The 1960s: Moses v. Jacobs and Rockefeller; The 2020s: Norcross v. Altman and Murphy

State Police forcibly remove Altman as Norcross sits.

For George Norcross, the year 2019, politically speaking was a very bad one.  His reputation as a New Jersey exemplar of soft corruption worsened, and his image of political invincibility on his home turf in South Jersey was significantly damaged.

Specifically, the decline in the perception of Norcross political invulnerability resulted from 1) the losses of his General Majority PAC backed candidates in November in Legislative Districts One and Eight; and  2) the victory in the June primary in Collingswood of an insurgent slate of 22 candidates for Camden County Democratic Committee over the Norcross endorsed slate.  The insurgent slate had been endorsed by the New Jersey Working Family Alliance, led by Sue Altman.

As for the connection between George Norcross and “soft-corruption,” it is first necessary to define the term.

“Soft corruption”, as distinguished from the “hard corruption” of criminality, refers to unethical, but legal behavior of governmental or political officials which tends to enrich themselves and their cronies.  The results of such transgressions give the appearance that the system has been gamed in ways for their benefit.

One can determine the existence of soft corruption by applying a “smell test” to a situation where a political player and his or her cronies are receiving a disproportionate share of governmental largesse.

The “smell test” is most compelling evidence of George Norcross soft corruption when applied to the large number  and dollar amounts of 1) insurance contracts between local and county governments and Norcross’s Conner Strong insurance company and 2) tax incentives awarded to entities in which Norcross and/or his cronies  have an ownership or executive service interest.

Yet the stench of George Norcross soft corruption became even more noxious in 2019 with the publication of two investigative journalistic reports:  1) a ProPublica article by Nancy Solomon and Jeff Pillets in May entitled “How Companies and Allies of One Powerful Democrat (Norcross) Got $1.1 Billion in Tax Breaks”(https://www.propublica.org/article/george-norcross-democratic-donor-tax-breaks); and 2) a December Philadelphia Inquirer article by Catherine Dunn and Andrew Seidman entitled “How power breaker George Norcross and friends got waterfront land for cheap”

(https://www.inquirer.com/news/george-norcross-camden-land-waterfront-liberty-nj-20191222.html).

As we go into 2020, speculation is rampant as to whether and for how long George Norcross will retain political suzerainty in South Jersey and major power in the New Jersey Democratic Party statewide.

A few years ago, former State Senate President and Acting Governor Dick Codey remarked that no unelected political player should have the power of South Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross III.  George has been the essential player behind the throne of State Senate President Steve Sweeney for the past decade and the kingmaker in contests for the Speakership of the New Jersey State Assembly.

There is a comparison, however, that can be made between Norcross and another unelected political/governmental player of the 20th century who had far more power than he.  That person was Robert Moses.

For nearly a thirty-five year period, Moses was the most powerful and influential political figure in New York City.  Virtually no economic development or housing project during that period could be implemented in New York City without his approval.

George Norcross attained his status as a power broker through his original position as Chair of the Camden County Democratic Committee during the 1990s and later as one of the state’s leading Democratic fundraisers.

The status of Robert Moses as THE power broker of New York City was attributable to his leadership of various city departments and independent authorities, most notably his positions as chair of the Triborough Bridge Authority and as a commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks.

Like Norcross, Moses was a model of soft corruption.  The financial resources of the various agencies he headed constituted the funding sources of Moses soft corruption. These monies enabled him to 1) entertain his cronies and intended political allies lavishly; and 2) attract the support of intended allies in the banking and real estate sectors by making major deposits in these banks and paying excessive fees to their brokers and lawyers.

To give you a sense of how I feel personally about the late Robert Moses: My readers know me as one of the leading anti-Trump journalists in New Jersey.  I must say that my feelings on Trump constitute adulation as compared to my absolute loathing of Robert Moses.

Out of a sense of fairness, I must emphasize that there are two substantial differences between Moses and Norcross.

Moses was a despicable racist and bigot, who did everything possible to bar African-Americans from city and state beaches and from access to the city waterfront.  He vehemently opposed the movement of African-American war veterans into Stuyvesant Town.

George Norcross, for all his faults, is not in the least a racist or bigot.

Robert Moses was a malevolent destructive force to the neighborhoods of the outer boroughs of New York City.   He was only concerned with the quality of life of the white citizenry of Manhattan, Long Island, and Eastern Queens.

By contrast, Moses viewed Brooklyn and the Bronx as areas for ghettoizing minorities in public housing.  In order to construct his super-highways, he brazenly evicted people wholesale from minority neighborhoods.  The most notable example of this was his evictions of residents of the South Bronx in order to construct the Cross Bronx Expressway.

A classic example of the Moses indifference to the quality of life in the outer boroughs was the role he played in forcing the Dodgers to move out of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn in the early 1950s was a thriving borough of great diversity of ethnicity, The Brooklyn Dodgers had the most fervent, loyal fans in all of baseball, and they were the most profitable team in the National League, due to their television contract.  They were the economic engine of the borough.

Dodgers owner Walter O ‘Malley had an inadequate facility at Ebbets Field, but he did not want to leave Brooklyn.  Instead, he wanted to build a new domed stadium for the Dodgers, across the street from where the Barclays Center is now located.  The Dodgers would pay the entire construction cost, plus most of the land acquisition cost, as long as Moses and the Triborough Bridge Authority would condemn and assemble the land.

But Moses did not want to locate the new stadium in largely African-American Brooklyn. Instead, he wanted to build it in Queens at the site of the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, even if it cost more public money.  O’Malley felt that the Dodgers would lose their Brooklyn identity, whether the team moved to Queens or accepted a lucrative offer from Los Angeles. This resulted in the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn in October, 1957 for Los Angeles, depriving the borough of its identity and economic engine.

Now George Norcross is well-intentioned regarding Camden.  He has played a constructive role in both education in the city, with his support of a charter school, and in crime reduction, with his backstage role in promoting community policing and the takeover of police functions.

There is a tendency for Norcross and his acolytes to paint an overly rosy picture as to how safe Camden has become.  The city continues to have one of the highest crime rates in New Jersey.  Camden is not yet Brigadoon.

All this begs a further question, however.  The supporters of George Norcross claim him to be the savior of Camden, a man who is unsurpassed in his ability to get private business to invest in the city.  Why, then, has he been an abject failure in changing Camden’s status as a food desert, a community with inadequate food markets to provide food for its citizenry?

Indeed, the ultimate George Norcross Camden legacy seems destined to be a shimmering riverfront development, masking an impoverished population living in a food desert.

And the legacy of Robert Moses was the damage he did to the quality of life in the outer boroughs and even in parts of Manhattan itself, masked by playgrounds he built for the wealthy, like Lincoln Center.

Yet the most remarkable similarity between Moses and Norcross is that between 1) the urban progressive woman activist and the governor who caused the demise of Moses as a power broker and 2) the urban progressive woman activist and the governor who together constitute the greatest danger Norcross has yet faced in maintaining his powers as a New Jersey Democratic warlord.

The urban progressive woman who began the process of politically vanquishing Moses was Jane Jacobs.  She successfully led the opposition to the efforts of Moses in the middle 1960s to construct freeways through Lower Manhattan, which would have destroyed Washington Park and forever thwarted the flourishing of neighborhoods which are today Manhattan’s glory, like Greenwich Village, Soho, and Tribeca.

And the woman urban activist who today stands in the way of George Norcross’s continued status as the unofficial autocrat of Camden City is the aforesaid Sue Altman. The success of Jane Jacobs in marshalling grassroots support against Moses and his eviction and transportation schemes can serve as an inspiration and guide to Sue Altman.

And the person who brought about the final demise of Robert Moses as a political power broker in the late 1960s was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  He achieved this objective by his reorganization of various state transportation authorities and then under the new structure relegating Moses to irrelevant and insignificant roles.

Similarly, the current Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, is in the process of taking various measures to reduce the political relevancy of George Norcross.  Recently, he brokered a mutually satisfactory resolution of the potential contest for the State Democratic Chair position between the incumbent chair John Currie and Essex County Chair Leroy Jones.  He did this without George Norcross and Steve Sweeney having any involvement at all in the discussions.  The exclusion of George Norcross III from the negotiating table constituted a definite reduction in his political relevance.

Norcross had hoped to have a candidate to challenge Murphy in the 2021 gubernatorial primary.  That hope is gone.  Murphy is highly popular among Democratic voters.

And during the forthcoming presidential year of 2020, Governor Murphy will have further opportunity to prove to grassroots New Jersey Democrats that when it comes to the national Democratic presidential campaign, the Emperor Norcross wears no clothes.

In fact, Murphy will be able to establish early that George Norcross is an irrelevant factor in the Democratic Party effort to unseat Donald Trump.  For two decades, George Norcross III has proudly brandished his friendship with Donald Trump and his membership in Mar-A-Lago Country Club.  When it comes to portraying himself as anti-Donald Trump, George Norcross III has as much credibility as Bill Clinton would in advocating and lecturing on monogamy and marital fidelity.

In 2020, Phil Murphy will be a most valued person by Democrats nationally.  In terms of partisan political activity, his focus until November, 2020 will be two-fold: 1) in his capacity as Chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association (DGA), the financing and other infrastructure assistance to Democratic gubernatorial campaigns throughout the nation; and 2) the Democratic presidential nomination and general election campaign, regarding which Murphy will find himself receiving calls on a daily basis from Democratic National Chair Tom Perez and from Democratic presidential candidates seeking his support.

Norcross is well aware of the success that Murphy has had in besting him politically at every turn, and he has been very undisciplined in his reaction.  He insulted the First Lady, Tammy Murphy, a most ungentlemanly act.

Murphy is a native Bostonian from the same town as former welterweight champion Tony DeMarco.  He could have reacted to Norcross in DeMarco-like fashion.  Instead, Phil Murphy didn’t get mad – he got even.

If George Norcross refrains from ad hominem attacks on Phil Murphy, perhaps Murphy will allow him to sit with the New Jersey delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, Norcross allies in government and the media are now out of control in their criticisms of Murphy.  They have insinuated that given his use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in the 2017 campaign, Murphy is insufficiently opposed to sexual harassment and sexual predators.  Certainly, one can criticize or defend the Murphy campaign’s utilization of NDAs.  Assertions that the Murphy campaign’s use of NDAs prove him to be accommodating to sexual harassment, however, are both illogical and borderline defamatory.

George Norcross recently claimed that his Camden economic investments have left him “underwater.”  I would hope for his sake that he has enough spare cash to order the paperback edition of Robert Caro’s landmark book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

George Norcross will learn from this work of history how Phil Murphy could potentially end the Norcross era of South Jersey Democratic suzerainty, just as Nelson Rockefeller ended the era of Robert Moses dominance of New York City government and politics.  And as George Santayana said, “He who does not remember the past is doomed to repeat it.”

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

 

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  • Michael Schaefer

    What the heck is “soft corruption?”

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