In a move that sent shockwaves through New Jersey politics, one of the most powerful insiders in Democratic circles says he is stepping away from the South Jersey machine he built over two decades.
In an interview with POLITICO published May 8, George Norcross said he will play a less prominent role with one of the most effective political machines that he personally oversaw building since the turn of the century.
“We had a great run for almost 25 years,” Norcross said. “And now it’s time for others to lead the party.”
Loss of Sweeney
The declaration by Norcross, a 67-year-old insurance executive, comes after a series of high profile setbacks in the last 18 months—the most notable being the 2021 defeat of then State Senate President Steve Sweeney by Ed Durr, the 3rd Legislative District lawmaker who spent under $3,000 to defeat Sweeney in one of the biggest upsets in Garden State political history .
While never holding office himself, Norcross had stacked the statehouse with allies, including a close alliance with Republicans during the Chris Christie terms, that shaped how Trenton was run; backed multiple members of Congress, including his brother Donald; and was an important figure in the ongoing efforts to revitalize Camden.
Shifting Dem Powers
Norcross admitted the shifting power centers for Democrats through the state and the losses of several Assembly candidates backed by Norcross’ South Jersey machine were a “catastrophic” blow from which his operation has not recovered.
Norcross offered that State Party and Essex County Chair LeRoy J. Jones Jr. and Middlesex County Chair Kevin McCabe “are the Democratic Party leaders in the state of New Jersey…without a doubt.”
“When you’ve been doing this for so many years like I have, and you have this kind of devastating loss — there’s no other way to describe it — you find yourself probably a little less enthused,” Norcross said.
Alliance with Christie
Norcross, who is now a resident and spends most of his time in Florida, rose to prominence when he, Sweeney and then Gov. Christie formed a political marriage that served their agendas.
The three together rolled back pension and health benefits for public employees, passed measures meant to cut taxes, and shepherded programs focused on revitalizing the Camden, including overhauling the Camden police force, that was once one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America.
As chair of the board of trustees for Cooper University Hospital, Norcross was vital in resurrecting the hospital as it went from almost closing due to to bankruptcy a generation ago to now planning for a $2 billion expansion and receiving an ‘A’ grade for safety by The Leapfrog Group last week.
Norcross defended the use of corporate incentive, including tax breaks paid to Camden businesses with which he has ties, as critical investments to rejuvenate the area.
“The results have proven themselves,” he said.
While citing his work for Cooper and the insurance firm he leads, Conner Strong & Buckelew as reasons for stepping away, the power shift in the Democratic party appears to have played a role as well. It is a move that in hindsight was tipped off by two recent developments.
Return in 2025?
A super PAC linked to Norcross reported raising no money in the first quarter of this year despite legislative elections in November. And Norcross earlier this year got into a dispute with Sweeney’s successor, State Senate President Nick Scutari (D-22), over campaign spending for South Jersey candidates.
There is one scenario that Norcross said would have him become active in state politics—his childhood friend Sweeney running for Governor in 2025 that is expected to have a crowded field of Democrats.
“I will do whatever he asks me to do,” Norcross said. “It remains to be seen where that goes. A lot can play out.”