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Cory Booker Chooses the Wrong Side in a New Jersey Street Fight

As the state's governor goes to war with the Democratic machine, the senator-turned-presidential-hopeful embraces its biggest boss.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

Democrats, The Washington Post recently told us, are frustrated—even a bit anxious—that their ambitious policy agenda is failing to attract the notice of the public. People don’t even seem to know that Democrats in Congress are proposing bold programs and reforms related to the various issues voters tell pollsters they care about. Democratic leaders were said to be circulating one poll that “found in early May that voters in 12 presidential battleground states trusted Democrats no more than Trump to crack down on political corruption or limit the influence of money in politics—this, despite the fact that House leaders made a sprawling anti-corruption bill a centerpiece of their early legislative agenda.”

The article paints President Trump’s limitless, chaotic, headline-generating power as the primary cause of Democrats’ messaging woes. But there may be other reasons why voters don’t think Democrats are particularly serious about “corruption” or “limiting the influence of money in politics.”

Earlier this month, a curious op-ed appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger. The column touts how great Camden, long one of New Jersey’s poorest cities, is doing these days, thanks to “an unprecedented plan,” carried out by “a partnership between and among state, county and local governments, businesses, and the community.” It praises all of the wonderful investments made in the city by those partners, and boasts that “companies expanding and arriving in the city have already hired at least 850 Camden residents.”

The op-ed is headlined: “Booker, Menendez and N.J.’s former governors want everyone to know this one thing about Camden.” The byline belongs to Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez.

Toward the end, the column states, “Camden is in the midst of a remarkable transformation. It is systematically becoming a 21st century ‘eds and meds,’ manufacturing and innovation hub. But we are cognizant that more has to be done. We want to state clearly that allowing the progress we’ve made to stop, or worse, recede, is unacceptable.”

That is the closest the column gets to explaining its existence—the closest thing to a “news peg.” It is difficult to figure out what the senators want, or even whom they are addressing, without a great deal of missing context.

Here is that context.

New Jersey is a Democratic state. Its legislature is controlled by Democrats, its governor is a Democrat, and its two United States senators are both Democrats. New Jersey’s politics are boss-driven. County party committees control ballot placement, along with access to funding, experienced staff, and volunteers. The county committees are, a New Jersey lobbyist once told The Wall Street Journal, run as “individual fiefdoms,” with each committee chair a little boss whose favor anyone seeking office needs to win.

There is also a big boss. His name is George Norcross, and while he is usually described as the boss of the South Jersey Democratic Party, his influence, these days, extends statewide. He and his allies effectively choose which Democrats run in, and win, primary elections in New Jersey.

Norcross himself is not a politician nor an elected official (though he is a member of the Democratic National Committee). He owns a large insurance brokerage and is chairman of the board of trustees of Camden’s Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital. One of his brothers is in Congress, and the other runs a law firm and lobbying shop.

The reason to control the party machinery in a state still run by a party machine is to control the purse strings. Take, for example, when Norcross’s firm and an associate received $450,000 in commissions from the Delaware River Port Authority in exchange for “recommending” (or straight-up selecting, despite not working for the authority) another insurance firm.

On a much grander scale, take what he and his allies have managed to do with New Jersey’s economic development tax credits. These programs are always scams, and everyone knows they’re scams, but they are politically popular—and they benefit influential industries and donors—so they live on. New Jersey’s tax credit program was substantially expanded in 2013, with a bill that Norcross’s lobbyist brother helped draft, and his then-state senator brother co-sponsored.

Camden is the city where Norcross has focused all of his “economic development,” and the bill his allies crafted was specifically written to favor Camden over other New Jersey cities. For all the talk of “thousands of jobs” created through these programs, it generally falls to local critics to point out that the overwhelming majority of them are taken by suburban commuters (like, say, George Norcross, who lives in Cherry Hill). When you read Booker and Menendez claiming “at least 850 Camden residents” are employed because of investment spurred by these tax incentives, remember that Camden is a city of 75,000.

Of course, it’s all much worse than some dubious economic claims. WNYC and ProPublica recently published an investigation into the tax credit scheme, finding that “Of the $1.6 billion in tax breaks for companies that agreed to make a capital investment in Camden, at least $1.1 billion went to Norcross’s own insurance brokerage, his business partnerships and charitable affiliations, and clients of the law and lobbying firms of his brother Philip....”

New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, beat a Norcross ally in the primary for the Democratic nomination by first locking up the North Jersey party committees, making him largely unbeholden to Norcross, to Norcross’s fairly public consternation. And now Murphy’s administration is taking aim at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, the supposedly independent agency in charge of the tax incentive program. He asked the state comptroller to investigate the tax credit program, and then convened a task force to investigate how those credits were awarded.

The task force released its report last week. It found extensive fraud and mismanagement, including examples like this, involving the hospital whose board Norcross chairs (emphasis mine):

In a November 2014 email included in the report, a Cooper Health executive acknowledged that the hospital did not intend to leave New Jersey but was “quietly” seeking a lease quote for office space in Philadelphia to satisfy the tax break program’s legal requirements.

The email from Cooper vice president Andrew Bush to a realty firm in the Philadelphia area suggested that the hospital had decided to move its administrative offices to Camden but needed a quote on a cheaper space across the river to qualify for the breaks.

“I need a credible location that is LESS expensive than [Camden],” Bush wrote. “I need a full service number of $24 per square foot or less to make the numbers work.’’ He added: “Quietly? No probability of us moving” to Philadelphia.

The preliminary task force report found that Cooper Health’s questionable claim that it might leave New Jersey added leverage to its proposal. State officials increased its tax break to $39.9 million.

This is effectively the entire economic development tax incentive scheme as it exists nationwide, spelled out in one email.

That brings us up to speed on that op-ed by Senators Menendez and Booker. It was published shortly before the task force report came out, but after weeks of bombshell stories in ProPublica and The New York Times detailing how Norcross rigged the development program in his favor.

Norcross’s name doesn’t appear in the Star-Ledger op-ed at all—except as a signatory, alongside his Representative brother, former governors Chris Christie, Jon Corzine, James McGreevey, and James Florio, and a host of other New Jersey pols and machers. The opinion column also doesn’t contain the name “Murphy,” or the words “tax credits,” or “New Jersey Economic Development Authority.”

But Governor Murphy obviously knows that context. And so do the senators. The message is pretty straightforward: Norcross has Booker and Menendez in his pocket, and the governor better not touch his pet tax incentive program—which the state legislature has just extended, without reforms, in an overwhelming vote, daring a veto from Murphy.

Menendez, we all already know, is crooked. Watching New Jersey Democrats (with tacit approval of national Democratic leadership) close ranks around him after he barely avoided a corruption conviction was already ample proof of New Jersey’s rottenness. But somehow that stink never manages to attach itself to Senator Booker.

Booker didn’t just sign on to this op-ed, he openly praises Norcross. And this Friday, a few days after Booker will appear on the stage at the first debate of the 2020 Democratic primary elections, Norcross will hold a $2,800-per-person fundraiser for Booker’s presidential campaign. All this while Norcross is openly warring with New Jersey’s Democratic governor (who has been actively campaigning for Booker this whole time). It shouldn’t even be explained away as simple party loyalty. Norcross may be a Democratic Party boss, but he was a key ally of Chris Christie, the Republican former governor. (Machine Democrats of this type generally prefer divided rule, allowing them to act as power brokers, to unified Democratic control, which makes thwarting liberal priorities more difficult.)

Despite his squeaky clean reputation, and the fact that he first made a name for himself by running against a “machine” candidate, Booker is, today, thoroughly part of the New Jersey machine. And his unwillingness to break from that machine (something Murphy is giving him a chance to do) is either comfort with the way the machine operates, or simple political cowardice.

If Cory Booker needed people like Norcross when he decided to make the jump to the Senate, he has no need of them now. He is the most popular politician in New Jersey. (Which, sure, is a bit like being “the most tasteful Wildwood Boardwalk T-shirt”: an accomplishment, but one without much in the way of competition.) He ran unopposed in his last primary. Norcross might take down a governor, he might control the state legislature, but he is not going to find someone who will defeat Cory Booker in a Senate primary or general election. And the senator does not need to rely on Norcross’s machine for money—he surely has Mark Zuckerberg on speed dial. If Booker openly allied himself with Murphy on reform, they could make New Jersey politics more open, transparent, and less beholden to powerful bosses feeding at the trough of “economic development.”

But he doesn’t look to be doing anything like that any time soon. Booker will attend the fundraiser, and likely face no questions about Norcross or the NJEDA at the debate. (His campaign has not responded to a request for comment and questions about the tax incentive program, though a campaign spokesperson gave a fairly generic statement to Politico New Jersey.) As long as Norcross doesn’t hurt Booker’s carefully cultivated brand, the senator and 2020 presidential hopeful doesn’t seem interested in challenging a system designed to funnel tax credits to one well-connected family and its associates, with pathetic results for the actual residents of Camden.