Smith Displays Toughness against Audience – not Norcross

State Police forcibly remove Altman as Norcross sits.

TRENTON – George Norcross on Monday called himself a “cheerleader” for Camden. That was one of those silly comments you hear all too often in politics, but this time, it made sense – at least to the Senate Committee hearing Norcross’ testimony.

For reasons not readily apparent, the committee treated Norcross more like an innocent high school cheerleader than the political boss of South Jersey.

In fact, just about the only time Sen. Bob Smith, the committee chair, displayed any toughness, it was directed at the audience. After initially instructing the overflow crowd in the committee room not to be too demonstrative, Smith moved to eject “the back row” after there were some boos of those testifying prior to Norcross. Sue Altman, the state director of Working Families Alliance, was not in the back row, but she was nevertheless forcibly removed out the side door of the statehouse annex.

Her supporters chanted, “shame, shame” as the incident unfolded.

Clearly, this was an overreaction by Smith. There is nothing unusual about public reaction at a contentious hearing. It’s democracy you know.

When Norcross stepped up to testify a few minutes later, he presented a non-controversial history of state tax incentive grants. Few reasonable people would contest the notion that state help is needed to attract businesses to distressed cities like Camden.

In retracing Camden’s past reputation as the unsafest city in the nation, Norcross used the attention-grabbing anecdote that one could buy drugs, pay for sex and get murdered all on the same block – and presumably on the same day.

Now, things are on the move. Crime is down, jobs are up and more kids are going to – and finishing – high school.

He said none of this would have happened without tax credits awarded through the state Economic Development Authority.

Apart from the Senate committee, a task force named by the governor, is also looking into the EDA grants. The task force’s main focus appears to be investigating why so many of the grants went to Camden businesses with some connection to Norcross, whose many interests include a large insurance firm and the local hospital. Also involved in Camden affairs are Norcross family members. including his brother, Donald, a congressman.

Norcross expressed “surprise” when he wondered why so much attention has been drawn to tax credits in Camden.

“Why has Camden been the focus?” he asked.

He knows the answer – politics.

The overview here is friction to say the least between Norcross and Gov. Murphy. Both are Democrats, but that doesn’t go too far in this case. You know that Murphy would love to see Norcross’ empire crumble a bit. That’s probably the unsaid mission of the task force. And then there’s a reported federal investigation into Norcross’ dealings.

Norcross sidestepped a politically-tinged inquiry from Republican Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, saying that’s a “loaded question.” Of course it was.

Norcross could have provided a “loaded answer,” but he declined.

Other than that, the questioning of Norcross was brief and totally inconsequential.

Here was a question that should have been asked:

“We understand the significance of tax credits to Camden revitalization. But were these grants awarded solely on their merits or because of your political influence?”

That was not asked.

Norcross did take a few swipes at his critics, noting that they are either misinformed or simply do not understand the significance of tax credits. And he pointed out that when credits are awarded, they are realized over time. He said some may wrongly think companies get wads of cash in a paper bag. He also said some of his critics are people who are just against everything.

Asked if he had personally made money on the tax credits, Norcross said the reverse was true, contending that he and his family have spent about $300 million on various investment projects and that he is, “underwater.”

The theater provided by Norcross was only part of the show this morning in Trenton.

After Altman’s ejection, a number of Norcross opponents amassed in the courtyard outside the meeting room. Their shouts condemning Norcross or “King George” were easily heard and signs they held were visible through the glass windows on the outside door.

But then the state police took action. They closed the heavy and stately-looking inside doors to the annex, thereby blocking the protesters and muffling their shouts.

“Like closing the doors of the castle,” one cynic muttered.

A nice observation. But it’s not going to be as easy to close the doors on the EDA controversy.

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