George Norcross: The Man Who Destroyed Democracy
“A few years ago,” says Neil Oxman, the adman with whom Norcross has continued to work, “George told me there are only two things he still wants in life: to play at the Augusta National golf course, and to have lunch with his father.” Oxman, who moonlights as a caddie for Tom Watson, got him on the Augusta golf course. “But I can’t do anything about that lunch.”
The Chief suffered a stroke in 1996, severely damaging his short-term memory, so Norcross isn’t sure if he ever understood just how successful his son had grown in business. The Chief also never saw the med school he’d pursued finally come into being.
I ask Norcross what he’d say if he could have lunch with his father.
“I heard from some people, after he died, that he had been concerned about me,” he says, “and whether or not I was going to be successful.”
Norcross considers all his words, slowly, then says: “I’d just want him to know that everything worked out all right.”
The new investor group in charge of the city’s largest, most prestigious media property came in saying all the right things. That group, including Norcross, Gerry Lenfest, developer Bill Hankowsky and executive Lew Katz, described themselves as investing “patient capital,” and suggested they would take their time trying to heal a faltering operation out of a sense of civic duty.
A year later, however, their actions seem to belie those words. What they really saw was a business opportunity—and in Norcross’s case, one of those much-beloved challenges.
During our second interview, Norcross seems perhaps more at ease, and excited, discussing his thoughts on his new property more than anything else. “Our position is that we essentially have three products to sell,” he says. “Philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News. And the audience for these three products is very different.”
As a result, the new owners want to establish their three products as separate entities. The Inquirer will focus on “local, local, local news,” as Norcross describes it, along with “investigative reporting and sports coverage” around the region. The Daily News will keep to its city focus. Both papers will be tucked behind pay walls, on their own websites. But philly.com will remain free while being recast as a kind of regional Huffington Post.
The same dynamic is in play at boston.com, which publishes a selection of material, for free, from the Boston Globe’s pay site, which went live in September 2011. If that’s the model, and publisher Bob Hall says it’s very similar, it isn’t encouraging. To date, the Globe online edition has only garnered around 28,000 digital subscribers. “If I didn’t think we have a real opportunity to make these publications financially healthy, I wouldn’t be involved,” says Norcross. “The fact that it might be hard is just … a part of what interests me.”
Thus far, Norcross seems to be setting the new ownership’s tone. The political bruiser who took Lee Laskin’s seat with a concentrated TV advertising blitz has linked up with Oxman again to produce ads reintroducing the Inquirer and Daily News. He also seems to have steered the company’s relationship with its new employees. First, he advised Ross in a pair of meetings that the company would be seeking contract concessions—and the elimination of seniority as a consideration during layoffs. Then he removed himself from further contact.
Instead, Lenfest took part—his comments undercutting any claims the new owners initially made about serving as “patient capital.” “This is not a charitable venture for me,” Lenfest told the Guild’s executive board, including Bill Ross. “If we do not get the concessions we need, we will liquidate the company in a week.”
The tough line has gotten the Guild’s attention. To start with, it agreed to begin contract negotiations several months before the previous deal was slated to expire. In those negotiations, the Guild managed to preserve seniority for its members, but offered up a separate concession that may prove even more important. For many decades, the Guild has refused to agree to any sort of formal employee-review. The new deal, however, allows the new owners to develop such a process, with performance standards set at its “sole discretion.” If an employee doesn’t measure up, he or she can be fired.
Bill Ross vows to fight in court if the owners begin using the provision unfairly, but Norcross seems unlikely to stick around for any legal tussles. His words hint at the divisive final solution suggested by Gerry Lenfest: “I’ll tell you this,” he says, in his office at Conner Strong. “We have no intention of fighting with unions. If we can’t get what we need to make this operation successful, we will just walk away.”
A framed, enlarged copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album cover looming on the wall over his shoulder, Governor Chris Christie shakes my hand and sits down in his Trenton office to talk about the only real rival to his power in the state of New Jersey: George Norcross.
In many ways, this should be a triumphant interview for Norcross, in which Christie, the North Jersey Republican, arguably the most popular politician in the United States of America, talks up the civic merits and vision of his unlikely Democratic ally to the south. And for a time, it is just that.
“This is a guy who has a very fertile mind,” Christie says of Norcross, “and is always thinking about things. Whenever I meet with George, he’s got a list of things he wants to go through.”
Of late, the piece of paper Norcross carries into his meetings with the Governor displays a lot of items on which they agree: the radical new changes in the Camden police department, the regionalization of public safety services, the Rutgers-Rowan partnership, K-12 education reform, and tough stances on union pensions and benefits.
The role of a private business executive, in the year 2013, rarely if ever means such deep engagement and power in the realms of public policy. But Christie denies that any problem, any real threat to democracy, is associated with Norcross’s almost paternal role in South Jersey.
“I think,” says Christie, assessing Norcross’s power, “more times than not, George wins these arguments in South Jersey based on the merits. I’ve never seen George in a situation, you know, [say] ‘You’ll do this or else. … ’ And a lot of the stuff [he’s doing] is laudable.”
If “a lot” of the stuff is laudable, I wonder, is the Governor aware of something that isn’t?
“I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that hasn’t been laudable,” Christie replies. “But I’m sure there’s plenty of them over time. He’s been involved in some—some bare-knuckle politics. So I’m sure not all of it was, you know, charitably motivated.”
For students of Jersey politics, the elephant in the room, of course, is Christie’s role in the Palmyra investigation, and those notorious tapes of George Norcross practicing politics. I ask Christie to discuss the subject.
“I made it a practice not to talk about that kind of stuff from when I was U.S. Attorney, in terms of ‘shining any new light’ on things,” he replies. “I think if you want to know what my view of the investigation was, then read the letter I sent to the acting Attorney General.”
In that letter, addressed to the state Attorney General’s office, and ultimately disseminated to the media, Christie explained that he would be unable to prosecute Norcross because investigators bungled the case. They failed to obtain wiretaps on their principal subjects, including Norcross, and didn’t equip an informant with a wire at one key political function. Christie even wondered, in print, if the investigation had been purposefully undermined for political reasons.
Federal prosecutors, as a rule, don’t discuss their decision-making. So the New York Times covered the largely unprecedented event. “In a scathing letter,” reads a 2006 Times story, “Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, wrote that his office would be unable to bring charges against Mr. Norcross because lawyers for the state attorney general had mishandled their investigation before turning it over to his office in 2004.”
“Reviewing the letter again,” I say to Christie, “as I did this morning … you look like a guy lamenting the one that got away. Right? And one of the ones that got away there was George Norcross.”
The entire time I speak, Christie sits there nodding. Then he responds: “Well, listen, you know, you change roles. Um, I’m now—here I was the United States Attorney, a prosecutor, and I was doing my job as I saw it. And now I’m the governor. And now I’m a political leader, on top of being a governmental leader. And so certain things that I couldn’t do as a prosecutor, I can do now, and I’m really obligated to do, and certain things that I could do as a prosecutor I can’t do anymore. So, you know, your power is in some ways expanded and your power in some ways is limited, as the governor, as compared to being U.S. Attorney.”
When I relay Christie’s answer to Norcross, he contends that the response doesn’t bother him at all. “That’s fine,” he says.
Of course, what the letter said was only that there would be no prosecution, not that there was no crime. So Christie’s response strikes me as a bad one for Norcross—driving us back to his darkest public days. Seeking to influence the dispersal of contracts, to get an enemy fired as a form of political retribution? All Norcross can muster, by way of apology, is to say he remains “embarrassed” by his own foul language. “My wife and mother should have washed my mouth out with soap,” he says. “But there was no illegality, as was determined.”
He smooths his hair back. He shifts in his seat. The conversation about Palmyra goes on for several minutes, but we never get to anything new, and Norcross doesn’t see the need to say anything he hasn’t said already. “It was an embarrassing moment,” he says. “It was certainly my most embarrassing moment in the region.”