Murphy Endorses Kennedy, Making Her Now a Prohibitive Favorite – and Possibly Hastening the Political Demise of George Norcross III

King and Kennedy

Amy Kennedy is the frontrunner candidate for the Democratic nomination for the US House of Representatives in New Jersey Congressional District Two in the July 7 primary.  She leads her nearest competitor, Montclair University Professor Brigid Harrison, both due to her personal attributes and her monetary and organizational advantages as well.

She is the wife of former Congressman from Rhode Island Patrick Kennedy, son of the late US Senator Ted Kennedy.  Amy possesses the remarkable combination of Kennedy glamour and Jersey warmth.  And her experience in education and as a mental health advocate has resulted in her development of remarkable communication skills.

Amy also established early in the campaign a major fundraising advantage over Harrison, made possible by the Kennedy network of donor sources.   This financial advantage will enable the Kennedy campaign to substantially outspend the Harrison campaign in terms of television and digital commercials.

With the assistance of Senate President Steve Sweeney, Harrison was able to win endorsements from six of eight county Democratic chairs residing in the district.  Yet in a real sense, Kennedy was able to gain the organizational advantage as well, winning the endorsements of 1) the Atlantic City Democratic Organization, which represents the largest group of voters in this district; and 2) the New Jersey Education Association and the Communication Workers of America.  These two state employee unions can surpass the county Democratic organizations in terms of Get-Out-The-Vote effectiveness.

There is another political talent that Amy has, one that is the political hallmark of the Kennedy family.  She is able to attract support of both Progressive and Center-Left Democrats.   And there is no White family in America more beloved by African-American voters than the Kennedys.

On Wednesday, June 24, Amy Kennedy received the endorsement of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.  This is the one endorsement that makes her the prohibitive favorite to win the primary.  And with the present political meltdown of President Donald Trump, Amy will have at least an even money chance to defeat in November incumbent Representative Jeff Van Drew, who won the Second District Congressional Seat as a Democrat in 2018 but subsequently became a Republican, a conversion brought about by the efforts of Trump himself.

I don’t think that Governor Murphy would have endorsed Amy if he did not have polling data assuring him that with his endorsement, Amy is a highly likely winner.

There is another major consequence that may well ensue from the now highly probable Kennedy victory: The beginning of the political demise of South Jersey Democratic Boss George Norcross III.

Originally, Norcross intended to refrain from any participation in this campaign.   With the involvement of Sweeney in this contest, Norcross, the Senate President’s patron and lifelong friend found himself entangled into taking a leadership role on behalf of Brigid.

To. fully explain, I find it helpful to utilize one of my famed boxing analogies.  With the indulgence of my readers, I ask that we go back to the year 1964.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 25, 1964, I awakened with one thing on my mind.  That night, World Heavyweight Champion Charles “Sonny “Liston would defend his title in Miami Beach, Florida Convention Hall against the Challenger, the loquacious Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay.

The pre-fight consensus among the “smart guys” in the “fight crowd” was that Liston would quickly flatten Ali, in the same fashion in which he had scored two first round knockouts over the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.  The world was shocked when Ali thoroughly outboxed and outclassed Liston, resulting in Sonny losing his title while sitting on his stool, failing to come out for Round 7.

In the world of politics, the Liston -Ali scenario was replayed in New Jersey   beginning with the election of Phil Murphy as New Jersey Governor on Election Day, Tuesday November 7, 2017.   Since then, Murphy has played the role of a political Muhammad Ali, outwitting and outclassing a politically ponderous Sonny Liston in South Jersey Boss George Norcross.

At the time of Murphy’s election, the conventional wisdom among Trenton’s chattering class was that the new governor was a political neophyte who would be constantly humiliated by Norcross and his legislative enforcer, Steve Sweeney.   Phil was considered to be another Jon Corzine.  And never was the conventional wisdom more unwise!

On party and policy issue after  issue as to which he confronted Norcross, Phil Murphy proved to have the superior political judgment and acumen, including  1) the Murphy-led campaign that gave the Democrats control of the Somerset County Freeholder Board in the  2019 election, as contrasted with the Norcross/Sweeney failures in that election in the First Legislative District (Cumberland/Cape May); 2) the abortive attempt by Norcross to oust State Democrat Chair John Currie; and 3) the courage of Murphy in insisting on amendment  of state tax incentives to preclude businesses affiliated with Norcross from deriving a disproportionate benefit.

The ultimate test, however as to the success of Murphy in besting Norcross in the political arena can be found in the governor’s public approval polls.  The most recent polls taken at the outset of the Coronavirus crisis show Murphy with an approval rate above 70 percent.  This makes him the most popular New Jersey governor since Tom Kean.

Murphy did a superb job in Coronavirus crisis management.  He had to make some difficult decisions, however, and it probably resulted in some small, incremental decrease in his popularity.  That was especially true regarding the nursing home situation, where he had to walk a fine line between pressures to readmit senior patients discharged from hospitals and the substandard condition of many nursing homes in New Jersey.  Governor Cuomo in New York had a similar dilemma, although it must be said that he failed to take advantage of opportunities Murphy didn’t have, in particular, the presence of hospital ships adjoining Manhattan.

Nevertheless, I think that history will be very kind to Murphy in terms of his Covid-19 Crisis Management.   His governance during that most difficult time was distinguished by his principled refusal to prematurely reopen the economy.

We see the fruits of that policy in New Jersey’s avoidance thus far of a surge in the number of new Covid 19 cases, a condition that currently afflicts a number of states that prematurely reopened their respective economies.   Murphy has always been a most moral man who as a public servant will always give a higher priority to public health over private wealth.

It is this image of public morality of the Governor that makes Murphy’s endorsement of Amy Kennedy so valuable to her, especially when his image of public morality is contrasted with the Norcross image of “soft corruption.”

“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.

The Norcross image of soft corruption also has recently been worsened by a claim by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) that Holtec, a Camden-based energy company and a grantee of an NJEDA $260 million tax incentive is under criminal investigation.  George Norcross sits on Holtec’s board.

For over 30 years, George Norcross III has had virtual suzerainty over politics and government in South Jersey.  His followers regard him with reverence as the financial power and political leader who is bringing about the revival of Camden City.  His detractors portray him as a destructive authoritarian political boss.

George is now under challenge from Sue Altman, the leader of the Progressive Left Working Families Alliance.  Norcross has triumphed over various forces in his career, but I suspect a genuine discomfort on his part in facing an ideological challenge, one duplicative of Progressive Democratic revolts against the old order now taking place throughout America.

A Kennedy victory will not result in an overnight Gotterdammerung for the forces of George Norcross III.  It will, however, end the legend of Norcross omnipotence.  That in itself will make the Norcross machine much more vulnerable to Progressive Democrat challenges.  Sue Altman will find it much easier to raise money and gain allies.

So get ready for Tuesday, July 7.  That may well be the day of the inception of the new Post-Norcross Democratic world in South Jersey.

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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