George Norcross: The Man Who Destroyed Democracy
Mayors, governors, congressmen and senators come and go—striding into the spotlight of public office and toddling off to a comparatively quiet life. But the power of George Norcross III seems only to expand.
Norcross, a millionaire many times over, continues to preside over Marlton-based Conner Strong & Buckelew—an insurance firm on a large campus punctuated by a helicopter landing pad. Residents of the populated area objected to the helipad, but this is Norcross territory, politically, and he won the necessary approvals, enabling him to fly to and from meetings, his arrival announced by the ominous whup! whup! whup! of rotor blades.
Of late, some of his ends—the expressions of his power—are at least arguably, if not definitively, good. He worked with Christie to force a new, closer relationship between South Jersey’s state universities, Rutgers and Rowan, that figures to benefit both. He has presided over a half-billion-dollar expansion of Cooper University Hospital, in Camden, including the opening of a prestigious new medical school. He recently got the go-ahead to build KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in Camden’s Lanning Square neighborhood. And he has held numerous meetings with prominent South Jersey citizens, passionately extolling the virtues of switching to a county-based police force, a move he believes will bring better services at a reduced cost.
All of these initiatives are aimed, ostensibly, principally, at improving the future prospects of Camden, the most poverty-stricken city in America. And it seems that if this were the beginning and end of the George Norcross story, he would be in line for some serious attaboys, if not outright tearful hugs.
The issue is that the George Norcross story is so much more, a story in which the ends, while themselves sometimes dubious, are often overshadowed by the means, which are frequently repugnant. Consider the manner in which Norcross’s power seems to threaten, well, democracy, as if the whup! whup! of the rotor blades bearing him aloft signals an invasion from the highest, most distant tax bracket above. In the past few years, Norcross used that lofty power, wealth and influence to direct, if not dictate, the course of lower and higher education, government pensions and health care, and the effective delivery of law enforcement—all without holding a publicly elected office, or even an official position in the Democratic party. (He stepped down as Camden County chairman in 1993.)
Cherry Hill, for instance, happens to like its current Cherry Hill-run police force just fine and has no desire to cede its management to Camden County. But just the same, its leaders found themselves engaged in an odd wrestling match with a “political leader” who can’t be voted out of office and therefore can’t be stopped. They declined a county takeover, for the time being. But every observer believes the subject will rise again and again till—whup! whup!—Norcross wins.
Is this democracy?
It’s a question I asked pretty much all my interview subjects for this story, and the answers ranged from an emphatic “Of course not!” to a meandering “Ye-es” to a grossly realistic “It’s the only democracy we have.”
Some names of the wounded have surfaced over the years. Mark Lohbauer, a Jersey businessman and Republican, has said that 11 years after he ran against one of Norcross’s candidates for county freeholder in the ’90s, Norcross made him pay. Then a planner with the Schools Construction Corporation, a state agency in charge of building schools in low-income neighborhoods, Lohbauer lost his job in October 2002 when he says the CEO told him he had to let him go from the non-politically appointed job. “I like you,” he said. “I want to keep you. But [Governor McGreevey’s office] told me George Norcross wants you gone.”
Today, Norcross adamantly denies the accusation, adding he doesn’t even know Lohbauer. The governor’s office and the CEO denied it, too. The problem is that—true or not—the Lohbauer story, like the pussy story and the water bottle story, sounds just like George Norcross. And the reason I can write that, with authority, is because we can all log onto the Internet, anytime, and hear him for ourselves. In 2000-2001, as part of a corruption investigation, George Norcross III was recorded in conversation with a Palmyra councilman, John Gural Jr., who claimed he was being pressured to fire a political enemy of Norcross, city solicitor Ted Rosenberg.
The Palmyra Tapes, as they are known, are now legendary in South Jersey political circles, capturing George Norcross III in a full-throated political bull roar:
“Rosenberg is history and he is done and anything I can do to crush his ass, I wanna do cause I think he’s just a, just an evil fuck. … ”
In another instance, Norcross talks about making a political opponent he can’t crush a judge, just to get him out of the way: “Make him a fucking judge, and get rid of him! … John Harrington is going to become a judge.” (John Harrington, by the way, became a judge.)
He orders another associate not to fraternize with an enemy: “Finally one day 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.’”
He talks about urging a committeeman to hire a politically connected firm as township engineer: “ … [W]e said to Harry, ‘Wait a second, JCA was going to be the engineer of record. I don’t care about your fucking review process.’”
He brags of his political accomplishments: “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 boasts about his hold on the governor’s office: “I’m not going to tell you this to insult you, but 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.”
The investigation languished for years before the state Attorney General’s office effectively punted, asking in 2005 for then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie to review the case. Christie assigned two veteran prosecutors to the task before declining to issue any indictments. The case was so controversial that Christie took the highly unusual step of writing a public letter explaining his position: that the investigation had been mishandled before it ever reached his desk.
Norcross, who says he is “embarrassed” by his language but committed no “illegality,” emerged from the entire stressful affair without any criminal charges, yet still operating under a kind of moral cloud. Why? Well, because even if he committed no crime, his behavior was, not to mince words, frightening, even disgusting. In sum, the Palmyra Tapes make for a kind of holy shit! experience, clueing us in to the fact that if the smaller and weaker among us try to engage in running our borough, our town, our city, some really powerful guy like George Norcross III might chop off our balls.
What is so remarkable is that up close, the man behind all this drama is charismatic, warm, funny, a snazzy dresser, the kind of man you’d like to drink a beer with, the kind of leader you’d follow to hell, profane, volatile and suddenly talking.