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A number of years ago, in one of those “order another pitcher of beer” conversations that nearly always take place at the end of a long day in campaign headquarters, I asked our media consultant what advice he’d offer a candidate suddenly accused of misbehavior or serious impropriety.
“Deny everything and shamelessly attack,” he replied.
As the drama unfolds and the bitter conflict intensifies between Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and South Jersey political figure George Norcross, it leads me to wonder whether the Senator and the powerbroker may have been eavesdropping on that long ago conversation.
When a task force created by the governor to scrutinize the activities of the Economic Development Authority in granting billions of dollars in tax credits and incentives let loose a political bomb by identifying several projects in Camden as benefiting from political connections to Norcross, the consultant’s strategy went into overdrive.
It culminated yesterday with a lawsuit filed by Norcross, alleging that Murphy and the task force had inflicted serious damage on him and his business associates, a jaw-dropping escalation of the hostilities and bitterness that have surrounded the issue from the outset. The suit asks the court to declare the task force unconstitutional.
The initial response to the task force findings from the Norcross-led forces denied any undue influence or pressure on the EDA and launched a carpet-bombing campaign against Murphy, the depth and harshness of which stunned even jaded, cynical observers of New Jersey politics.
It was “Deny everything and shamelessly attack” writ large.
It was a well-orchestrated strategy to frame the debate on their terms, establish a context favorable to their position, and create a narrative they’d been unfairly singled out by a self-interested group of political hitmen.
It has largely succeeded.
The billions of dollars in tax credits awarded to companies to lure them to locate operations in Camden was defended as a high-minded, selfless effort to rescue what is arguably the state’s most financially distressed city beset by chronic unemployment and an exceptionally high percentage of people living below the poverty level.
By raising the specter of impropriety and suggesting that Norcross and his political and business allies had somehow benefited rather handsomely from the EDA grants, Murphy’s critics cried he had gratuitously attacked the people of Camden, kicking them when they were down rather than assisting them in generating a desperately-needed economic resurgence.
The debate quickly turned ugly and personal when Norcross hammered Murphy as “stupid” and “politically incompetent” who had in his short tenure as governor amassed a host of enemies in the party.
In one of his most cringe-worthy comments, Norcross accused the governor’s wife of acting “like the Queen of England,” language which elicited gasps over the intensely personal nature of a criticism directed to a family member.
Camden City officials as well as legislators gleefully piled on, vilifying Murphy and, channeling Marshal Dillon warning the outlaws to “get out of Dodge,” told the governor he should stay out of their town, presumably until he saw the light in the same way they did. Their personal and political allegiance is to Norcross, not to the governor of their party.
Former governor Chris Christie who enjoyed a cordial and mutually beneficial relationship with Norcross was joined by ex-governor Jon Corzine and U. S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker in praising Norcross’ commitment to Camden.
Third party validation is always welcome in situations such as this.
Norcross ratcheted up the rhetoric with a blunt declaration that Murphy would face a primary election challenge in 2021, presumably engineered by him, a politically solidified South Jersey and allies in the north. The threat rapidly focused attention on Sweeney as the favored challenger, speculation that the Senator dismissed….sort of.
A battery of prominent and politically connected lawyers joined the fray, alleging the task force itself was illegally constituted and that the attorneys working for it were not licensed to practice in New Jersey.
Moreover, in what was described as an outrageous breach of professional courtesy, letters demanding documents and materials were sent to the homes of the governor and task force attorneys, rather than to their offices as is customary.
Sending the letters to the personal residences was perceived as a heavy-handed effort at intimidation, a blunt warning that the conflict could get even uglier.
The relentless assault has had its desired effect on public perception: It’s not about whether the EDA skirted or ignored its own regulations or overlooked deficiencies in applications; rather, is a power struggle over control of the Democratic Party.
The Administration was rocked back on its heels by the onslaught and has struggled to regain the initiative, but with limited success. Murphy has insisted he has a responsibility and obligation to address what he has called the “troubling findings” of the task force and that he will not back down. His language — as is his custom — has been remarkably and comparatively temperate as he attempts to keep the debate focused on allegations of official misconduct.
Possible corruption in government and questionable use of taxpayers’ money captures and holds public attention; an internal brawl over who controls a political party does not.
The task force revelations of applications securing EDA approval despite incomplete or misleading information and of political favoritism became a secondary story.
As did the disclosure that an attorney in a firm whose chief executive officer is Norcross’ brother re-wrote portions of the tax incentive legislation to benefit individuals or firms with ties to the political powerbroker.
While the defense strategy has achieved success, the long-range impact of the conflict on the state’s Democratic Party establishment is potentially heavy.
Norcross has made no effort to hide his desire to extend his influence beyond his South Jersey base, much to the unease of a substantial element in the party. He is, for instance, involved in a brewing contest for chairman of the state party, an effort to supplant John Currie, a close ally and confidant of the governor.
The internal divisions will not soon be healed and the and the vicious nature of the rhetorical exchanges will not soon be forgotten.
Even long-time party leaders like former State Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union County have expressed their horror over the fight and urged those involved to resolve their differences and move on.
The “deny everything and shamelessly attack” strategy has been validated; order another pitcher of beer.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.