Norcrossing the Delaware: How South Jersey’s Political Boss Is Making His Move on Philly

He’s already conquered New Jersey. Now George Norcross is invading Philadelphia — and the city’s power crowd is too scared to talk about it.
From left: Bob Brady, Jim Kenney, George Norcross, Lexie Norcross, Steve Sweeney, John Dougherty, Ed Coryell (in water). Illustration by Tim O’Brien

From left: Bob Brady, Jim Kenney, George Norcross, Lexie Norcross, Steve Sweeney, John Dougherty, Ed Coryell (in water). Illustration by Tim O’Brien

George Norcross slipped in through the back door.

It was May 19th, the day Jim Kenney won the mayoral primary in a landslide. Norcross was with Dan Hilferty, the CEO of Independence Blue Cross, when he got the news. “That evening we had a dinner meeting with a potential business partner,” says Hilferty, “and we hear on the radio that Jim has won the primary. We both say, ‘Let’s stop by and say hi to Jim.’”

So they set off to Vie, a restaurant on North Broad Street where Kenney was holding his victory party. It didn’t matter that Norcross didn’t have an appointment. It didn’t matter that when Norcross arrived, Kenney was minutes away from delivering his first speech as the presumptive next mayor of the fifth-biggest city in America. It didn’t matter that Kenney, in fact, still had a few lines left to memorize. This is George Norcross we’re talking about — the widely feared, fantastically wealthy all-powerful boss of the South Jersey Democratic Party — and when George Norcross wants a meeting, he gets a meeting.

So right there and then, the likely next mayor of Philadelphia sat down for a brief tête-à-tête with the lord of South Jersey.

Norcross left discreetly, un-spotted by the legions of press there that night (including me). Then Kenney, fresh off his private chat with a walking, talking embodiment of the one percent, took the stage, and his kaleidoscopic mix of supporters went nuts: prominent African-Americans and white working-class voters, LGBT leaders and immigrants, millennial fanboys and old heads. Kenney thanked his “unprecedented coalition of diverse groups” and repeated his mantra that “every neighborhood matters.”

When Philly.com got word of the three-minute private meeting a few days later and posted a story, it set political insiders buzzing. That’s just how significant, how full of implicit meaning, a meeting with Norcross is. Did this one signal that Norcross, after spending 30 years methodically taking over the state of New Jersey, was setting his sights on Philadelphia?

A year later, there’s no question: Norcross is now well entrenched in Philadelphia, and all signs suggest his influence will continue to grow. Businesses and labor unions with close ties to Norcross spent vast sums of money to get Kenney elected, and have teamed up with John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the city’s building-trades kingpin. Norcross’s insurance firm has secured government contracts in Philly in recent years, just as it’s done in Jersey. True to form, Norcross has accomplished all this in the dark, granting not a single on-the-record interview about these moves.

He refuses to explain what he’s up to, or why. But murky as Norcross’s motives may be, his record is clear: He’s a conqueror. When he sets his sights on a target, he captures it.

THE STORY OF HOW Norcross built himself into the most powerful man in New Jersey begins with revenge.

Norcross was little more than a regional player 30 years ago. He ran the Camden County Democrats, but the GOP was firmly in control of the board of freeholders. Still, Norcross asked State Senator Lee Laskin, a Republican, for a favor: Would he put Norcross’s dad on the New Jersey Racing Commission? “This would mean the world to him,” Norcross reportedly told Laskin. When Laskin shot him down, Norcross asked again: “This is really important to me personally.” The answer was no. No way.

The slight infuriated Norcross. He recruited John Adler, a Harvard graduate, to run against Laskin in 1991. But that was just the beginning: He developed an elaborate plan to wrest Camden County away from the GOP; then he would move on to other counties, win control of their freeholders, and build alliances that could raise enormous sums of cash for his favored candidates for the state legislature.

To make a long, f-bomb-filled story short, Norcross succeeded. He is now said to have helped elect 50-some county freeholders, state lawmakers and Congressmen currently in office in New Jersey. One of those people is Steve Sweeney, who is kind of a supersized Johnny Doc. A childhood friend of Norcross’s, Sweeney is the New Jersey Senate president and vice president of the International Association of Ironworkers, and is widely assumed to be a big-time gubernatorial candidate in 2017. He wouldn’t be where he is today without Norcross. Norcross also runs the insurance firm Conner Strong & Buckelew, which has helped make him a millionaire many times over, partly from the lucrative contracts it has won from government entities across New Jersey.

There’s no doubt Norcross has done some good works with his immense power: As chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, he built the institution into a giant. And he made South Jersey, once a region laughed off by the glitzier, more powerful North Jersey, a force to be reckoned with. That’s something Philadelphians can surely appreciate, given their city’s lack of clout in Harrisburg.

But if a Camden resident doesn’t like what Norcross is doing, what recourse does she have? She can’t vote him out. She can’t even call his office to complain. The most powerful man in New Jersey has never held public office.

Norcross is just as unaccountable to the media as he is to voters. He wouldn’t talk to me for this story. When Norcross does speak to reporters, he often dictates the terms. In 2014, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza landed a rare recorded interview with Norcross. “He told me that he couldn’t remember ever doing a taped interview with a reporter, and glared at my recording device,” Lizza later wrote.

But stories about Norcross’s bare-knuckle tactics occasionally leak out, most famously in the recordings known as the Palmyra Tapes. About 15 years ago, John Gural, a then-Palmyra councilman who claimed he was being pressured and bribed to fire an enemy of Norcross’s, recorded the political boss with a hidden microphone. Though Norcross was never accused of wrongdoing, the tapes are chilling.

In a cool, calculated voice, Norcross brags about his influence with governors and U.S. senators: “In the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me. Not because they like me, but because they have no choice.” He talks about his legacy: “No one will ever, ever again not include or look down or double-cross South Jersey. Never again will that happen. Because they know we put up the gun and we pulled the trigger and we blew their brains out.” And he makes clear what he has done to men who have crossed him: “I sat him down … and said, ‘Herb, don’t fuck with me on this one … ’cause I’ll tell you if you ever do that and I catch you one more time doing it, you’re gonna get your fucking balls cut off.’”

Photograph by Gina LeVay

Photograph by Gina LeVay

FOR MOST OF HIS CAREER, Norcross, 60, stayed on his side of the Delaware.

He dabbled in Philly politics a bit. Ed Rendell says Norcross raised about $50,000 for his gubernatorial campaign: “You know, nothing big.” Norcross also had deep connections at the Delaware River Port Authority in the 2000s, where he likely brushed up against Johnny Doc and other Philly power brokers.

Norcross studied the city. He dipped his toes in the water. But he didn’t dive in. He was waiting for the right moment.

That moment came in 2012. Norcross bought the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com in partnership with philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and businessman Lewis Katz. There was plenty of journalistic handwringing over the fact that a powerful political figure now partly controlled a major local media company. But his other moves in Philly went largely unnoticed: That same year, Norcross’s insurance company opened a new headquarters in Two Liberty Place, right around the corner from City Hall. Then, in 2013, the Philly-based Independence Blue Cross sold a 20 percent stake in one of its health insurance subsidiaries to Cooper. “That’s how George and I have gotten to know each other,” says Hilferty, the CEO who was with Norcross on the night Kenney won the primary.

When Norcross lost control of the newspapers in 2014, after a nasty, deeply personal feud between the owners involving lovers, lawyers and daughters, some wondered if he would retreat from Philly.

Not a chance. Later that year, a journalism start-up called PhillyVoice launched, with Norcross’s 20-something daughter Lexie at the helm. The domain of the website was registered to Norcross’s insurance firm — that is, until Technical.ly Philly wrote about that juicy little detail. Afterward, the registrant suddenly changed to a mysterious company called WWB Holdings, LLC. When the Philadelphia Business Journal asked a spokesman at PhillyVoice whether Norcross owned the site, he “declined to confirm that — or anything else about PhillyVoice.” To this day, the website refuses to say whether Norcross was an investor.

Norcross has also been meeting with some of the city’s most powerful politicians, from Council President Darrell Clarke to State Senator Tony Williams to U.S. Rep Bob Brady. Says Brady: “We met at the pub and got to know each other. I told him I’d do whatever I can to be helpful.”

Meanwhile, Norcross’s insurance company, Conner Strong & Buckelew, has secured millions of dollars’ worth of contracts from government agencies in Philadelphia. In 2011, the firm won a $300,000 contract with the city’s Redevelopment Authority. (It was renewed last year, for $310,000.) In 2012, Norcross’s firm scored a $630,000 contract with the School District of Philadelphia. (It was also extended, two years ago, for $500,000.) In 2014, it landed yet another contract, worth $660,000, with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

None of these contracts have been publicly reported until now. The press in Jersey tracks Norcross’s every move — as best it can, anyway. So far, in Philadelphia, Norcross has received far less scrutiny.

That was particularly apparent in the 2015 mayoral race, which was the first time super PACs played a role in a big Philly municipal election. Super PACs emerged after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enabled PACs to spend unlimited sums on political races provided the PACs didn’t coordinate with the candidates benefiting from the spending.

For anyone who believed money already played too big a role in politics, this was a deeply disturbing development.

In Philadelphia, all eyes were on one super PAC in particular: American Cities, which was backing Tony Williams for mayor. The committee was funded by a trio of multimillionaire hedge fund investors who supported controversial education policies: charter expansion and school vouchers. There were two other super PACs in the race, both of which supported Kenney, but they got far less attention from the media. They weren’t as well-funded or as sexy, and they were backed by known entities: the teachers union and Johnny Doc.

Or so it seemed. In fact, the super-PAC money that made the biggest difference in the mayoral race had nothing to do with American Cities, and plenty to do with George Norcross.

That was hardly obvious at the time, which looks to have been the point. Just a few weeks before the election, a New Jersey-based PAC called the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress donated $750,000 to a PAC called the Turnout Project. That PAC in turn quickly cut a $725,000 check to yet another super PAC — Building a Better Pa. That was the Dougherty-tied PAC supporting Kenney for mayor.

It was all so peculiar. Why would carpenters in Jersey give a damn about Kenney? And why would they cross their Philly brethren in Carpenters Union Local 8, which was backing Williams in the race?

The pieces only came together after Kenney won the primary election: Norcross’s fingerprints were all over the money. He has close ties to Jersey carpenters. One of his longtime Jersey allies is Frank Spencer, a VP at the national carpenters union. South Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton is the assistant to the executive secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. Patricia Mueller, a friend of Norcross’s, is the treasurer for the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress. The Turnout Project also got a $25,000 donation from Parker McCay, a law firm run by Norcross’s brother Philip, as well as a $25,000 check from Brown and Connery, where an attorney who has represented Norcross is a partner. And it was Norcross’s longtime adman, Neil Oxman, who produced the pro-Kenney TV commercials funded by all that super-PAC cash.

The carpenters likely had their own motives for donating so much cash to the elect-Kenney effort: There are plenty of suburban New Jersey carpenters who work on city construction sites. And as far as many carpenters were concerned, Philly carpenters boss Ed Coryell had gone off the reservation. Johnny Doc, Kenney’s most potent ally, was also Coryell’s fiercest political enemy. So helping out Doc and Kenney was a way to weaken Coryell.

But it appears that without Norcross, the most pivotal donation of the 2015 mayoral race never would have happened. He played the role of matchmaker, of deal-broker. Or at least, that was the assumption of all the heavies in Philadelphia’s political class. And if they were hazy on the details, well, all the better.

Says Rendell: “When I ran for mayor and governor, George helped me. Not to the extent that he did with the Kenney election. Not even close.” Bob Brady, characteristically blunt, says of Norcross: “He invested in Jimmy Kenney for mayor.” He then adds, without prompting, “I’ve known Jimmy all my life. There was no quid pro quo there. There was no ‘I’ll do this, you gotta do that.’”

That’s probably true, but it’s clear Norcross is becoming closer with Kenney. A few months after the primary, Kenney was the featured guest at a fund-raiser for Norcross’s brother, U.S. Representative Donald Norcross. At Kenney’s inauguration in January, Norcross sat in the second row, with Kenney’s managing director, Mike DiBerardinis, on his left and Donald on his right. Kenney also recently reappointed Heather Steinmiller, a senior V.P. at Norcross’s firm, to the board of the Convention Center.

And then, in February, Ed Coryell was sacked. The national carpenters union unilaterally removed him as head of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters. Doc’s biggest labor enemy was rendered impotent, and Norcross’s allies are now in charge of the city’s carpenters.

Both the new mayor and Johnny Doc owe Norcross. Big.

NOBODY IN THIS town wants to talk about George Norcross.

“Thank you for reaching out. However, I think I am going to decline at this time.”

“He declined your request for an interview … both on and off the record.”

“It’s a ‘no’ on Norcross. Sorry.”

More people refused to be interviewed for this article than for any other story I’ve reported — people who have had no problem talking publicly about such important matters as hot yoga and Homeland. Johnny Doc wouldn’t talk. Neither would Coryell, national carpenters leaders and many, many others.

To his credit, one person who does agree to be interviewed for this story is Jim Kenney. I meet with him in the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall, where he’s holding a press conference encouraging Philadelphians to vote. At the podium, he’s upbeat and charming. When he sits down to talk about Norcross, Kenney suddenly looks like he’d rather be someplace else. His body hangs forward, and he answers questions tersely, cryptically.

Kenney used to work for Vince Fumo, the once all-powerful state senator who in 2009 was convicted on 137 counts of corruption and other charges. Mayor, I ask, did you meet Norcross while working for Fumo? “Not as much,” he replies, confusingly.

Did Norcross ever reveal to you that he directed cash into Johnny Doc’s super PAC? “He wasn’t permitted to have the conversation. And I wasn’t permitted to. So it never took place,” Kenney says. Not even after the election? “No, not since then.”

But when I ask why Norcross supported him — not whether he did — well, then Kenney opens up, a little. “Probably because he thought I would be a good mayor,” he says. “In a city like Camden, there’s a sisterhood, brotherhood with Philadelphia. We share a bridge. Maybe there’s some synergies the two cities could benefit from.”

Kenney tells me he has known Norcross for years (“Fifteen, 20?”), but he doesn’t share any anecdotes or insights about the man. Sure, Kenney has opinions on what he’s done in Jersey. (“He has a great vision for Camden.”) Kenney even says he may ask Norcross for advice from time to time. (“There’s a good number of executives who are in the private sector, who I bounce ideas off of.”) But Kenney doesn’t talk about Norcross the way you talk about a person you really know.

Perhaps Norcross, and what he wants, is as much of a mystery to Kenney as he is to the rest of us.

THERE ARE THEORIES. One is simply that Norcross is moving into Philly because it’s good for business. “I think he truly believes the more successful and smoothly functioning and healthier the whole region is, the better business opportunities are going to be,” says Comcast V.P. David L. Cohen, a Norcross friend for 25 years. Another is that Norcross is courting Philly’s building trades so they’ll support his brother, Donald, if he runs for U.S. Senate, as many expect. Brady says that if incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Menendez “has an issue” — he was indicted on corruption charges last year — “I would do everything I can to help Donald Norcross.”

That’s likely part of Norcross’s play in Philadelphia, but it would be uncharacteristic for him to stop there.

Imagine if his relationship with Dougherty becomes as robust as the one he has with Steve Sweeney in New Jersey: Together, the two would utterly dominate Philadelphia’s political scene. Or consider the opposite: that he builds his base here, then ultimately takes on Doc. A few political insiders suggest to me that Norcross would be a welcome counterweight to Dougherty. “Dougherty is going to regret helping Norcross establish a beachhead in Philadelphia, because there’s no way this alliance is going to last,” one observer says. “Both Doc and George need to be the top dog in the room.”

This is the state of Philly politics: The only plausible check on Johnny Doc is George Norcross, another unelected white guy thisclose to the building trades.

What might Norcross actually do for Philadelphia? “He’s done wonders for South Jersey,” says Rendell. “If George Norcross comes into Philadelphia big-time and does the same type of things as a corporate citizen as he’s done for South Jersey, that would be a plus.”

Colandus Francis, president of the Camden County NAACP, disagrees, to say the least: “Why is Camden one of the poorest cities in the country if he’s done so much for Camden? Philadelphians should be very, very wary.”

Since Norcross operates in the shadows, we’re left guessing about his motives. He’s strutted into Philadelphia, landed taxpayer-funded contracts, apparently helped elect the mayor, and perhaps even funded a new media organization. The mystery, the lack of accountability, the unanswered questions about who’s influencing our leaders and to what end … everyone’s worst nightmares about super PACs have been fully realized, right here in Philadelphia.

“There’s a great quote about Alexander the Great: He cried because there were no worlds to conquer,” says one political insider. “In Jersey, Norcross cried because there were no more worlds to conquer.”

Then that person adds: “Don’t quote me on that. You can say an insider said it.”

Published as “Norcrossing the Delaware” in the May 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine. Due to an editing error, the print version of this article incorrectly reported that George Norcross had not granted any on-the-record interviews. That error has been corrected above. Philadelphia regrets the error.