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All-Powerful, Never Elected

Norcross Wields Influence Statewide

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Aug. 22, 2007
CHERRY HILL — George E. Norcross III has never run for public office, but he holds more political power than any mayor, freeholder or lawmaker in South Jersey, observers say.

That’s because many elected officials in the region essentially answer to Norcross, a superboss in New Jersey politics and the unofficial leader of the powerful Camden County Democratic Party.

His influence has been felt throughout the state for more than a decade.

From multimillion-dollar development deals funded by taxpayer dollars to raising millions of dollars for legislative races, Norcross seems omnipresent on the political scene.

Party bosses like Norcross are insulated from the financial disclosure requirements lawmakers and even local officials have to make public each year.

As a result, a party boss’s conflicts of interest can’t be fully known, said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.

“There’s no way to hold that person accountable,” Reed said. “It’s like a privately held company, yet they have a tremendous amount of political influence.”

Norcross, 48, is a top executive at Commerce Bancorp Inc. of Cherry Hill, a trustee at}Cooper Health System in Camden and a multimillionaire.

Supporters call Norcross a potent advocate for South Jersey, who wrests millions of dollars in state aid for the region.

But critics say he is more powerful than some local governments.

They cite his influence with the McGreevey administration and Commerce Bank’s ability to win no-bid contracts to underwrite hundreds of millions of dollars in state bonds. They ask why a power broker known mostly for his fund-raising skills should have private access to the state’s top executive and be regularly consulted on major appointments from South Jersey.

And some, like Mark S. Lohbauer, say they’ve even lost jobs after crossing Norcross.

Lohbauer, 51, of Pennsauken was a top-level planner at the Schools Construction Corp., the state agency in charge of building schools in low-income districts, until he was summoned to the director’s office in October 2002 and was told he was out of a job.

“I like you. I want to keep you,” said Alfred T. McNeill, the agency’s CEO, according to Lohbauer’s account. “But they (the Governor’s Office) told me George Norcross wants you gone, and I don’t even know who he is.”

Lohbauer had run against the Norcross machine 11 years earlier, as a Republican freeholder candidate in Camden County.

“I had become a technical person,” Lohbauer said. “I knew that I worked at the pleasure of the governor. But was the work at the schools a political appointment? No.”

McNeill declined to comment. McGreevey spokesman Micah Rasmussen said the Governor’s Office does not make personnel decisions at the Schools Construction Corp.

Richard McGrath, a Norcross spokesman, said Norcross had no knowledge of the firing.

“It sounds like fodder from supermarket tabloids, along with Elvis sightings and spaceships,” he said.

A tough talker known for his explosive temper, Norcross declined to be interviewed for this article after Gannett New Jersey newspaper editors requested that his remarks be tape-recorded and entirely on the record.

Norcross is best known in political circles for raising millions of dollars from private companies and firms, many of whom do business with local governments. But in a recent statement, Norcross described himself as a reformer seeking a more equitable way to finance campaigns.

Norcross said there should be a ban on the pay-to-play, the legal practice in which elected officials reward campaign donors with no-bid government contracts, reinforced with “severe and lasting penalties.”

“Violators must be required to forfeit existing public contracts and must be barred from holding any future public contracts,” he said.

But some opponents, like Palmyra Mayor John J. Gural Jr. and the borough’s solicitor, Ted M. Rosenberg, both Democrats, said Norcross should be held to account.

Gural and Rosenberg have filed a federal civil racketeering lawsuit against Norcross and various other defendants. Rosenberg is a former Democratic Party chairman for Medford in Burlington County.

They contend Norcross and others conspired with a}Moorestown engineering firm, JCA Associates, in an effort to deny Rosenberg the solicitor’s job in Palmyra. Rosenberg fell out of favor because he had challenged another Democrat for leadership of the Burlington County organization, according to the suit.

Gural, who worked for JCA, refused to participate in the attempted ousting of Rosenberg as Palmyra’s solicitor after the internal dispute. Norcross denied the lawsuit allegations in court papers.

William Tambussi, a lawyer for Norcross, has called the charges “pure fiction.”

The lawsuit claims that JCA, eager for government contracts controlled by the Democrats, first threatened to fire Gural, then tried to bribe him to act against Rosenberg in 1999 and 2000. At the time, Gural was a JCA employee and a Palmyra councilman.

In the suit, Gural said he tape-recorded some conversations on his own, then approached state investigators with the Attorney General’s Office, which asked him to secretly record conversations with Norcross. The plaintiffs want to use the tapes as evidence, Rosenberg said.

Three JCA executives have pleaded guilty to state charges of income tax evasion stemming from a campaign law infraction in West Deptford. Norcross was not charged in the case.

Hero or ruler
Observers are split over whether Norcross is a local hero or an iron-fisted ruler on the political scene.

His supporters say the power broker has won more clout for local legislators. They say Norcross bargains from a position of strength after molding Democratic officials into a tight-knit team that covers Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties.

“Previously, South Jersey always got the short end of the stick. George used his political power and his business savvy to make sure that changed,” said Charles E. Sessa Jr., chairman of Cooper Health System, Camden. He credits Norcross, Cooper’s unpaid vice chairman, with getting more state money for Cooper University Hospital, which plans a $125 million expansion.

But critics say the Democratic machine exploits an army of patronage workers and a rich treasury of no-bid government contracts that are handed out to campaign contributors as part of the state’s pay-to-play tradition.

The Democrats control every freeholder and legislative seat in Camden and Gloucester counties.

In a state now rethinking the pay-to-play system, Camden County’s Democratic Committee raised $3.6 million last year, the second-highest figure out of 21 counties — and a sharp increase from $1.7 million in 2002, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. A third of the 2003 money came from businesses, according to election reports.

Norcross in recent years has expanded his influence by helping to fund Democratic campaigns in North Jersey, notably in Bergen and Essex counties.

Skeptics also note Norcross’ involvement in a planned $65 million Camden County civic center and arena. Norcross originally owned part of a minor-league hockey franchise that is to play in the 6,400-seat arena but sold his $500,000 interest in the team last year following criticism of his involvement.

Blocked by the Republicans, the state Senate didn’t vote on funding the civic center in 2002. So arena backers turned to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which in November 2002 approved $24 million for the project. The balance is being funded through the Camden County Improvement Authority, whose members are appointed by the Camden freeholders — all of whom were elected with Norcross’ backing.

Unhappy residents resisted early efforts to put the civic center first in Lawnside, then in Gloucester Township. It now is to rise on the site of the Pennsauken Mart, where merchants facing forced relocation fought the venture without success.

The project’s supporters include a key Norcross ally, the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

The labor group is led by Donald Norcross, 46, of Voorhees, who is co-chairman of the Camden County Democratic Committee and George Norcross’ brother.

County officials say the arena will create up to 400 construction jobs and spur more than $100 million in new development.

Powerful party boss

Even the appearance of favoritism can shake public confidence in government, said Camden County GOP Chairwoman Gail Peterson, who allowed that “George Norcross is very good at what he does.”

But, Peterson said, “We need to make sure that our officials are serving the public.”

Such skepticism may be particularly strong in Camden County because Norcross gave up the position of county chairman in 1995.

In one example, environmental groups believe — but cannot prove — that Norcross worked behind the scenes for a new state “fast-track” law streamlining environmental permits for developers.

Jane Nogaki, of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said she fears the law will be felt locally as a private firm seeks to develop Petty’s Island, an industrial area that is part of Pennsauken’s waterfront development plan, but which environmentalists envision instead as a nature preserve.

The fast-track measure was sponsored by Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, a union leader and a lifelong friend of Norcross’.

Part of Norcross’ power comes from his fund-raising prowess, said David P. Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, Rider University.

Rebovich noted Norcross’ position at Commerce, where the silver-haired executive is chairman and president of Commerce Insurance Services.

Commerce includes on its board of directors several political figures, both Democrats and Republicans.

The bank, through its political action committees, was a substantial corporate donor until last year. It has contributed $1 million to candidates over the years but suspended PAC operations in 2003 following criticism from within the financial community.

Norcross’ future in politics “is uncertain because it’s not clear what will happen with pay-to-play,” Rebovich said.

Norcross, however, said in his statement that he wants “to provide political momentum for reform efforts.”

If pay-to-play were banned, he said, campaigns would have to rely on basics like the quality of candidates and “a grass-roots agenda.”

Norcross also said future campaigns may rely heavily on “energetic political organizations.”

In that regard, the Camden County machine could benefit from the role of Norcross’ brother, Donald, whose 85,000-member union — one of the largest in the state — has been heavily involved in get-out-the-vote efforts in local races.

Leadership, family

Supporters say the Norcross team does what is necessary to bring state funds to South Jersey.

“The problem is the political process, not George,” said Dr. Edward Viner, chief of the Department of Medicine at Cooper, which is receiving $12 million through an urban renewal program. “George had to learn to work in the political pits, and it’s good that he did because a lot of people in South Jersey have benefited.”

As an example, Norcross’ backers say he won more money for the state-funded $175 million effort to spur private development in Camden. The state funds are intended to serve as seed money for a wide range of private development projects, most still in the planning stages.

Proposals include a $1 billion golf course community in the Cramer Hill neighborhood along the Delaware River and another $1 billion in downtown development, including university and health care districts.

Former Gov. Christie Whitman first proposed a state takeover of Camden in June 2000, but her plan lacked money to fix the city’s problems.

Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, D-Camden, opposed the measure and in May 2001 announced agreement on a $150 million package with acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, a Republican, and Burlington County GOP Chairman Glenn Paulsen, who is as powerful in Republican circles as Norcross is with Democrats.

The money would have been administered by the Delaware River Port Authority, of which Paulsen was the vice chairman at the time.

McGreevey wanted to replace the package with his own plan.

Norcross, who opposed allowing his rival Paulsen to control the money, supported killing the rescue package. At roughly the same time, four South Jersey lawmakers backed by Norcross received key leadership positions in the Legislature that would control the flow of jobs and money from Trenton.

The governor finally released a new $175 million package for Camden in the summer of 2002 with Norcross’ blessing — two years after it was first proposed.

Friends say Norcross is driven by the example of leadership and community service set by his late father, George Jr. The elder Norcross, who died in 1998, was president of the Southern New Jersey A.F.L.-C.I.O. Central Labor Council. He also was a Cooper Hospital trustee.

The father’s union post now is held by Donald Norcross.

George Norcross’ skill as a fund-raiser can eclipse other talents, says Tambussi, a Haddon Township lawyer who represents the Camden County Democrats.

“George Norcross didn’t just wave a wand. He’s built relationships across South Jersey,” Tambussi said. He notes Norcross learned politics “at his father’s side.”

Norcross, the married father of two, typically starts each day before dawn. He makes early morning visits to a gym and, often, to his father’s grave in Colestown Cemetery in Cherry Hill.

“It’s not uncommon for me to get phone messages at 4 or 5 a.m. That’s him starting the morning,” Tambussi said.

Norcross, a reformed smoker who relaxes with golf and yoga, works from a glass-walled office at Commerce headquarters, where he fields calls from business people and politicians alike.

A Pennsauken High School graduate, Norcross was paid $1.2 million in 2003 by the bank. He holds or has control over Commerce stock options worth an estimated $60 million.

Norcross founded an insurance firm, Keystone National Companies Inc., in 1979, after leaving Rutgers-Camden as a freshman.

His only public position was as the Camden Parking Authority chairman under then-mayor Angelo Errichetti in the late 1970s.

He sold his company to Commerce eight years ago. The insurance company now has 14 offices in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware and more than $850 million in annual premium volume.

Much of the unit’s business is generated by contracts with municipalities and with government agencies like the Burlington County Bridge Commission. The insurance division had 2003 revenues of $66.5 million, or about 7 percent of Commerce’s total revenues of $1 billion.

Commerce Chairman Vernon W. Hill II bristles at any suggestion that Norcross’ clout has translated to cash for Commerce.

“He’s built the biggest insurance company in the state, using his skills and the Commerce brand,” said Hill, who describes Norcross, a Commerce director, as a results-oriented manager who values loyalty and teamwork. “George brings to the bank an understanding of the governing environment in the state of New Jersey.”

Others say Norcross has worked hard to broaden his party’s appeal.

Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden, says Norcross reached out to the Hispanic community in the early 1990s.

“He wants to be inclusive. Nobody else made that approach to us,” said Cruz-Perez, who was elected to the Assembly in 1995.

Norcross also has a charitable side, providing donations to people in need and personal calls in times of hardship, supporters say.

“He’s been a very generous person to us over the years,” said Susan Weiner, executive director at the LARC School in Bellmawr, a private facility for disabled children that has received many donations from Norcross and that expanded last year with the help of $2 million budgeted by Camden County’s freeholders. “It’s a shame that people don’t know that about him.”

Political uncertainty
Even rivals acknowledge the tactical skills of Norcross, who pioneered the use of South Jersey political ads on Philadelphia TV stations in the early 1990s.

In recent years, observers say Norcross raised millions of dollars and worked back-room deals to win the 4th District Senate seat, which was held by the Republicans and which covers part of Camden County.

The maneuvering became apparent in April 2003 when that district’s GOP senator, John Matheussen, vacated that seat to take the executive director’s job at the Delaware River Port Authority, a job he got with Norcross’ support, political observers say. That post pays $195,000 a year, a sizable jump from the $49,000 Matheussen made as a state senator.

Norcross and Camden County Democrats then raised a record $4.4 million to win the 4th District Senate seat for Democrat Fred Madden of Washington Township by a 63-vote margin.

The victory unseated Republican George F. Geist of Gloucester Township, who was appointed to the seat after Matheussen resigned, and helped Democrats gain a majority in the Senate for the first time in a decade.

But even this kind of power could fade.

Christopher Carlson, political director of the Camden County Republicans, said the local machine could sputter if a Republican is elected governor next year.

“Camden County would be wise to hedge its bets,” he said. “You don’t want to be shut out when the wheel turns.”

He also contends a one-party system is prone to abuse because it lacks an effective watchdog. “One can only wonder what is simmering under the surface,” Carlson said.

Asbury Park Press staff writer Jason Method contributed to this article.


Among those who pressured Gov. McGreevey to resign early so that a special election could be held in the Fall of 2007 was Democratic boss George E. Norcross (left). McGreevey resigned on Nov. 15, 2004, three months after admitting to having an adulterous same sex relationship with his homeland security adviser Golan Cipel.