Can New Jersey’s political machines hold on to power?

June 24, 2024

By Julia Sass Rubin, Opinion Contributor

New Jersey has been hit by a series of political earthquakes.

The Garden State, which has a reputation for government corruption, is also America’s last bastion of political machines. No one embodies that machine control more fully than George Norcross, an insurance broker and former chair of the Camden County Democratic Party, who has exerted outsized power over New Jersey politics and policy for almost three decades.

Last week, the state’s attorney general announced a 13-count indictment of Norcross, his brother Phil and four of their colleagues. The indictment alleges that, for more than a decade, Norcross and his co-conspirators used coercion, extortion and other criminal acts to obtain property and property rights on the Camden waterfront and to collect millions of dollars in government-issued tax credits. Camden is one of the country’s poorest cities, but its waterfront is located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia’s thriving downtown.

The Norcross indictments came only a couple of months after a federal judge struck down New Jersey’s unique “county line” primary ballot for the June Democratic primary, depriving the political machines of their most potent tool for staying in power. And just a few months before that, Sen. Bob Menendez (D) was the object of a federal indictment for using his official position as part of a years-long bribery scheme. Menendez was appointed to the Senate after climbing the ranks of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, one of the state’s most powerful and longest-running political machines.

New Jersey political machine bosses amassed power by controlling state, county and local elected officials through campaign donations and preferential placement on the county line primary ballot. Many elected officials also have day jobs that make them reliant on the machines.

George Norcross’s political power has come from the large number of state legislators he controls. As North Jersey political boss Joe DiVincenzo explained in 2014, “I have two [state] senators. He has seven senators, and he has about twelve assembly people.”

Norcross was at the height of his power during the years when his childhood friend Steve Sweeney was State Senate president and Republican Chris Christie was governor — the result of a power-sharing arrangement worked out a few months before Christie was first elected. In September 2009, Norcross and Sweeney met with DiVincenzo, two state senators and the head of the state’s Democratic party to decide how they would carve up control of the state. By the end of the meeting, the six men had agreed that they would use their influence to elect Sweeney as Senate president and a legislator from DiVincenzo’s North Jersey political machine would be elected Speaker of the State Assembly. The group also decided who would serve on important legislative committees and lead the state Democratic Party.

One of the ways Norcross has used his power is to control the city of Camden, with no concern for the wishes of its majority non-white residents. Norcross was instrumental in both the 2002 state takeover of the city, which deprived its residents of democratically elected governance, and the 2013 state takeover of Camden public schools; it is the only N.J. school district still under state control. In 2012, Norcross’s brother Donald, then a state senator and now a member of Congress, led the effort to pass legislation creating a new kind of charter school that exists only in Camden and has resulted in the forced closing of 11 Camden District Public Schools.

And Camden was at the center of the tax credit scheme that was the focus of last week’s indictments. A whopping $1.6 billion of the nearly $7 billion in state tax credits were allotted just to Camden, with George Norcross and his allies receiving $1.1 billion of that, including $86 million for the insurance firm that Norcross has led since 1979.

Norcross has never held political office. Yet, during his heyday, he was treated like “New Jersey’s second most powerful political leader” behind only the governor — a position he consistently held in the various state power rankings.

New Jersey’s political boss culture dates back more than 100 years. It was able to outlast the good government reforms of the early 20th century. While the current moment feels hopeful, political machines do not give up power easily. Only time will tell if Norcross and the other machine bosses will be able to maintain their stranglehold on the state — or if New Jersey will become a real democracy.

Julia Sass Rubin is on the faculty of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she also serves as the associate dean of academic programs and director of the Public Policy Program.

The Hill, June 24, 2024

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