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You can tell a lot about the feudal nature of New Jersey power politics by the media stir made over a two-year video of George Norcross III, southern Jersey’s unelected boss’s musing about a wide range of topics from the likelihood that there was a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination to the “genius” of Donald Trump.
The video was resurfaced by the Intercept who made much of Mr. Norcross’s observations that
Democrats had made themselves vulnerable to Mr. Trump because they were too soft on immigration and as a consequence lost ground with a certain slice of working-class voters. But there was so much more to it.
Mr. Norcross sits atop a sprawling nexus of insurance, healthcare and philanthropic enterprises and is one of those wealthy Democratic National Committee members, who despite some progressive rule changes post 2016, will have an oversized role in picking his party’s presidential nominee.
THE LION’S SHARE
He has taken a leading role in the revitalization for all things Camden, including reforming public education and public safety. And while his civic engagement has burnished a national reputation as a philanthropist, WNYC and ProPublica reported that of the $1.6 billion in controversial New Jersey Economic Development grants given out to Camden, Norcross and Norcross family connected businesses were beneficiaries of $1.1 billion of that state stimulus.
His boss like hold on political power ties back to his family, his material means, decades of philanthropy, and a track record for making investments in the City of Camden that have produced results in terms of improved school performance and crime reduction.
He also has considerable control over who gets to run for what. His political partnership with Gov. Christie and elements of the Essex County Democratic machine kept non-machine Democrats on the outside looking in for years.
Since he’s beyond the reach of voters, he does not have to submit himself with any regularity to interviews with reporters meaning he can control entirely the settings in which he can pontificate because he owns the room and the people in it.
Such was the case with the sit-down he granted the Camden Chamber of Commerce where he was “interviewed” as part of the organization’s “Game Changer Series” by Dr. Michael Williams, the dean of the School of Business and Management at Thomas Edison State University.
‘WHERE YOU ALWAYS SO GREAT?’
It was one of those obsequious encounters where the questioner has put some careful thought into how best to use the format as an homage in flattery to the guest. In banana republics this format is offered up as journalism because the ‘dictator-leader’ is taking questions like ‘when did you know that you were so extraordinary?’
That’s not to say that I did not learn a lot from the hour–long exchange.
I discovered that, like myself, Mr. Norcross was not a college graduate. He described how from a very early age he accompanied his father, George E. Norcross, the president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Union of Camden and Gloucester Counties, to political meetings.
Mr. Norcross, a graduate of Pennsauken High School, schooled himself, he said, in the way of the world by watching brilliant lawyers in their trial practice. As an avid student of history, he has a near encyclopedic knowledge of what’s contained in most of the nation’s Presidential libraries and has a penchant for going to the places where history was made like Dallas’s Texas Book Depository where he took his children where the family saw Oswald’s view from the sixth floor of the infamous text book warehouse. “Now, I also think there were others involved in that,” opined Mr. Norcross.
Now, as a working journalist I would have followed up on his observation, but it might have taken the interview off the pre-programmed agenda.
‘FISH TANK’ FOLLY?
Mr. Norcross said that he valued loyalty more than any other human attribution and prided himself “on being street smart” which manifested in his contrarian views on the State of New Jersey’s plans to build a multi-million-dollar aquarium as part of a bid to revitalize the city’s waterfront. “Some of you would be aware that I have not been a supporter of the Aquarium,” he said. “An aquarium is a wonderful thing to have. I call it a $150 million-dollar fish tank that was built by some politicians in north Jersey, who thought somehow it was going to revolutionize the City of Camden.”
He continued. “And when I looked at it, I said one block away you can get murdered by drugs or by sex all on the same block except we have a fish tank sitting there. That money should have been spent of revitalizing neighborhoods, creating better public safety, better public education. I am not the smartest guy in the world, but you have got to deal with fundamentals.”
Mr. Norcross offered the audience a succinct behind the scenes view of how he and other southern New Jersey boosters are able to punch above their weight in terms of statewide and even national political influence. “We have managed in the last fifteen years to consolidate our elected leadership to act as one,” Norcross told the 2017 Camden crowd. “And it is simple math. We are just 28 percent of the state. In order for us to get our fair share we have to be unified and the rest of the state has to be divided.”
It was in this same iconoclastic populist tone that Mr. Norcross expressed a weird kind of admiration for Donald Trump who, he said “borders on genius and insanity.” He credited Mr. Trump with being more in touch with the American zeitgeist than his opponent former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because the real estate mogul for the last three weeks of the campaign “focused on what people were thinking and what was on their minds and Hillary Clinton did not. He focused about things people were angry about. He talked about how they could be improved, about how they could be changed.”
And to Norcross, as “a conservative Democrat” immigration appeared to be the main irritant for that core working class constituency Trump zeroed in on in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio that had voted for President Obama twice but in 2016 flipped to Trump.
Mr. Norcross said he had asked Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi directly why the Democratic Party supported “criminals that are here illegally?”
TRUMP PLAY BOOK
He continued, “I think a path to citizenship is the right thing. But if you are a criminal you don’t belong here, and the American public doesn’t want it. Why do we as a party support that? I don’t understand it and that’s why the Democratic Party has not been attractive to certain elements of the working class of our country.”
And once again, the lack of journalistic inquiry presented itself as the moderator of the event did not press Mr. Norcross to substantiate his claim that Democrats were expressly supporting the retention of immigrants who were criminals, as President Trump has long charged. It just hung in the air as an ex cathedra pronouncement that would come back to haunt Mr. Norcross.
Nor, was it mentioned that President Obama deported over five million undocumented people and was actually nicknamed “the deporter in chief” by immigration rights activists for his program which targeted those with criminal histories for removal.
Conflating undocumented immigrants with criminals has been a key part of President Trump’s doubling down on the immigrant population which he does almost daily as a way of consolidating his base.
There’s a significant body of academic evidence that, contrary to the right-wing propaganda, undocumented immigrants have a lower propensity for criminal behavior. There is of course the example of New York City, where it was the very influx of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants that stabilized crime ridden neighborhoods, helping to drive down crime in New York City to its lowest level in several generations.
In the two years since Mr. Norcross’s musings, Mr. Trump has made the southern border with Mexico and his multi-billion–dollar wall such a fixation that he was willing to shut down the Federal government for or over a month and deprive hundreds of thousands of Federal employees their paychecks.
Since 2017, conditions for those immigrants seeking asylum have greatly deteriorated and a recent Homeland Security Inspector General report found at both California and New Jersey holding facilities there were “immediate risks or egregious violations of detention standards, as well as “nooses in detainee cells” and “inadequate medical care.”
In January, a Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General report disclosed that the Trump administration had not accurately “represent the full scope of [child] family separations” and that “thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court. In addition, as of early November 2018, HHS has received at least 118 separated children since the court order.”
In response to the recent reporting on his 2017 comments in the Intercept, a Norcross aid tried to add some damage control to add context to the dated remarks.
“George has always supported legal immigration, explicitly called for a path to citizenship for any undocumented immigrants here now and disagrees with the actions taken in the last few years to limit it without seeming justification or process,” wrote a Norcross aid in an email to the Intercept. “The United States, like every developed country in the world, has immigration laws that allows for the legal entry of people who wish to come here, including – and especially – people who are seeking amnesty or asylum. Those laws should be respected by those who want to come here and must be respected by the government itself.”
Such are the perils of getting only softball questions when we have a xenophobic racist in the White House.