Turmoil rocks New Jersey's Democratic political bosses just in time for an election

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Being a political boss in New Jersey ain't what it used to be.

Monday's indictment on racketeering charges of Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III by state Attorney General Matt Platkin caps a series of blows to influential figures in the state's dominant political party and adds to a sense of turbulence in the blue-state stronghold.

There's the ongoing federal bribery case against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who's pleaded not guilty in a New York trial that has consistently delivered glimpses of the tawdry underbelly of Garden State politics. There's the fall this year of a century-old, unique-to-New Jersey primary ballot system that allowed party bosses to give preferred placement to endorsed candidates.

And now there's the indictment of Norcross, who Platkin said stepped across legal lines in orchestrating tax benefits for entities he controlled. Norcross angrily denied doing anything wrong.

It all comes months before the November general election, as Democrats look to hold on to a U.S. Senate seat they didn't expect to have to fight for in a year when their thin majority is already in jeopardy. Republicans, meanwhile, have found new reasons to be optimistic about their chances to win a seat they haven't held in more than five decades.

Some New Jersey progressives see the unfolding chaos as part of an overdue cleanup in the messy politics of a state they have long dominated. Other observers draw a parallel to what has happened nationally in the Republican Party, where the power of establishment Republicans has given way to a more chaotic brand of populism espoused by former President Donald Trump and others like him.

They see it as a dissipation of centralized control all across the political spectrum — perhaps even a restoration of power to the people.

“What we’re really seeing is pushback against things that people would have gotten away with some time ago,” Daniel Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll. “This is basically saying, I think that these parties are out of touch with what voters want, and the energy of the party and both Republican and Democratic Party is very much on the side of the people who are against the institutional party.”

Platkin, a Democrat, argued that it's time for the state to leave behind its reputation for ugly politics, a legacy that has been helped along at times in caricature, whether in fictional scenes from “The Sopranos” or in the minds of those who embrace it as a badge of honor.

“It’s often said that in New Jersey politics is a blood sport,” he said Monday. "What’s meant by that is that if you don’t go along with the demands of those in political power, you’ll get hurt. ... There is nothing inherent in our state’s culture that requires us to accept politics and government that functions in this way.”

Norcross cast Platkin's prosecution of him as politically motivated. He called Platkin a coward and demanded the trial start in two weeks.

He's charged with operating a criminal enterprise over more than a decade, starting in 2012, in which he threatened property owners whose land he sought to acquire, used Camden city government to acquire land and tailored legislation for tax incentives that benefited companies he controlled. Those allegations have been the subject of investigations for years, with Norcross denying any wrongdoing and praising the good his investments did for the economically hard-up city of Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

A longtime kingmaker in southern New Jersey, Norcross often wielded influence through back channels. An old friend of the former Senate president and current gubernatorial candidate Steve Sweeney, Norcross played a key role in getting economic tax incentive legislation passed in 2013. His brothers are lobbyist and co-defendant Philip Norcross — who's fighting the charges as well — and Rep. Donald Norcross, a former state legislator.

George Norcross is the wealthy executive of an insurance firm and, until 2021, a Democratic National Committee member who also contributed financially to state and national Democrats. He's since moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he had been listed before as a member of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.

He's long been a boogeyman of many progressive New Jersey Democrats, who saw him as enriching himself while poorer residents languished. On Monday, some of them cheered his indictment. Antoinette Mills, who heads the Working Families Party, called on officials to denounce Norcross' behavior. Murphy and other top Democrats have yet to weigh in.

Sue Altman, a Democratic candidate in the 7th District and longtime critic of Norcross, viewed the indictment — along with Menendez's federal trial and the end of the so-called county line — as part of a year of “corruption busting” in the state. Altman was once dragged by state police from a legislative hearing in 2019 at which Norcross was defending himself and the tax credits his organizations received. Her removal by troopers encapsulated his ability to influence lawmakers, she said in an interview.

“My getting thrown out, I think, ended up distilling that moment. And yes, that was very much on my mind," she said. “I think it represents a new beginning in New Jersey."

Menendez's September indictment on charges that he, his wife and three business associates engaged in a scheme in which the senator traded promises to use his office for cash, gold bars and a luxury vehicle, saw his party largely abandon him.

He declined to run as a Democrat for reelection this year, and filed this month to get on the ballot as an independent. His trial is underway in New York. Republicans, in a minority in state government, cast Menendez as a symptom of what's wrong with the Democratic majority.

Menendez's refusal to heed the advice of fellow Democrats and resign led Rep. Andy Kim to become a Senate candidate last year. When the governor's spouse, first lady Tammy Murphy, looked assured of winning significant county party backing, Kim sued to stop the primary ballot system widely viewed as helping insiders.

Tammy Murphy, saying she wanted to avoid a negative campaign among Democrats, dropped out, and a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the ballot design, bringing New Jersey in line with the rest of the country — at least for this year.