was instrumental in recruiting Mastery and Uncommon to apply for renaissance  charter status and he preliminarily approved those chains to open schools in Camden in September.

Camden parents understand that the superintendent works for the governor rather than for them.  They also know that they cannot expect their political representatives to protect their public schools.  The District has no elected Board of Education and even the appointed Board that served prior to the 2013 state takeover of the District has been replaced by individuals willing to rubber stamp the Christie Administration’s actions.  Camden’s political establishment, at both the local and state levels, is closely aligned with the South Jersey political machine of George Norcross, who was the primary force behind the creation of the Urban Hope program and whose name graces one of the renaissance charter schools.  And Norcross is a close ally of the Governor.

In contrast to the corporate education reformers’ mantra of greater parental choice, many Camden parents feel that they have no real choices.  Not only are they barraged by the aggressive and relentless recruitment efforts of the charter chains, they also are concerned about the impact on their children of having to be transferred multiple times as their local public schools are sequentially closed due to the expansion of renaissance charters.

Many parents – and Camden public school administrators – also believe that a complete charter takeover of the district is inevitable and beyond their control.  There is even a publicly-availableblueprint that details the Christie Administration’s intentions to convert Camden into a New Orleans style all-charter district that includes a few remaining public schools to educate the children too challenging for the charter chains to take on – children with significant special needs; children who are not English proficient; and children whose families are too economically or emotionally distressed to meet the charter networks’ parental-involvement requirements.  To minimize the uncertainty that they see ahead for the district and for their families, some parents have decided to move their children to a charter school now to avoid subjecting them to multiple possible future transfers.

But there are Camden parents who are mobilizing against the destruction of their public schools.  They reject the Christie Administration’s mantra that their public schools are all failures because their personal experiences show that to be a lie.  And they do not want to give up on public schools that accept every child rather than weeding out those who do not score well on standardized tests or who are more challenging to educate.

These parents express shock at the Mastery charter chain’s reported practice of having children carry a “demerit card” on a lanyard around their necks, with demerits issued for such minoroffenses as students having their shirts untucked or chewing gum, and with eight demerits leading to a detention.

They do not want their children to attend a charter school that touts its 100 percent  graduation rate while only half of the children who start in 5th grade manage to make it to 12th grade (and only 40 percent of the students who are Black and male), as is the case for the UncommonSchools charter chain.

Parents also are increasingly aware of what has happened in Detroit and New Orleans and even parts of Washington D.C.:  Once the local public schools are gone, there is no way to get them back.  Consequently, the children who do not conform to the “no excuses” charter models end up with no place to turn.

Two and a half years ago, when the Urban Hope legislation that created the renaissance charter program was first introduced and rushed through the New Jersey Legislature, in the waning hours of a legislative session, it was not sold as a way of privatizing Camden’s public schools.  Instead, Senator Donald Norcross, the bill’s primary Senate sponsor and George Norcross’s brother, argued that the legislation was urgently needed because Governor Christie had frozen the work of the State’s Schools Development Authority, which had been  tasked with building and renovating schools in 31 of New Jersey’s highest-poverty school districts.  That is the reason that the legislation authorized renaissance charter schools to be funded at 95 percent of their home school district’s average per pupil expenditure levels vs. 90 percent   for regular charters – to give the renaissance charters the financial resources to build those critically needed new schools.

However, revisions to the law that were snuck through the New Jersey legislature last week gave the renaissance charters the option of renovating existing facilities rather than having to build new schools, upending the entire premise for the renaissance charter program. Now, the renaissance charters will receive more of the taxpayers’ dollars for doing exactly what most existing charter schools already do – renovating an existing facility.

For all the efforts by the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains to characterize their work as being driven by what is best for the children, the Camden story suggests that their true motivation is a relentless push for greater market share and a willingness to abuse power, and even to break the law, in order to accomplish that objective.

Clarification: This post characterizes some of the Renaissance schools’ activities  as “illegal” with respect to the original 2012 Urban Hope law. However, neither the charter-management organizations in question nor the Camden school district has in any way been found to be out of compliance with the law or its supporting regulations. The groups’ applications were approved by the state on Monday, July 7.  

Julia Sass Rubin is an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and a visiting associate professor of public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. She is researching the community response to public education privatization efforts in Camden and Newark. Dr. Rubin also is one of the founding members of the grassroots, pro-public education group Save Our Schools NJ.

Christie’s chief of staff headed to Cooper Hospital Job

Gov. Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, will step down this month to work for Cooper University Hospital in Camden, nearly a year after the governor named O’Dowd his pick for attorney general.

O’Dowd, whose selection as attorney general never moved forward after controversy arose over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, will serve as senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper, where he will focus on business development, Christie officials said. He will start at Cooper in January.

In a telephone interview, Christie said O’Dowd told him two or three weeks ago he had received the job offer from Cooper and was thinking about it.

“Kevin and I both decided this was the next best step for his future,” Christie said. “He served me extraordinarily well for 11 years. I don’t think I can ask a whole lot more out of somebody.”

O’Dowd, a former federal prosecutor, also worked for Christie while the future governor was U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

“It was an honor and a privilege to serve the people of the State of New Jersey for the last five years,” O’Dowd said in a statement. “While I will miss interacting with my colleagues in the executive and legislative branches, I am very much looking forward to joining the Cooper team and beginning the next phase of my career.”

O’Dowd’s wife, Mary, serves as commissioner of the state Department of Health.

Christie said the prospect that his chief of staff would face questions about the bridge scandal during a confirmation process before a Democratic-controlled Senate “didn’t play a role in this at all.” He noted that O’Dowd had already faced hours of questions about the matter from a legislative committee.

Christie, a Republican, has sought to move past the bridge scandal as he considers running for president in 2016.

O’Dowd testified before the committee in June that he had played no role in the September 2013 lane closures, which jammed traffic in Fort Lee. Lawmakers questioned why O’Dowd hadn’t asked more questions about the controversy, which erupted in January after documents revealed that a now-fired Christie aide, Bridget Kelly, had sent an e-mail calling for “traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

O’Dowd, who supervised Kelly, was never directly implicated in the controversy.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he approached O’Dowd around the time of his testimony to ask whether he wanted to be attorney general.

“I said, ‘Kevin, what are you going to do?’ ” Sweeney said. “He said, ‘Steve, I just want to move on.’ ”

Sweeney added, “If Kevin wanted to be attorney general, he would be the attorney general right now. He had the votes to get passed. I was extremely supportive and would have testified in favor of him.”

A confirmation hearing “wouldn’t have been horribly contentious,” Sweeney said, noting that O’Dowd was well-respected in the Legislature and had already testified before the investigative committee.

Sweeney described O’Dowd’s departure as an end of an era and added, “I trust him with my life.”

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) praised O’Dowd as “a person of compromise” who would be “sorely missed.”

Over the summer, Christie publicly supported O’Dowd for attorney general but said O’Dowd needed to determine what he wanted to do.

At Cooper, O’Dowd’s focus will include the MD Anderson Cooper cancer partnership and the AmeriHealth New Jersey relationship, Christie officials said. He will also oversee marketing, human resources, compliance oversight, and corporate real estate development.

Adrienne Kirby, Cooper’s chief executive officer and president, praised O’Dowd’s “proven track record of strong management, development and implementation of strategic plans, as well as improving organization performance and productivity.”

O’Dowd’s arrival will be the latest management shake-up at Cooper.

Kirby took over as CEO after her predecessor, John Sheridan, and his wife, Joyce, died Sept. 28 in a mysterious house fire. The case remains under investigation.

Cooper spokeswoman Lori Shaffer said O’Dowd’s hiring was unrelated to Sheridan’s death.

Cooper does not disclose employee salaries, she said. O’Dowd made $141,000 as Christie’s chief of staff.

In the interview, Christie said he never spoke with George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper’s board of trustees and South Jersey Democratic leader, about O’Dowd’s move.

“Obviously, Kevin has had a relationship with a number of folks in South Jersey,” including Norcross, Sweeney, and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D., Camden), Christie said.

Revenue at Cooper University Health Care will surpass $1 billion this year, and O’Dowd is the “perfect choice” to manage its growth, Norcross said in a statement.

Christie said he would consider making another nomination for attorney general, “now that Kevin has taken himself out of the running.” John Hoffman has served as acting attorney general since June 2013, when then-Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Regina Egea, director of the authorities unit, will replace O’Dowd as chief of staff at the end of the month.

O’Dowd, 42, who lives in Princeton, has been Christie’s chief of staff since January 2012. He previously served as deputy chief counsel to Christie, starting in 2010.

O’Dowd worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey from 2003 to 2010, including as chief of the office’s Securities and Healthcare Fraud Unit. He also served as chair of the office’s Healthcare Fraud Task Force. He twice received the integrity award from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

He was educated at Catholic University of America and St. John’s University School of Law.



Camden superintendent announces 241 layoffs at city schools


Jason Laday | South Jersey Times

By Jason Laday | South Jersey Times
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on May 12, 2014 at 8:18 PM, updated May 13, 2014 at 6:20 AM

Camden residents gather on May 12, 2014 ahead of a special meeting of the school board in which Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced plans to lay off educators and other staff within the school district. (Staff Photo by Jason Laday.)

CAMDEN — City education officials on Monday announced 241 layoffs across the district’s 26 schools, including 206 teachers.

Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard approved the layoffs during a special meeting of the school board Monday evening, which was marked by continuous, angry outbursts and comments made by members of the public. They included members of the Camden Education Association (CEA), parents and other residents.

The crowd reserved particular vitriol for the state-appointed superintendent, with shouts of “Go back to New York” and “You sold us out to the governor” heard throughout the beginning of the meetings.

“You work for us, not the other way around – we tell you what to do,” shouted Eulisis Delgado from his seat in the auditorium at H.B. Wilson Family School. Later, he produced a bullhorn and addressed that board and superintendent.

“You sold us out to the governor, that 800-pound gorilla,” he said.

Following an hour-long executive session of the school board, Rouhanifard attempted to address the crowd in advance of a presentation detailing the layoff plan.

However, regular outbursts from many residents, as well as a brief chant of “Whose school? Our school,” caused the superintendent to abandon the attempt in favor of moving directly to the public comment part of the agenda.

“Tonight is hard,” said Rouhanifard, prompting the audience to respond in shouts and sighs of faux sympathy. “I have been responding to a number of teachers about this, and you can shout back at me – nothing is stopping you, and I won’t stop you – but I want to say we went about this process in a way that reflects the importance of this decision.

“I want to make it immensely clear that there are many people who will lose their job (in this plan) who care deeply about their students – this is not an indictment of them,” he added. “And while I know that this may seem to contradict with what we’re doing here today, we care deeply about these teachers.”

Teachers who spoke out Monday against the layoffs, criticized the district for issuing “pink slips” during the week of the NJASK standardized tests. They also questioned the criteria used by the district in selecting which teachers are to be laid off.

According to Rouhanifard, the layoff plan follows state law and seniority requirements in the collective bargaining agreement with the CEA.

Robert Farmer, a leader in the CEA, called the layoffs the “first step” in converting more students over to charter schools at the expense of public schools.

“We will sit down with the superintendent and board in order to lessen the impact on schools employees,” he said.

The 241 layoffs made official Monday evening follows the termination of 94 central administration employees late last month.

The Camden school district began the most recent budget process with a $75 million deficit, including a $42 million operating budget shortfall. According to Rouhanifard, non-personnel cuts and the use of surplus funds have helped fill all but $28 million of that gap. However, the superintendent that remaining gap will have to be reconciled with the elimination of 575 positions.

The budget he proposed in April included the elimination of 575 positions, many of them vacant. In all, 335 central office and school employees have been laid off.

In addition to teachers, the layoffs will hit guidance counselors, nurses and other staff.

However, there are 10 positions that managed to escape the school-based layoffs. According to Lowe, those positions did not suffer any personnel cuts.

They include the district’s athletic directors, attendance and dropout prevention officers, crisis counselors and social workers, custodians, JROTC and JAG team members, psychologists, school-based youth service team members, school safety officers, special education teachers and speech therapists.

The plan also calls for one or more art teacher, guidance counselor, librarian, music teacher and nurse per school.

“So, people are going to say we cut guidance counselors, and we did, but those services will still be provided at every school,” said Lowe. “We’re reducing the total number, but every school will have at least one – Woodrow Wilson will have six, and Camden High School will have five.”

The superintendent’s plan increases the number of community school coordinators and pre-K teachers.

Camden students walk out to protest layoffs

When cellphones flashed “noon” in Ziaira Williams’ history class, students shifted in their seats, exchanged glances, and then filed out into a hallway of purple and gold, launching a two-hour protest of Camden City School District layoffs.

Williams’ history teacher received a layoff notice Monday and said goodbye to his exiting pupils with silent pats on the back and nods of appreciation, Williams said.

“They’re glad we’re doing this. They said, ‘Go ahead,’ and honestly, I don’t care if I get in trouble – I want my teachers back,” the 17-year-old junior said.

Hundreds more would join the two-mile march from Camden High to the Board of Education building downtown Wednesday afternoon, including students from Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, Brimm Medical Arts High School, and Woodrow Wilson High School, many carrying signs and chanting, “Save our teachers!”

The walkout came in response to the district’s announcement Monday that it would lay off 272 people, 206 of them teachers, to bridge a $75 million revenue gap. Samir Nichols, a senior at Creative Arts and the school’s valedictorian, said he organized the rally.

The protest grew so large that police blocked off Haddon Avenue and Cooper Street. It apparently prompted NJ Transit to suspend for about an hour service on the RiverLine between the Walter Rand Transportation Center and the waterfront.

Don’t suspend

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said he would encourage principals not to suspend students for the day’s protest. “We respect their right to peacefully protest,” he said.

“Students have an important voice, and students care about their teachers – we care about their teachers. What we care about, also, is continuing the dialogue with students.”

On the route downtown, students sat on the roofs and hoods of cars rolling alongside the pack, which filled the two-lane roadways. Students in the marching band brought along their instruments to play Camden High’s fight song.

“We feel like our teachers are being disrespected,” said Dejon Sullivan, 18, student body president of Camden High and the student representative for the school board who attends monthly meetings.

“It’s disgusting to me. I believe the education is not the greatest here, but we’re trying to progress. Our teachers have a lot to do with that progress. Camden High is my home, no matter how many fights we have, no matter what. It’s my home, and these teachers treat me like I get treated at home.”

Former Camden school board member Sara Davis watched from her porch as the students marched by.

Davis disagreed with many of the changes state-appointed superintendent Rouhanifard was bringing to the district, including two “Renaissance” schools, which will open in the fall, pending state approval.

“I’m glad to see the kids are interested in what’s happening. Hopefully it will have an effect, but the bottom line is, more people should be speaking on their behalf,” she said.

She said the last time Camden students staged a walkout was in the late 1960s.

As the crowd walked passed Hatch Middle School, little heads peered out of windows, waving at the older students, below who beckoned them to join them outside.

Security guards smiled. “That’s right, keep our jobs,” one said.

The large revenue gap comes in a district that already has one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the state at $23,500. The student-to-teacher ratio is extremely low at 9-1. It will be 11-1 after the layoffs.

Officials cut $28 million in non-personnel costs, but also cut $29 million through the layoffs. Charter school transfer funds increased to $72 million for next year.

Most students said they were upset to find teachers suddenly without jobs. Because layoffs were based on seniority, evaluations, attendance, and other qualitative measures did not come into consideration.

Critics echoed

Some echoed school-choice critics, saying they didn’t want to see public schools get turned over to private operators. The leaders of both magnet high schools in Camden, Brimm, and Creative Arts, have said they are looking into charterizing, a process they would go through with the state, not the city.

Once outside the Board of Education building, students chanted from the steps as employees peeked out from office windows.

Parents and community members from Save Our Schools joined in the protest, at times appearing to run it. Ronsha Dickerson stood at the top of the steps and yelled out to students, “They’re laying off all your teachers, they’re closing your schools.” She called for teachers to strike and make a trip to Trenton to see the governor next week.

Up on the seventh floor of the administration building, Rouhanifard heard the chants and decided to face the large crowd.

“We’re not closing any schools, no schools are closing, we’ve been saying that for the past three months,” he yelled over the crowd. “We have a budget problem; we’re trying to manage it as best we can. We’ve cut other areas, too. This is a really hard time for everybody – for you, for your teachers.”

Meet representatives

Rouhanifard said he would meet with representatives from each school in the next two weeks. Some teachers could be reappointed in the fall, but fewer positions will be available than in previous years, he said. Before heading back into the building he told students:

“This dialogue is important and we’re going to continue to have the conversation, OK? That’s my commitment to you all.”

jterruso@phillynews.com856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

The Fight for the Future of Philadelphia’s Newspapers

Two years after they teamed up to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, power players George Norcross and Lewis Katz are at each other’s throats amidst firings, broken agreements, accusations of meddling and a protracted court fight. The inside story of a deal gone bad—and a feud that once again puts Philadelphia’s newspapers in peril


CRASH OF THE TITANS Clockwise from upper left, Lexie Norcross, Bob Hall, Bill Marimow, Nancy Phillips, Lewis Katz and George Norcross. Illustration by Britt Spencer

The meeting is lore, now: a story about a table for two that likely caused all South Jersey to wobble, ever so slightly, on its axis. The setting: Lamberti’s, aflutter with white tablecloths, occupied by the swellegant, an Italian seafood restaurant that serves as something of a home field for one of the men at the table, George Norcross III.

His name means different things to different people. Norcross earned millions in the insurance business, as executive chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew. He earned a scary reputation as the grinding stone of the Democratic Party in South Jersey, choosing who ran for what political office till he accumulated so much wealth and power that he became downright kingly.

Critics plaster Norcross with uncomplimentary terms, like “the Jersey Devil.” Admirers cite his more recent run of philanthropy, thanking him for building a better South Jersey. Friends and enemies often see his avalanche of thick white hair at Lamberti’s, in Cherry Hill, but the 57-year-old Norcross added this March 2012 stop to his calendar upon request, and reluctantly. He would maybe order a bowl of linguine or something.

Across from him sat Lewis Katz. His name also means different things to different people: An entrepreneur of many trades, Katz has worked, successfully, as an attorney, a political power broker to governors Jim Florio and Ed Rendell, a shareholder in the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets and Devils. But he made his biggest bundles of loot in comparatively schlubby businesses like parking lots and billboards. Tall and trim, with thinning hair he combs over a wide bald spot, Katz was the one who called and asked for this meeting.

Critics plaster Katz with invective, too, citing his vanity, his operatic ego, his success at leveraging political connections into cash. Admirers cite his philanthropy, including a recent $25 million gift to Temple University, and say that at 72, he is doing it right at the end, ladling wealth on good causes.

In what is likely the most accurate rendering of this encounter, Katz spoke first: “George,” he said, “I am not sure you’re comfortable with this deal. And I want you to be comfortable, George.”

Katz and Norcross were deep into their run at buying this city’s largest media organization: the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Norcross took in Katz’s opening salvo, the reason he had been called here to eat linguine for which he was not particularly hungry, and responded, “I’m comfortable. I’m moving ahead with this deal. But I think you’re uncomfortable. … ”

Was Katz trying to avoid the embarrassment of queering the deal by getting Norcross to bail first?

“George,” Katz told Norcross, “I just want to be sure you keep the passion I’ve seen in you throughout this deal. I don’t want to be that heavily involved, and I just want to be sure you’ll make it work.”

“I’ll make it work,” replied Norcross.

Less than two years later, the business pairing of Lewis Katz and George Norcross looms as a master class in how things fall apart. Neither man recognized that this moment at Lamberti’s forecast worrisome levels of indecision and mistrust. And so this is a story about how one brief dinner foreshadowed a dessert of legal briefs and lawyers’ fees.

The two men bought into a business deal for very different reasons: Katz for romance, nostalgia, love; Norcross for money, power, challenge. The different perspectives meant each man had a different view of the path ahead. And the result is Philadelphia’s highest-profile feud in years, featuring two men who can’t abide losing in a battle for a prize that relinquishes a little more luster with every lawsuit.

“None of this makes sense anymore,” says a local businessman who has known both men for decades. “Because it isn’t about business. It isn’t about money. It’s all ego now. It’s face.”

“DARLING,’ THE EMAIL BEGINS.The sender, Nancy Phillips; the recipient, Lewis Katz; the date, March 17, 2012, as Phillips goes on to elucidate a comprehensive strategy to turn around the Inquirer.

“Company needs a new publisher,” she writes.

“Paper needs a new editor.

“ needs a new leader.

Daily News has to be seriously evaluated with a view toward possible elimination or curtailment as in a move to the website with pared down staff and a paper product one day a week if at all.”

At the time, Phillips worked in the newsroom of the Inquirer as a reporter. And in roughly two weeks, George Norcross III would close a deal with her boyfriend, Lewis Katz, to acquire the desk, the chair, the whole shebang that was her workplace. In this sense, Phillips’s letter was business advice, a “honey do” list, and the fantasy of any working stiff made manifest.

In 10 paragraphs, Phillips advised Katz to fire or demote and replace six people: her boss, editor Stan Wischnowski; publisher Greg Osberg; chief Wendy Warren; and the COO, the CFO, and the head of the advertising department. She also alerted Katz to Mark Block, “the lovely PR guy,” because she’d just noticed he held a VP title and probably made too much dough. “Maybe he plays a larger role that I don’t understand,” she wrote.

Of all the people in this story, Phillips, 50, might be the most complicated. For years she has swept into the newsroom each Monday, a big bunch of fresh-cut flowers clutched before her. She speaks in stately, almost Victorian cadences, coming off like Mary Poppins. As her colleagues faced a never-ending stream of furloughs, buyouts, layoffs and pay cuts, her Twitter stream read like an ongoing accounting of relative wealth and privilege. (“Am I the only one who finds creme fraiche evocative of caviar? Even in the absence of that glorious pairing, it reminds me + transports me.”)

But for all her blue-blooded posturing, Phillips has logged 30 years of blue-collar effort, slogging across the grittiest terrain, tugging at the most tangled secrets, to get the story. She obtained a hit man’s confession in the infamous murder of rabbi Fred Neulander’s wife. She wrote the first story accusing venerable Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin of child molestation. And today, in her role as city editor, she is equally well-regarded as both skillful and a good boss.

But she happened to have that rich, politically connected boyfriend. For years, the relationship between Katz and Phillips, who met in the early 80s, was the Inquirer newsroom’s open secret. Katz never divorced his wife, Margie, for years appearing beside her at family functions. (Margie Katz passed away in late December.) But many years ago, he and Phillips moved into a condominium overlooking Rittenhouse Square.

Katz wouldn’t be interviewed for this story. (Through his spokesman, Jay Devine, he denies the specific accounting of his dinner at Lamberti’s with Norcross but doesn’t provide any details.) However, a few dozen interviews and a torrent of emails leaked to media all over town tell the story well enough. Katz entered the newspaper bidding in early 2012 after receiving a call from Ed Rendell, who knew that the company—which had been bought out of bankruptcy by several hedge funds and banks in 2010—was again for sale. For years, Rendell and Katz enjoyed a close partnership: Katz helped fund Rendell’s political runs while making a mint off those parking garages and billboards.

Katz expressed interest in the papers and looked around for partners. Meanwhile, Rendell looped in cable mogul H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest. The other investors, including Liberty Property Trust CEO Bill Hankowsky, insurance executive Joe Buckelew and tech
CEO Kris Singh, all arrived via George Norcross—who had started exploring a bid to buy the company a few months earlier, after talking to Greg Osberg and John Angelo of Angelo, Gordon, one of the hedge funds that owned the papers.

There were questions, before the deal was even finalized, about men with such deep political connections running the region’s largest, most powerful media organization. In press coverage at the time, the new owners declared that they bought the company out of a sense of civic duty. But people close to the process say the owners talked, a lot, about making money. The papers and website had dropped in price from more than $515 million when former adman Brian Tierney bought them in 2006 to a little more than $55 million when Katz and Norcross allied to buy them.

But there are public reasons and private ones, and Katz likely had many motivations.

A Camden native, he was raised by his mother after his father died. He graduated first in his class from Dickinson School of Law, and spent time interning for Drew Pearson, the syndicated newspaper columnist and NBC radio personality. The relationship meant a lot to Katz, who asked Pearson to serve as the best man at his wedding and later named his only son after the newsman. Owning the Inquirer, in this context, likely appealed to a sense of nostalgia.

Of course, Katz must also have been motivated by Phillips, and people who know him say this personal tie certainly “added value” to the transaction. Even as Katz told Norcross he didn’t want to be involved in day-to-day operations, he started a major move without his new partner’s knowledge, and with Phillips by his side.

AT FIRST GLANCE, if there is a hero in this story, it would seem to be Bill Marimow.

The 66-year-old Marimow is a legend in modern American journalism, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes as a young reporter at the Inquirer and a symbol of the paper’s greatest days in the ’80s and ’90s. He left for the Baltimore Sun (where he eventually became editor), then became vice president for news at NPR. But in 2006 he returned for his dream job, serving as editor in chief of the Inquirer under the doomed ownership of Tierney. Marimow led the paper for four years, till the hedge funds took over. Then the new publisher, Greg Osberg, citing Marimow’s lack of expertise—and perhaps interest—in digital journalism, demoted him back to investigative reporting.

The ending hurt. But Marimow moved on, engaging in his second-best love, teaching, at Arizona State University. It was in Arizona, in early February of 2012, that he received a visit from Lewis Katz, who wanted to talk about the newspaper industry. The two men were friendly acquaintances, having dined together on couples’ dates with Phillips and Marimow’s wife. At the time of the Arizona visit, Katz seemed like a businessman prospecting a new venture. More discussions followed. And then, maybe six weeks after Katz’s initial visit, Phillips and Marimow started working out, by email, the terms of a deal for Marimow to return, including salary, autonomy, and the ability to hire two or three key editors.

For Phillips, the conversation must have been filled with promise. When Marimow became New Jersey editor in the late ’80s, he inherited Phillips, who’d been a correspondent in the bureau since 1985. He had mentored her, saw to it, through legendary editor Gene Roberts, that she was hired on full-time. Now she sat in a position to bring him back so he could end his career the right way, in the city where he was born.

What Marimow means to Philadelphia is difficult to quantify. But longtime political operative Tom Massaro tells a story that gives a sense of his importance: In the early ’80s, Massaro arrived to run the housing department for then-mayor Bill Green and conferred with some of the city’s leading African-Americans.

“I need to know how a young white guy can gain the support of the people in the neighborhoods, who are mostly black,” Massaro said. “If I’m going to do any good, I’m going to need their help and their trust.”

“Talk to Bill Marimow,” they told him.

Massaro, new to town, could only ask: “Who’s Bill Marimow?”

Congressman William Gray answered: “Every day,” he said, “Bill Marimow is the guy who keeps hundreds of black boots out of thousands of black asses.”

Marimow, himself a young white guy, had gained the trust of dozens and dozens of neighborhood sources by exposing a litany of civil rights abuses by the city police, from beatings to dogs loosed on innocent citizens. He shook the city’s bones, dropped a dose of justice into its DNA, and delivered a master class on doing journalism in the process. “Bill would call his sources back,” says longtime Marimow colleague Vernon Loeb, now with the Houston Chronicle, “including the people we might consider his ‘targets,’ and say, ‘This is what I am planning to write,’ point by point, and give them another chance to respond.”

Marimow was tenacious about getting the truth out. “Sometimes,” says Loeb, “if he didn’t have all the sourcing or information, he would encourage sources to come forward or just make his point by writing a story in which he articulated the remaining questions.”

Writing about the 1985 MOVE tragedy, in which then-mayor Wilson Goode ordered a bomb dropped on a house occupied by black activists, Marimow questioned the official story that five of the 11 victims actually emerged from the fiery house only to retreat back inside, of their own accord, to die.

“If [the officers] are accurate in saying that either four or five people escaped from the MOVE house,” wrote Marimow, “their accounts raise questions about exactly what transpired in the back alley. … Did [Conrad Africa] choose to retreat into the flaming garage, where he died in the fire? If not, how did his body end up back in the house?”

The reputation Marimow forged, for toughness and integrity, gave him a unique allure in later years, particularly to owners with entrenched political and business interests. His old boss, Brian Tierney, saw him that way, even after leaving the papers. “Bringing [Marimow] on board will immediately and powerfully answer the concerns of editorial independence and integrity,” he wrote to new owners in an email later leaked to the media. “It makes the issue go away.”

Katz, too, felt that Marimow’s innate ability to quell people’s suspicions just by being there was a primary part of his value. Hiring Marimow, he’d later say in court testimony, meant landing an editor who’d “remove the stigma” from his ownership group. For a guy who earned his reputation asking questions, being known as the man who eliminates them is an odd niche to occupy. But as the deal moved closer, Katz and Phillips arranged for Norcross to meet with them and Marimow at Rembrandt’s restaurant in Fairmount.

Norcross’s spokesman claims Norcross didn’t know that Katz was engaged in a search for a new editor in chief for the Inquireror that he was involved romantically in a long-term relationship with an Inquirer reporter—until a couple weeks before closing the deal. Katz’s spokesman says Norcross knew “of the search for an editor long before” the meeting at Rembrandt’s.

The stress of being responsible for managing the deal wore on Norcross: six partners, $55 million in play, hedge funds to be satisfied. Because the media already questioned the group’s fitness to own a media company, they were working on a pledge to assure their non-interference in editorial “either directly or indirectly.” They also needed to define their own corporate governance.

In the end, the new company, Interstate General Media, included in its decision-
making process a six-man board consisting of all of its investors. But major business decisions would require the approval of both participants in a two-member management committee: Katz and Norcross.

All of these pieces were still coming together as the foursome sat down at Rembrandt’s. Katz left after the introductions. But Norcross went ahead and stuck around for about an hour.

The image is compelling: George Norcross, one of the most investigated men in the region, sitting across from Bill Marimow, the legendary investigator. Norcross has done a lot to change his image in recent years, plowing time and effort into Camden, opening a new charter school and guiding an ongoing expansion of Cooper Hospital. But he remains the all-powerful political boss of South Jersey. And anyone who does business with Norcross would be advised to listen to the Palmyra tapes, a series of 13-year-old recordings, captured by law enforcement, in which he can be heard seeking political retribution on all who dare oppose him and popping off angry fucks like gunshots. Norcross faced no legal trouble from the investigation, but the tapes comprise an unalloyed look into his thinking at the time. They also suggest not just a willingness to fight, and hurt, but a thirst. And the most memorable part of Norcross’s conversation with Marimow that day at Rembrandt’s suggests he never lost the taste.

“Don’t try to be friends with me,” Norcross cautioned Marimow. “I don’t become friends with the people that I work with. The white hat isn’t me. I’m the black hat.”

THE NEW GROUP, already mired in complex relationships, got off to a difficult start. Marimow’s new tenure began that May. But beforehand, the then-editor, Stan Wischnowski, had to oversee coverage of the paper’s new owners. He planned to disclose Katz’s relationship with Phillips.

Citing fears that Katz’s wife was “frail,” Phillips wrote to Norcross in a March 31st email: “I can’t tell you how much I worry about the potential consequences of such a story. … I have tried to dissuade Stan from this, and I might yet succeed. But maybe not. If not, that may be too high a cost. Part of me wants to kill the whole deal over this. … ”

That line, suggesting that a reporter at the Inquirer had the power to kill his deal, must have been a knee-meets-groin moment for the usually all-powerful Norcross. But Phillips’s attempts to dissuade Wischnowski are even more interesting, journalistically.

In journalism, reporters are taught to reveal any potential conflicts of interest. Considering that Phillips’s role at the paper might ultimately influence Katz’s business decisions, and the degree to which her relationship with Katz might raise questions about the paper’s coverage, there really wasn’t any other choice for Wischnowski but to disclose. Furthermore, the new owners were taking a pledge not to do exactly what Phillips was doing—interfere in editorial. But she was undeterred.

“[T]he relationship poses no conflict for the newspaper,” she wrote to Norcross in another email that same day. “I have always stayed out of stories involving Lewis. Also argued that there was really no relevance to this, beyond gossip appeal.” But Wischnowski pressed on. “Katz and his wife, Marjorie, have two children,” read a disclosure in an April 3rd Inquirer story. “The couple have lived apart for many years. Katz is in a long-term relationship with Nancy Phillips, an award-winning Inquirer investigative reporter.”
The passage is strikingly restrained, even French, in its attitude toward what remains, technically, a long affair. But it was accurate.

The same could not be said for the announcement, that same week, that Marimow was returning to his editor’s post.

“Who shall I say hired me?” the new-again editor had asked Phillips when they were closing the deal.

She helped craft what she later called “the official version”—that Osberg happily hired Marimow back.

In reality, Greg Osberg demoted Bill Marimow in 2010 and recommended against rehiring him in 2013. So did then-chief operating officer Bob Hall, who told the new ownership group that Marimow had “problems” with women and minorities. Nonetheless, Osberg signed and sent Marimow a letter of employment. Osberg also issued quotes for a press release about how glad he was to have Marimow back in charge, just 18 months after he’d demoted him.

For anyone who even remotely followed happenings at the local paper, the official version was an unbelievable fiction. And Marimow waved in the general direction of the facts: “I think the local owners might have suggested it’d be great if I returned,” he said.

The official version served as a white lie, not unlike allowing fired employees to declare they resigned. Yet the tale remains unsavory: The new, politically connected ownership group, fresh from its vow not to interfere, brings in a peerlessly ethical editor to buff up its image, while fobbing off an at-best-incomplete story of how it all came to pass to the public, and even its own reporters.

As one person close to the formation of the ownership group told me: “The pledge always struck me as Lemon Pledge. Something to clean up the surface.”

RIGHT OUT OF the gate, the new ownership group divided. Norcross, a data hound, presented a thick stack of findings from a survey of current and former readers to advocate for major change. Katz, backing Marimow, argued for what amounted to a comparative status quo.

Norcross’s was the more clear-eyed, modern vision: Working with Hall (who replaced Osberg as publisher in mid-2012), he advocated a significant redesign of the print product; a complete overhaul of the company’s Web strategy; a reduction in editorial op-ed pages from two to one; and a renewed focus on local news by eliminating the jobs of five editors and replacing them with seven reporters.

The list isn’t perfect: Do readers really reject “op-ed columns” as a concept, or just the version the Inquirer had been producing? Will mere data-crunching ever deliver something truly innovative or visionary?

Still, the list, particularly in terms of a redesign, more local news, and an awareness of the digital product as preeminent, comports with the newspaper industry’s current direction. And the initiatives triggered a proxy war: Norcross pressed for change behind Bob Hall; Katz pushed back wherever Marimow (and presumably Phillips) required assistance.

Hall submitted a list of editors to be demoted or fired. But Marimow resisted, with Katz acting as his benefactor. In one email to Hall, Katz wrote that he was invoking his blocking rights to prevent the changes.

“Bob,” Marimow would say, “we need evolution, not revolution.”

As slogans go, an appeal to Darwinism is a bit of a drag. But Marimow contends he only used the “evolution” line to slow the redesign and avoid alienating subscribers with an unrecognizable paper. Of course, keeping readers at all is a tricky business. After decades of crushing losses in readership, the Inquirer has spiraled a further 25 percent in recent years, its subscriber base dropping from 350,000 in 2007 to roughly 258,000 now. But in whatever context Marimow meant the words, they seem to capture something of the man.

In person, Marimow is anachronistic, as slow-talking, literal and polite as 1955. But he can also be intimidating. “He’s got the Pulitzers,” says one staffer, a fan. “And if he hears you’re stuck on a story, it’s kind of like a software program has kicked in, and the computer is whirring to life, and some of what he says will be so basic. It’s stuff like, ‘I would get a notebook, and a pen’ and then somewhere in there will be some incredible nugget of good advice. But some people won’t think of the basic stuff as, you know, just some quirk of Bill’s. They’ll take it personally.”

Marimow isn’t, as Hall seemed to imply, racist or sexist. Lots of phone calls to staffers who worked with Marimow over the decades confirm that. He is merely, well, Bill Marimow—with a sense of his own accomplishments. And in some fundamental way, that sense of self-possession leaches into the staff around him—as if they all won Pulitzers, too. The paper isn’t selling? Advertisers are departing? Well, it can’t be the fault of the editorial department. “What we do is rock- solid,” one staff writer told me. “The problem is how we’re marketed and sold.”

The Inquirer staff is still big enough, at around 250 people, that generalizing about it is unwise. Still, as I called around the newsroom for this story, numerous staffers expressed the same idea: The Inquirer’s revenue problem is purely a function of the business side. And their self-satisfaction is only compounded by their fear of the man pushing change.

Take, for example, this: George Norcross III and the board gathered data that the Inquirer’s ownsubscribers are rarely able to recall the name of a single columnist.

Pffft! goes the response. So what? Norcross is a political hack. The same firm that does his political polling gathered reader data. Never mind that the same company also conducts polling for the Los Angeles Times. The subject shifts from any kind of meaningful self-reflection on how the Inquirer might be better to Norcross: Is he secretly eager to cut editorial pages and columns only because he nurses a grudge against the sections of the paper that, traditionally, dole out the most severe beatings to guys like him?

Norcross’s history and his outside pursuits demand we ask this sort of question. And so the largest media organization in town, its revenues so low it was thought to be losing $50,000 per day, immediately fell into a damaging stasis. The guy pushing for meaningful change, George Norcross, enjoyed no one’s trust. And the guy everyone trusted, Bill Marimow, presided over a newsroom that saw no need for change.

THE DAILY NEWSreadied a redesign of its print product in about six weeks. The evolutionists at the Inquirer took nine months.

By February 2013, Norcross, and Hall, grew increasingly frustrated with Marimow. And meetings among the new company’s owners got bizarre. Norcross kicked into boardroom-brawl mode: “Lewis,” he said at one point, “why do I even talk to you? Shouldn’t I just talk to Nancy?”

That talk incensed Katz. But on most occasions, he seemed bent on calming Norcross’s growing fury. “Hey,” Katz said once, standing up from the meeting table and spreading his arms wide. “C’mon. Hug me. Let’s be friends again.”

By last March, the entire ownership group discussed a complete overhaul of the management team. By July, still locked in a stalemate, Hall told the board he wanted to fire Marimow.

“You can’t,” Katz warned Hall, telling him he would invoke his blocking rights.

The operating agreement they’d formed, in which Norcross and Katz had to agree on all major business decisions, had come to serve as a tar pit, trapping the company. The pair had failed to create a tiebreaker system, believing a total sharing of power would force them to resolve conflicts. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine teenagers agreeing to run their fantasy football team by such unworkable rules. But Katz and Norcross succumbed to some tyranny of ego: “These are men who are used to getting their own way,” says one highly placed executive in town.

As time passed, the entire battle became hugely personal.

Hall even added Nancy Phillips to the list of staff members he wanted to fire. And Norcross’s daughter, Lexie, then a 25-year-old with no journalism experience, took on a supervisory role at, where her greenness shows up like a grass stain. In May 2013, when the site launched a regular column by Governor Tom Corbett, she responded to criticism by knocking the newspapers across the hall: “Considering that the Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day,” she said, “I think it’s actually equal, giving him a chance to speak.”

Unable to conceal her political genes, Lexie tweeted a link to an article in which her dad backed Cory Booker’s Senate run, with the message: “Go @corybooker go!”

The general tenor of’s original content also did her no favors, pushing the site further into vapid, celebrity-driven click bait. But whatever Lexie Norcross’s current merits and future potential, the two sides now had every reason to dig in for a corporate cage match. Katz sought to protect the interests of his girlfriend and the editor she idolized. Norcross needed to look out for the long-term interests of his daughter, who seemed to have found the career she wanted to pursue. Two of the region’s most powerful and politically connected residents didn’t have just money and ego at stake, but also skin, blood and love.

ON JANUARY 11, 2013, Chris Brennan of the Daily News filed a story titled, “8th and Market enters running as potential casino location.”

About midway through the story, Brennan wrote: “The Goldenberg Group owns 60 percent of that land. Lewis Katz, a managing partner of the company that owns the Daily News, the Inquirer, and, is a limited partner in Goldenberg but is not involved in the casino application.”

This is the sort of disclosure news organizations make so readers can know any conflicts of interest that might exist.

The Inquirer and Daily News have since published more than 20 stories that include the possibility of a casino being erected at the Goldenberg site. But Katz’s involvement was never mentioned again until columnist Karen Heller finally noted it in January 2014.

Were the papers seeking to tuck Katz out of sight? There is some evidence to suggest Katz might prefer it that way. In 2006, during a separate, earlier casino application process, Katz’s daughter, Melissa Silver, appeared on a casino license application. After questions were raised about Katz’s involvement in the project, he finally came forward—in 2010, four years into the process—as an applicant.

With the current casino project, publisher Bob Hall sent a group email to Katz and the other owners, asking them to divulge any ties they or their families had to possible casino groups or locations so the paper could disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

“I have no relationships,” Katz wrote back, “nor am I involved.”

Was this an oversight on Katz’s part? Katz’s spokesman, Jay Devine, provided the following statement: “[Lewis Katz] does not have any interest in the Goldenberg casino entity or the 8th & Market land. The land is owned by a trust for the benefit of Lewis Katz’s grandchildren, which is not controlled by Lewis Katz.”

Is Katz related to his grandkids?

In December, more questions were raised when Temple University decided to drop seven student athletic programs. The Inquirer’s first story, on December 7th, mentioned and quoted Katz, identifying him as “a member of the Temple board of trustees and chair of the board’s athletic committee,” and “a co-owner of the Inquirer” who “recently pledged to donate $25 million to the school.”

Katz chairs the committee that put forward the restructuring plan for the school’s athletics department, so he is integral to the story. As coverage evolved, however, he wasn’t mentioned by the Inquirer again—either in the sports section or in a follow-up piece that appeared in the local section.

There were complaints from some staffers, not on Team Marimow, that Katz sat in on a 10 a.m. news meeting. An obituary writer also complained when a funeral director sent over an obit and claimed that Katz had said it would be published. (The funeral director provided Katz’s cell-phone number as evidence of the owner’s involvement.) Katz, through his spokesman, Devine, “categorically denies any involvement in any editorial decision by an editor or journalist,” calling this story “absolutely false.”

True, Phillips had long recused herself from writing about any issues that might relate to her boyfriend. In 2013, when she was named city editor, she never edited stories that involved Katz. And when Temple shut down the sports, Phillips recused herself from edit meetings on the subject.

But reporters and editors in the Inquirer newsroom don’t seem to much care about these sorts of issues. Because they have the ownership group they have. And given Katz’s desire to please Phillips, and Phillips’s respect for Marimow, they’ll take that trio, gladly. As multiple staff members told me: “Just look at the alternative.”

IN JANUARY OF 2013, Norcross held a lunch meeting with Bill Marimow at the downtown Marriott. There, Norcross pushed the data about columns and editorial opinion pages across the table. The stats, which pollsters had presented three months earlier, suggested readers didn’t particularly like or follow the Inquirer’s op-eds or columnists.

For old Inquirer hands, whispering like POWs behind barbed wire, the meeting is evidence that Norcross, a political bully, sought to intimidate Marimow into making editorial changes, in violation of the pledge he took when he purchased the papers. (Norcross says he “doesn’t remember” ever handing Marimow the data.)

I also obtained an email from Bob Cauthorn, an Internet consultant, that was sent to Marimow. The consultant lists “directives” Cauthorn says he received from Norcross, who hired him, including one to oversee the redesign of the Inquirer’s website.

Norcross says he saw Cauthorn’s role as organizational and aesthetic, “overseeing design.” But editors typically oversee the work of art directors and Web designers—not the other way around.

The Big Fear is that Norcross will somehow leverage his Inquirer ownership to serve his political and business interests. Again, there is a small evidence trail to follow. I obtained a document from January 2013 involving in which management sought and received a legal opinion exploring whether giving columns to Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie would violate any “equal time” requirements (no, the lawyers said) or political contribution laws (likely yes).

Booker and Christie never got columns. But Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett did.

Norcross told me he never spoke to Corbett about the column. The Governor’s former spokesman, Kevin Harley, says Norcross approached Corbett about joining the New Voices program at when the pair met, for the first time, in January 2013 at the Academy of Music’s annual ball.

Harley says he subsequently met on behalf of the Governor with Lexie Norcross before any agreement was struck, and that no quid pro quo was ever raised or resulted.

Suspicions are likely to remain high, however, as long as Norcross is involved. Bill Graham, of the Graham Company insurance brokerage, says he is “rooting for Katz.” Graham says Norcross has tried to buy out his entire company in the past, and he “can only speculate that George, given his political interests, is not interested in investigative journalism, and that the paper, for him, is a way to help those political interests along.”

There is a sense here, of course, that Norcross can never win. His status as political strongman guarantees him constant scrutiny and conspiracy mongering. And in this way, his ownership of the paper guarantees that the Inquirer can never win—that to many in the region, if not the newsroom itself, its every edition will seem somehow suspect.

As I worked on this story, I was urged by multiple staff members at the Inquirer to look into specific allegations they raised about Norcross’s supposed bad behavior.

In March 2013, for example, Bob Hall complained to Bill Marimow about a story involving a possible conflict of interest for Judge Seamus McCaffery. Hall questioned whether the story should be played on page one. (In fact, the piece, by veteran reporter Craig McCoy, sparked an FBI investigation.)

Hall calls any claim that Norcross put him up to it “complete bullshit.” But the rumors are triggered by circumstance: McCaffery is a major figure in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, and Norcross is the boss of South Jersey’s Democratic Party; the beleaguered Inquirer staff needs no more evidence than this to start talking.

I also looked into a contract Norcross’s insurance agency, Conner Strong & Buckelew, got with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. To those on Team Marimow, the Turnpike deal catches Shady George in action, leveraging his new presence in Pennsylvania, his ownership of the Inquirer and Tom Corbett’s new column into a government contract. But none of the timing supports this theory. The contract was awarded in July 2012, six months before Corbett and Norcross ever met and 10 months before the Governor started his column. Besides that, Turnpike contracts are subject to a strong level of scrutiny.

Is Norcross seeking to undermine the paper’s investigative reporting, or divest it of the opinion pages that sometimes sway voters? The better question might be this: Would he even need to?

I started receiving tips from Inquirer staff members precisely because they weren’t going to pursue stories about Norcross themselves. All of the new owners took a pledge not to interfere. But they interfered the day they bought the company. What staffer is going to walk into the Inquirer newsroom and say, “Hey: Let’s investigate our owners!”?

George Norcross III now owns an empire that spans the insurance industry, hospitals, politics and publishing. And the lesson here is that he doesn’t actually have to intimidate anyone to be intimidating.

ON OCTOBER 7TH, Bob Hall’s secretary sent an email to Bill Marimow. Subject: “Catch Up With Bob.”

When Marimow arrived, Hall soon brought him up to speed—with a show-stopping sentence: “I’m terminating your employment,” he said.

“Have you talked to all the owners?” Marimow asked. “Did Lewis Katz support this?”

Hall, by this time, had a legal opinion declaring he could fire Marimow without the management committee’s approval. But Marimow knew about the operating agreement, left Hall’s office, and called Katz.

A TRIBE OF reporters gathered in Courtroom 630 in City Hall over the course of four days of testimony this fall, watching as an increasingly animated Lewis Katz, a plaintiff, kvetched and rubbed incessantly at the deep worry lines of his face.

Following Marimow’s firing, Katz and Gerry Lenfest brought suit against Norcross and the other owners. Katz’s courtroom antics made great theater. And during a long last-ditch effort to negotiate some resolution, he and his attorneys shuttled repeatedly from the courtroom to the judge’s chambers. Speaking loudly, Katz even declared, “I don’t want to go back there,” his wary eyes looking at the door to the judge’s office.

On the other side of the room, George Norcross looked comparatively giddy, like a guest at a cocktail party.

Katz tapped Dick Sprague to lead his legal team—the attorney of choice among the city’s most powerful citizens—and Sprague pursued the case on legal grounds. But Norcross’s attorneys waged a political campaign. They embarrassed Nancy Phillips, grilling her on what attorney Robert Heim called the “fabrication” she helped invent for who had hired Marimow in the first place. It was for “public relations,” Phillips offered.

“But this statement was a fabrication,” Heim tried again, forcing Phillips to offer a concession: “This is, as I explained, yes.”

Katz’s legal team asked for three things: the firing of Hall; the upholding of the company’s operating agreement, which calls for Katz and Norcross to agree on big business decisions, like firing the editor; and, finally, the reinstatement of Marimow.

The suit split the ownership group in two, with three owners joining Norcross while Lenfest sided with Katz. And for what, exactly? Lenfest and Katz thundered from the stand that firing Marimow would do irreparable harm to the Inquirer, but what kind of culture had Marimow really built if the whole place fell apart whenever he walked out the door? Besides, Marimow’s employment agreement only ran through April 2014, while Hall’s contract was due up in December 2013. Were these guys really fighting, this hard, over who would be able to keep his job for a few more months?

In the end, the judge put both men back in their jobs—reasoning that Hall still had a valid contract, but that the firing of Marimow violated Katz’s rights as co-manager.

The ruling set the stage for further legal proceedings: Katz has since petitioned the court to dissolve the company and make its properties available in a public auction. Norcross is arguing that the papers should be auctioned only among the current owners. Both men have vowed to bid in whatever auction occurs. And the newspapers themselves seemed strangely lost in all the tumult—stuck, without a full-time long-term publisher; lacking clarity on who will run the Inquirer newsroom; and without any will to experiment or innovate.

Still, the judge’s ruling did trigger movement of a kind.

Nancy Phillips disappeared from the office after Marimow’s firing. Upon his reinstatement, she arrived, as she always did on Mondays, fronted by an armful of fresh-cut flowers.

Later, the Newspaper Guild complained on behalf of a staffer, alleging that Phillips arranged her blossoms, then walked around the newsroom urging staff to stand and applaud when Marimow returned to his office. (Phillips vigorously denies this.) Given her status as a city editor and an owner’s longtime girlfriend, the guild’s complaint contended, this was like ordering employees to create a fake standing ovation. But the joke is that even if the applause erupted spontaneously, the scene could only represent an illusion: that Marimow could really be the answer when what the Inquirer needs, first, is an ownership group that raises fewer questions.


Newsroom Shaken by Norcross Campaign Solicitation

Spokesman says solicitation was an accident; reporters worry they’re being compromised.


This is what inevitably comes of having a political boss as a newspaper owner, perhaps: The newsrooms of the Inquirer and Daily News are again restless after some reporters received a campaign fund-raising letter from one of the paper’s co-owners, South Jersey political boss George Norcross.

Norcross’s spokesman, Daniel Fee, said the solicitation was inadvertent and wouldn’t happen again. Nonetheless, the Inquirer reports:

Newspaper Guild president Howard Gensler said the invitations on behalf of New Jersey State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a South Jersey congressional candidate, nevertheless raised concerns.

“The Newspaper Guild objects to the use of company e-mail and company mail delivery for any political purposes,” he said. “It puts unfair pressure on our members to get invited to a political fund-raiser by one of our owners.”

Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member and ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism organization, said that whether or not the invitations were sent intentionally, they could be perceived as a conflict for George Norcross, a prominent South Jersey Democratic leader.

“As a boss, you don’t ask your employees to contribute to a cause, because it could be seen as coercive,” she said. “It could also be seen as a not-so-subtle hint to reporters to skew their coverage.”

The hubub occurs, of course, as Norcross battles fellow co-owners Lewis Katz and Gerry Lenfest in court over the paper’s ownership going forward.