At 57, George Norcross III is in impressive shape, with a trim gut and the sleek build of a man who keeps up regular tennis and golf matches. For our first meeting, at Cooper University Hospital, where he is chairman of the board, he dressed in a deep blue suit and French cuffs, his head topped by an avalanche of thick white hair.
I had been warned, by a half-dozen reporters, that Norcross would limit access and insist most of the conversation be kept private. But our two meetings encompassed 10 hours, most of it on the record.
“This is like therapy,” he said at one point, before clarifying that he’s never been in therapy.
Where to begin? Well, Norcross maintains that he is less involved in politics than he used to be. And he denies the existence of the much-ballyhooed “Democratic machine.” In terms of his public history, these disavowals have always seemed the most disingenuous aspect of Norcross’s back pages, since his operation appears to hold great influence over government jobs, contracts and political fund-raising. And what is that, if not an old-school Tammany Hall-style political machine?
In person, however, Norcross holds his ground. “The massive number of government jobs and contracts that used to exist just don’t anymore,” he says. “What we have here, and I say ‘we’ because it’s not just me, is a sophisticated apparatus that … achieves a result.”
A machine performs a prescribed function. The “apparatus” Norcross speaks of adapts to win. The image he conjures is of a political Transformer: It’s a car! It plants lawn signs! It’s a kick-ass purple robot!
The Norcross apparatus, as he describes it, also seems a valid tool to use, whether the goal is winning a race or running a newspaper. And the first thing it allows him to do is climb over his own biases. “We all think we know,” he says. “But until we do the research, we don’t know.”
He pores over the relevant data and, like a military commander, plots out a campaign that will bring victory. It happened in the early ’80s when he won his first big insurance contract, at the Garden State Park race track. He came in better prepared, familiar with every layer of coverage necessary for an idiosyncratic industry comprised of horses, riders and grandstands. But the particular subject is never important. In talking about his career, for instance, he betrays no passion for the industry that provided his wealth.
What engages Norcross is besting a challenge with an apparatus that produces a desired result. He could work in politics, insurance, bomb building, or the construction of a better mousetrap, and he’d enjoy the same electric charge emanating from the same place. “Clearly,” he says, “I like challenges … to a kind of extreme degree.”
The words indicate his meaning. But his body language conveys his feeling: His butt shifts suddenly in his seat. A crooked smile shades his face pink. His eyebrows twist with real curiosity, and his eyes begin casting around, wildly alight, as if the answer to the Riddle of Him might be written on one of the walls in this Cooper University Hospital conference room. In short, it seems Norcross still cannot fully process just why he wants what he wants. But he knows his apparatus is always geared up to produce the result.
One would think there might be great joy in this life, coptering over the common man to make millions; telling the governor what you want and knowing he’ll pay attention; building a new cancer center and erecting a prestigious new medical school—the first in New Jersey in 35 years—in Camden, the land he feels bound to by blood, the land that needs a champion like him. And there is: Norcross grins about as much as you’d expect from a fabulously wealthy, healthy man. But he also grimaces. He is not happy that he has been, as he puts it, “caricatured” as a bad guy. He is, however, resigned to this fate.
“Look,” he says. “In this lifetime, I can’t win. That’s the reality. I just can’t win.”
His image, for too many people, is set.
“My biggest mistake was allowing myself to be defined and branded in the ’90s,” he continues. “I stayed in the background because I thought that’s what political bosses did. And I got portrayed, you know, as the guy with the cigar and the horns.”
Norcross’s critics believe he’s not difficult to understand. “It’s all about power,” says John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police. “Wherever he can get it, he wants more.”
But the truth is more nuanced. The wonder Norcross conveys at his own zeal for confronting obstacles suggests that his restless journeying between political, business and social challenges isn’t something he understands or perhaps even controls. On the Palmyra Tapes, between venomous howls, he sounds compelled—a man overwhelmed by his own pace; “I’m up at four o’clock in the morning to go to North Jersey to attend meetings,” he says on the tapes. “Plus this company, plus whatever else I’m doing, and you know I’m nuts, I’m gonna have a heart attack.”
Behind all this striving, Norcross has also maintained a network of admirers. Former Inquirer reporter and current ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio, who plays tennis with Norcross, still gratefully remembers how his friend responded when Paolantonio’s daughter was admitted to Cooper in 2005 with a subdural hematoma. Norcross not only made calls about the daughter’s treatment; he showed up at 5 a.m. the morning after the operation to visit the Paolantonios in the intensive care unit.
“I think George is wrong when he says he can’t win,” says Paolantonio. “I think he can win. And he does win. I understand, as a reporter, why the Palmyra Tapes incident has to be part of the George Norcross narrative. But it does not define who he is.”
Norcross’s allies cite his intense loyalty. And they say his primary motivation isn’t power, but his love for his father, which they describe as moving in its sincerity and unusual in its depth. “I think if you know George and you spend time around him,” says one longtime friend, attorney Arthur Makadon, “it’s obvious that he’s just a man who is looking over his shoulder.”
George Norcross Jr., whom admirers called “Big George” and “Chief,” was a longtime AFL-CIO president. Through the ’60s and ’70s, he made a practice of bringing “Young George” to meet New Jersey governors, senators, congressional leaders and business people. Outfitted in a suit and bow tie, Young George sat quietly in meeting spaces all over New Jersey. “Don’t say anything,” his father told him. “You can learn just by observing.”
Afterward, on the way home, Young George would pepper his dad with questions. And the Chief revealed the meanings behind veiled words and silences. The education ruined Young George for college. Norcross remembers sitting in a political science course at Rutgers-Camden, a 19-year-old making mental note of his professor’s ignorance. “Everything he was saying was just … wrong,” he recalls. “He knew less about how politics is actually practiced than I did.”
So Young George dropped out and found his way, ultimately making more money, in the insurance industry, and garnering more power, in politics, than the Chief ever even sought. As the years passed, Norcross sometimes joked that he was different enough from his dad—fierce and ambitious, where the Chief was gentle and content; feared, where his dad was beloved—that he wondered if he had been adopted or left on the doorstep. “I am an aggressive Type-A-on-steroids personality,” he says. “I regretfully do not have my father’s personality.”
His dad knew success. He was a labor leader and served as a trustee of Cooper University Hospital. But as his career neared its end, in the late ’80s, the entire South Jersey region still operated as a kind of beggar in relation to the north. So the softer Chief also knew defeat: When the governor nominated him for appointment to the New Jersey Racing Commission, a Republican senator named Lee Laskin blocked him. When he received the support of governor Brendan Byrne in 1975 for the concept of a med school at Cooper, the Republican legislators of North Jersey made sure nothing got built. The Chief died, in 1998, with that promise unfulfilled.
Ascending to the chairmanship of the Camden County Democratic Committee at the tender age of 31, Young George, a high-school soccer and basketball player, brought the jock-ready jargon and just-win mentality of the locker room to state politics. He called his closest supporters the “Can Do Club” and lived by high-achiever mantras like “Second Place Is First Loser.” In a pivotal 1991 election, he worked with TV adman Neil Oxman and paid for $400,000 in commercial spots to dethrone Laskin, an unheard-of move in a state election. “At the time,” recalls Norcross, “four hundred grand was like $4 million.”
For the next 20 years, Norcross focused on the battlefield of New Jersey politics, to the point that he is now said to “own” South Jersey. The Camden County Democratic party has ratcheted down its fund-raising in recent years—incumbents don’t need as much money—but still ranks fourth among all the counties in the state, and when he wants a race badly enough, he flattens opponents under the heft of cash. He raised $2 million, for instance, for the 2003 state senate race that installed unknown challenger Fred Madden over incumbent George Geist. It was the most expensive senate race in the history of New Jersey, which raises a question: Is this democracy—or an auction?
Jay Lassiter, a longtime Democrat in Camden County who’s worked on campaigns for such Norcross-backed candidates as John Adler and Rob Andrews, calls the matter “debatable,” then goes on to count the ways in which Norcross’s critics fail to appreciate his more visionary qualities.
“His candidates do bring a certain level of competence,” he says. “And the stands they take on the issues reflect the values of any true blue-dog Democrat.”
It’s a deep irony that Norcross, so often singled out for criticism in the media, routinely produces candidates who win newspaper endorsements from the Inquirer and Courier-Post. And even his nepotism hasn’t embarrassed him. He cleared the way for his brother, Donald Norcross, to get a state senate seat in 2010 when then-senator Dana Redd was elected Camden’s mayor, but Donald has since earned respect and an Inquirer endorsement.
The problem, then, isn’t that George Norcross is incompetent. He’s not. The issue is that he simply holds too much power for any one man, a state of affairs that South Jersey Dems experience intimately, always aware of who’s sipping from the trough. “I am not in the Norcross bubble,” says Jay Lassiter. “But a lot of people I care about are, so in deference to them, I wouldn’t want to say anything negative. And that said, if George Norcross came at me with some money, to be part of another campaign, I’d do it, gratefully. … For God’s sake, buy me! I’m not that expensive!”
The debate, at least in this instance, is over. This is an auction. And Norcross plays an enviable role as both the highest bidder and the guy who reaps the greatest proceeds. He’s long been criticized for doing insurance business with many of the governments with which he has ties as a political leader. But his power seems to yield various forms of return.
Famously, during the trial of state senator Wayne Bryant, we learned that the State of New Jersey had been doling out what government officials dubbed “Norcross Grants.” These were discretionary funds to be given to worthy causes. Norcross said that he received a phone call in 2004 from then-governor Richard Codey telling him that he—George Norcross III, a private insurance executive—could steer $500,000 in public money any way he saw fit. Norcross chose Pennsauken High School, his alma mater, and the private Lawrenceville School that his daughter Lexie attended.
Norcross has also benefited from his connections to the Delaware River Port Authority. When DRPA issued its final disbursements in 2011, Cooper University Hospital received $6 million. The money raised some eyebrows. Indeed, DRPA’s purported purpose was to promote transportation throughout the region, and Cooper was the only hospital ever to receive money from DRPA, the vice chair of which was—go figure—Jeffrey Nash, a longtime Norcross ally.
In another DRPA-related transaction, Norcross’s insurance firm received $410,000—not for actually doing the authority’s insurance work, but for referring that business to another insurance firm, Willis of New Jersey. While a report last year from the New Jersey comptroller was critical of that arrangement, it also noted that there was technically nothing unlawful about it, a point Norcross reiterates when I bring it up. “Look,” he says, “the report itself says nothing happened that was illegal.”
Jennifer Beck, a Republican legislator from Monmouth County, has since proposed a bill to plug up this hole in the public trough. But a year later, her fix continues to languish in a committee chaired by Nia Gill, an Essex County Democrat who is—again, go figure—allied with Norcross’s Southern Jersey crew.
Norcross’s critics remain fixated on these sorts of stories. But there is a larger portrait here—of the political operator as artist, and the artist as an aging, more reflective man. “Things have evolved,” says Norcross. “And … I’m getting older now. It’s only natural to wonder when my number will come up.”
In other words, as the finish line looms in the distance, Norcross has tuned his apparatus to securing a legacy—and the result is his broadest, most civic-minded set of aims yet. Is this altruism? Or self-interest? The best answer might be both: In fortifying Cooper University Hospital, Norcross ensures some vibrant legacy for his family. But to be certain Cooper will succeed, he must consider the health of the city as a whole.
And so Norcross has turned his sights on all of Camden, America’s poorest city. “We’ve got to make it safer here,” he says, “and we’ve got to improve the quality of education, or no one will move here and anyone who achieves any measure of success won’t stay.”
The Camden Norcross seeks to create is both modernized and tech-savvy. Cooper’s medical school yields prestige and a much-needed influx of youth and smarts. His promotion of a biomedical research facility and a closer allegiance between Rutgers and Rowan should yield greater academic status and potentially foster future economic spin-offs. The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a five-school, 2,800-student behemoth to be built on land near Cooper, might “stabilize the children and families of an entire neighborhood,” Norcross says. And reframing the Camden city police as a county-led force is, he says, designed to save money and free up budgetary room to put more officers on the street.
But can the guy with “the cigar and the horns” really save a city, or can he only serve himself? “Look,” says Ali Sloan El, a longtime city activist, “George is for George.”
By this theory, the land now set aside for the KIPP Cooper charter might never house a school at all—and instead wind up serving as land on which Cooper University Hospital can expand. And the police force—which has at least temporarily waived the civil-service exam process in order to staff up—will become a giant patronage mill, churning out government jobs for good little Camden County Democrats.
Norcross rejects such talk as “wild conspiracy theories.” But here’s the rub: Camden residents have no power with which to reject him. And yet there he is—influencing even the direction of their police force.
No city, let alone one with Camden’s crime problems, has ever replaced half its force with such speed before. So the risk is simple overreach.
“Nothing he does,” says historian Howard Gillette, “is all bad. He is a smart, competent man. But what’s extraordinary about him is that he has all this wealth, and this power, and this prestige, and there is no effective counterweight to him. That’s, understandably, a concern.”