George Norcross spent decades building one of the most effective and influential political machines in the nation. Now the New Jersey Democrat says he’s all but giving up on politics.
Norcross, a 67-year-old insurance executive, never held elected office yet wielded power rivaling governors. He stacked the state Legislature with allies, cut deals that decided control of government and backed multiple members of Congress, including his brother.
But his standing changed after the 2021 election defeat of state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a childhood friend toppled by a virtually unknown MAGA truck driver. Combined with the losses of several state Assembly candidates backed by Norcross’ South Jersey machine, the results were stunning — a “catastrophic” blow from which his operation has not recovered.
Norcross says he was “involuntarily pushed to a different place” and has been “sitting in the backseat” ever since. After thinking through his future, Norcross says he’s ready to dramatically scale back his political activities and shift his focus to other professional and personal interests.
“We had a great run for almost 25 years,” he said in an exclusive interview with POLITICO. “And now it’s time for others to lead the party.”
It is a ground-shifting moment in New Jersey politics — one that could reshape the state’s Democratic Party and change the way things get done in Trenton. His decision also has implications for Democrats nationally because he has been a key behind-the-scenes player in fundraising and recruitment.
There are few people left in American politics quite like Norcross, who often blurred partisan lines and relished his leading role in the state’s ruthless political world. He dealt directly with governors and became a key ally to former Gov. Chris Christie, allowing the Republican to muscle his legislative priorities through a Democratic-led Legislature loaded with Norcross loyalists.
Norcross raised money for his brother from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and drew a visit to Camden from former President Barack Obama — yet he celebrated New Year’s at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, where he was a member.
The legislative defeats in 2021 marked a critical deceleration point for Norcross’ famed South Jersey machine.
After Sweeney lost his perch as the second-most powerful elected official in New Jersey, he was kicked off a redistricting commission that could have strengthened the congressional district of Rep. Donald Norcross, George Norcross’ brother. Earlier this year, George Norcross got into a dispute with Sweeney’s successor, state Sen. Nick Scutari, over campaign spending that ended in insults. And a super PAC linked to Norcross reported raising no money in the first quarter of this year despite legislative elections in November.
A decade earlier, Norcross found a somewhat unlikely ally in Christie. The Republican’s eight years in office were arguably the height of Norcross’ power.
Christie, Norcross and Sweeney effectively ran New Jersey, rolling back pension and health benefits for public employees, passing measures meant to cut taxes, overhauling the Camden police force and shepherding programs focused on revitalizing the city, once one of the poorest and most dangerous in America.
By many measures, those efforts in Camden have paid off.
The new Camden County police force has been held up as a model for other agencies, with lower rates of murder and violent crime in the decade since its realignment and Obama visiting Camden to tout the city’s progress. Cooper University Hospital, where Norcross is chair of the board of trustees, was close to bankruptcy two decades ago but announced plans last year for a $2 billion expansion. The hospital also received an ‘A’ grade this week for safety by The Leapfrog Group.
Though he has come under intense scrutiny over tax breaks paid to Camden businesses with which he has ties, including Cooper, Norcross has defended the use of corporate incentives as critical investments to rejuvenate the area.
“The results have proven themselves,” he said. “So we’re very proud of everything we’ve done.”
But Norcross said he spends about 90 percent of his time outside of New Jersey — he is officially a resident of Florida now — and is consumed by work for Cooper and the insurance firm he leads, Conner Strong & Buckelew. Between that and some leisure activities, such as golf and tennis, he said, “it leaves me not a whole lot of time” to focus on politics.
“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,” he said.
Norcross would, however, support Sweeney if he runs for governor in 2025.
Sweeney has made no secret of his desire to run, but his path back to the state capitol looks increasingly limited given the shifting power dynamics within the Democratic Party and the early candidacy of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a leading Democratic contender.
Norcross acknowledged the reordered landscape, saying state party 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.”
But Sweeney is like family to Norcross, so if he runs for governor, “I will do whatever he asks me to do,” Norcross said.
“It remains to be seen where that goes,” he said. “A lot can play out.”
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