By Bill Winkler
Tom Moran is the editorial page editor of the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper. Just before Thanksgiving he wrote a panegyric to the boss of the South Jersey Democrat Party machine — George Norcross.
Moran calls Norcross “the second most powerful man in New Jersey.” Norcross is the prototype “new political boss” described by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges as “the one who wears tailored suits, serves on bank boards, and runs insurance companies.”
Moran argues that the boss is now older and wants to do good things for the impoverished people of Camden City. According to Moran, the boss is of the age when you put your active career aside and start thinking about your legacy. I guess 59 is the new 79 because, at George Norcross’s age, Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as governor of California. At the age Norcross is now, Winston Churchill was considered a fringe radical and World War 2 was six years away. And people didn’t live as long back then.
Moran’s column produced a lot of chatter and some less than charitable folks suggested that the editorial writer would be leaving the cash-strapped newspaper to travel the well- worn path of so many other New Jersey journalists, into a nice political gig or government patronage job or maybe as a spokesman/lobbyist for some big corporate or philanthropic concern.
But let’s be charitable and take Tom Moran’s argument at face value. What he seems to be trying to tell us is that it takes an oligarchy run by a rich, corporate, middle-aged, white, suburban politician to get anything done in a city like Camden. Sorry, but something doesn’t sound right to me.
Has grassroots democracy been given the opportunity to work in Camden? No, it doesn’t get a chance to work because everything that is anything has to have the machine’s prints on it. Who knows what democracy would have produced had the boss not been there to snuff it out?
Moran uses phrases that seem to fall out of the old National Geographic prose book when covering foreign dictatorships — “on balance, an undeniable blessing” or “using his combat skills for the most noble of missions.” I’m surprised he left out the bit about making the trains run on time.
Remember when the newspapers described the Baath regime in Iraq as “pragmatic and hard headed”? Just what was needed, they argued. Every anti-democratic regime in history has had its story of accomplishment and good deeds, but it is important to remember that it’s just a cover story for taking and holding power that belongs to the people.
Why should the will of one man trump the consent of the governed?
When is such a concentration of political and corporate power ever a good thing? When is the corrupt coercion of a political machine a substitute for the democratic process? Why should the will of one man trump the consent of the governed?
Moran writes that, since 1991, George Norcross “has become enormously rich in the insurance business, with a healthy boost from his firm’s many public contracts.” During that same period, Camden City — the city his machine has controlled — has had the highest percentage of those living in poverty in New Jersey. The Star-Ledger reported that poverty in Camden City was by one measure as high as 65 percent — with 79 percent of children living in poor households.
Moran writes that Norcross controls “perhaps one-quarter of the votes in the Legislature.” This at a time when the state’s poverty rate, adjusted for cost of living differences, rivals that of Mississippi. According to what I read in the Star-Ledger, poverty is at a 52 year high — with a million people in desperate need.
As journalist Chris Hedges describes it, “poverty is a business” and taxpayers’ money ends up benefitting the machine far more than the poor: Tens of millions in state funds have been devoted to infrastructure projects to make Norcross and his associates wealthy.
Millions have been donated by these hired firms and contractors to the machine’s bank accounts. Less than five percent of the $175 million recovery package was spent addressing the most pressing concerns of the city — crime, schools, job training, and municipal services.” Hedges calls it “white supremacy, wielded by those of privilege.”
Philadelphia Magazine called him “The Man Who Destroyed Democracy.”
Allow me to offer an alternative interpretation of George Norcross’ re-positioning of himself. Those of us who remember the campaigns of the early 1990’s — back when George was the up-front chairman of the Camden Democratic Party — well recall how his dealings became campaign issues. It cost his machine elections. So he stepped away into the shadows and ran things through surrogates. Nevertheless he remained controversial — with investigations and law suits and plenty of bad press — Philadelphia Magazine called him “The Man Who Destroyed Democracy.”
In the campaign his brother just ran for Congress, Norcross must have come across some data that made him wince. In the Philadelphia media market, people know the name Norcross and it’s not good. Look at all that money Norcross’s brother spent to hold a solid Democrat seat against an unfunded opponent. They spent a bundle on television trying to convince voters he was just a regular guy and ended up under-performing anyway. His opponent captured the best percentage of any Republican challenger in the state.
George Norcross is in a hurry to “transform” himself because his machine is going for the brass ring in 2017 (or before). That’s when his lifelong friend and loyal subject, Senate President Steve Sweeney, runs for governor. And that, as a certain journalist used to say, is the rest of the story.
Bill Winkler lives in New Hope, Pa. He was a Republican staff member of the New Jersey Legislature. The Star-Ledger refused to print this rejoinder to Moran’s column.