TRENTON — A long-simmering intraparty fight among Democrats in New Jersey has turned into an open civil war, pitting the state’s political novice governor against an old-school political boss who has ruled for more than two decades — and potentially reordering the political landscape in what’s become a national Democratic stronghold.
The protagonists come from very different wings of New Jersey’s political sphere: Gov. Phil Murphy, a 61-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama appointee who succeeded Republican Gov. Chris Christie nearly 18 months ago pledging to clean up New Jersey government, and George Norcross, a wealthy 63-year-old insurance executive who is the state’s most powerful unelected official — and whose political wrath is so feared he has taken on an almost mythical status in Jersey circles.
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Now the governor has launched an unprecedented public attack on Norcross, who has nearly uncontested control of South Jersey’s Democratic machine and is among the people targeted by a Murphy-commissioned inquiry into the state’s multi-billion dollar tax incentive programs.
Norcross has responded by opening fire on the governor, breaking his typical silence to compare Murphy to the king of England and call him a “liar” and “politically incompetent.” Norcross claims Murphy is trying to undermine his efforts to revitalize impoverished Camden, and has even recruited Christie, who was a key ally and signed the tax incentive law, to join the battle against Murphy.
In a state where Democrats have a nearly one-million-voter advantage over Republicans and control two branches of government, the dispute is all that matters for the political class.
It threatens to derail major legislation — it’s being blamed for delivering the final blows to a bill that would have legalized marijuana — and could put a full stop on Murphy’s already-slowed progressive agenda. It could lead to a government shutdown when the state budget comes due next month. And virtually any other major bill is sure to face a Murphy-Norcross litmus test.
Politically, many Democrats will be forced to choose sides — Sens. Cory Booker, a presidential candidate, and Bob Menendez have already come to Norcross‘ defense. There are even suggestions of a possible primary challenge if Murphy, who’s never held elected office before, seeks a second term in 2021.
“It could easily reshape the Democratic Party,” said Carl Golden, who served as a top staffer to former Republican governors Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman. “Whoever emerges as the perceived winner is going to have control of the party.”
The dispute between the two men is the ultimate manifestation of tensions that have existed since before Murphy took office last year. It now appears to be all-consuming, permeating every issue in Trenton and turning half-hearted rivalries into bitter feuds.
“It’s the biggest conflict I’ve seen, and I’ve been through many of them in my 40-year legislative career,” said former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of Murphy’s 2017 primary opponents. “I’ve never seen it anywhere close to this.”
Norcross, whose insurance brokerage has millions of dollars in public contracts across the state, is undeniably one of the most powerful people in New Jersey. He holds sway over a major legislative delegation from South Jersey, giving him the ability to make or break any piece of legislation.
The son of a local labor union leader, Norcross built on the family’s influence in Camden and other nearby counties in South Jersey. In the 1990s, he consolidated his control over most of the state’s southern political machines, becoming so influential that he expects all governors to kiss the ring.
“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,” Norcross boasted in a secretly recorded conversion in the early 2000s, referring to now former governors James McGreevy and Jon Corzine.
It stayed that way until 2017, when Christie was preparing to leave office after two terms.
Murphy, who previously served as finance chair for the Democratic National Committee and was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany, managed to clear the primary field of top-tier contenders despite being virtually unknown in New Jersey. He pushed aside state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross and his highest-ranking ally in state government.
That in itself didn’t appear to upset Norcross. It was what happened when one of Murphy’s biggest labor allies made a move on Sweeney.
Bitter and angry over a broken promise related to their pensions, the state’s largest teachers union — the New Jersey Education Association — backed a Republican, MAGA-wing candidate who was running against Sweeney in the general election.
Sweeney’s reelection, typically a pro forma matter, turned into what may have been the most expensive state legislative race in U.S. history, costing nearly $19 million. A super PAC associated with Norcross, General Majority, funneled $2.3 million to another PAC that supported Sweeney.
Murphy said nothing publicly about the race, not once asking the union to give up on its quest to unseat Sweeney. It wasn’t until the week of the election that the soon-to-be governor showed up to campaign with the Senate president.
While Murphy is said to have worked privately to get the NJEA to back down, the perception by those around Sweeney and Norcross was that he did nothing.
“It got started when Governor Murphy and his allies first tried to defeat Steve Sweeney, and then tried to remove him as Senate President — and he repeatedly denied they [were] doing so,” Daniel Fee, a spokesperson for Norcross, said in an emailed response to a question about the source of the tensions.
Before Murphy even took office that January, Sweeney had already said he would kill one of the governor-elect’s biggest policy proposals: a millionaire’s tax. The two nearly shut the state down last June as they fought over the issue, ultimately agreeing to a proposal that hued toward what Sweeney had sought.
Within days, Norcross took his first public shots at Murphy, telling POLITICO he thought the governor had been “served poorly” by his inner circle and that infighting among Murphy’s aides had been so bad that the governor was “suffering from a Trump-like administration.” (Norcross, it’s worth noting, is a member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.)
But, at the time, Norcross still had kind words for the governor, labeling him “a gentleman.”
What’s changed since then? A dispute over tax policy, of all things.
Murphy, on a mission to reel in New Jersey’s corporate subsidy programs, which expire in July, has created a task force to investigate how the credits have been awarded and whether recipients misled the state. The task force — chaired by the former dean of Rutgers Law School — has set its sights on companies tied to Norcross, though it has also targeted other firms.
The programs were written in 2013 and approved by Christie in a deal with Sweeney and other legislative leaders. Since then, some $11 billion in credits have been promised to companies that have agreed to create jobs.
For Norcross, the program has been a family affair: His brother Donald, now a congressman, said he led the charge to pass the bill in the state Legislature. An attorney working for a firm run by Norcross’ other brother, Philip, made major changes to the bill before it was passed — an issue first written about in The New York Times.
Those changes were written in a way that benefited the firm’s future clients, including George Norcross’ insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, which is about to open a new office tower in Camden with the help of incentives it is yet to collect. It also benefited Camden-based Cooper Health System, which Norcross chairs. He portrays it all as part of a coordinated effort to lift up the beleaguered city.
Camden, once among the most dangerous and impoverished cities in America, has indeed made strides since Norcross and other officials turned their attention to improving the community on the banks of the Delaware River. Crime is down and the skyline is being reshaped. Norcross and others call it a “renaissance.” But Camden still faces daunting challenges, from block after block of vacant properties to a population struggling to make enough money, with more than a third living in poverty.
In April, Murphy’s task force announced it was making a criminal referral to law enforcement authorities and said it had “uncovered evidence of unregistered lobbying on behalf of special interests, which materially affected the legislation and regulations governing New Jersey’s tax incentives granted to businesses.”
Then, earlier this month, the task force suggested in a public hearing that Cooper Health and Conner Strong, along with two companies it is partnering with, gave the state disingenuous office lease quotes to claim jobs were at risk of leaving New Jersey if they did not get the tax incentives.
Norcross denies wrongdoing, and said his company was serious about a potential move to Philadelphia, where it has a dual national headquarters. And he points to a letter he received from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey that said the prosecutors had looked into conduct “pertaining to the procurement of tax credits” and “concluded that no further action is warranted.”
More broadly, he and his allies — including Christie and Corzine — have responded by portraying the work of the task force and Murphy’s efforts to overhaul the incentive programs as an attack on Camden, where many of the credits have gone.
Norcross has taken it all quite personally. In an interview with The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, he called the task force “McCarthy-like” and unleashed his wrath on Murphy and his wife, Tammy.
“What’s the end game for this guy?” Norcross asked in the interview. “Well, I’m telling you: He thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England, and they don’t have to answer to anybody. And they’ve gone out there recklessly, stupidly and incompetently time and time again.”
Norcross’ company and others to which he has ties hired an all-star legal team to fight the task force. The team includes former U.S. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, along with some of New Jersey’s most prominent attorneys, including a former state attorney general and a former U.S. attorney.
And his longtime lawyer, William Tambussi, also sent a “litigation hold notice” directly to Murphy’s family home in Middletown, N.J. — a highly unusual move.
Norcross declined to be interviewed for this story, but had Fee, his spokesperson, answer written questions on his behalf. Fee said the task force investigation is illegal, noted Conner Strong hasn’t received any money from its tax incentives and described Murphy as “widely unpopular” — a claim not supported by public polling.
“The Governor wants to make it clear to anyone and everyone that he is not to be questioned or challenged,” Fee said. “Like every schoolyard tough, he wants to pick a fight with the bigger, more successful guy to prove his own mettle. The problem is, the people the Governor really risks hurting are the people of Camden who are seeing the unprecedented investment and opportunities the city is experiencing put at risk.”
Murphy, in his second year as governor, has said little publicly. But he has said he has a responsibility to track down “every last penny” spent on the tax programs and has called out the “very privileged few on the inside” who have benefited.
“Very hard for an Irish man to be referred to as the King of England,” he cracked when asked about the Norcross interview.
The governor says a report released earlier this year by the state comptroller that found issues with the tax incentive programs forced him to launch the investigation. He’s essentially washed his hands of the matter since, calling it an “independent” inquiry.
“I was elected because the people of New Jersey saw a broken system — one that worked very well for a small group of the wealthy and well-connected, but not for the middle class,” Murphy said in a statement to POLITICO. “There’s no bigger example than what’s been uncovered lately about our tax incentives programs and how this system was vulnerable to manipulation for the benefit of a select few.
“This debate isn’t about any one person or one city. It’s about moving our state forward in a way that responsibly grows our economy by putting the middle class first,” he said.
No one knows how this will all end. It’s a fight some expect to last for years — at least until Murphy’s reelection in 2021. That’s assuming he doesn’t leave office earlier to join a new Democratic administration in Washington, a move some expect Murphy — the chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors Association — would be tempted to make if Trump loses next year.
Few expect the Democratic civil war will cost the party any of its legislative seats or the governor’s office, despite the fact a Democratic governor hasn’t been reelected in New Jersey in decades. Christie left the state Republican Party in shambles after neglecting it for his own national ambitions.
But no one argues the state’s political environment will be anything short of treacherous in coming months and years. Every issue, from big to small, could play into the feud.
“I think we’re spending a lot of energy weaponizing things and not a lot of energy doing real, cool, good, substantive progressive policy right now — on both sides,” said Bill Caruso, a lobbyist and former top legislative staffer who is often allied with Norcross. “We’re doing a really good job of weaponizing things on both sides.”