One of the most important features of politics in America is the influence of local political machines. Perhaps no state has felt that influence more than New Jersey, but as Politico reported on Tuesday, that could be changing.
Politico wrote that an ongoing war between the two top Democrats in New Jersey politics, Gov. Phil Murphy and unelected South Jersey kingmaker George Norcross—an insurance executive by trade who’s a longtime friend of Donald Trump—has completely consumed the state capital of Trenton.
The dispute reportedly stems from an investigation Murphy launched into the state Economic Development Authority and its tax incentive program. (An auditor found earlier this year that the program handed out $11 billion in tax breaks without checking if the companies on the receiving end of the deal actually hired more workers or even maintained the level that they had.) Then, an investigation by the New York Times reported that a lawyer with ties to Norcross had a heavy hand in writing the bill that created the incentives and the board. Norcross’ brother is current congressman and former state Sen. Donald Norcross, who sponsored the bill while he was still in the New Jersey Senate.
Several of the companies and nonprofits scrutinized were connected to Norcross, which has resulted in the current turmoil. Norcross has had the state’s top politicians, from a laundry list of governors including Chris Christie to powerful Senate president Steve Sweeney, wrapped around his finger for years.
In the mid-2000s, Norcross was recorded on tape as saying: “In the end, the [former Gov. Jim] McGreeveys, the [former Gov. Jon] Corzines, they’re all going to be with me. Not because they like me, but because they have no choice.” It’s not just governors, either: earlier this month, both New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez publicly defended Norcross and his “revitalization” of Camden, the center of Norcross’ power base and one of the poorest cities in New Jersey.
“I was elected because the people of New Jersey saw a broken system — one that worked very well for a small group of the wealthy and well-connected, but not for the middle class,” Murphy said in a statement to Politico. “There’s no bigger example than what’s been uncovered lately about our tax incentives programs and how this system was vulnerable to manipulation for the benefit of a select few.” A Norcross spokesperson shot back at Murphy: “Like every schoolyard tough, he wants to pick a fight with the bigger, more successful guy to prove his own mettle. The problem is, the people the Governor really risks hurting are the people of Camden who are seeing the unprecedented investment and opportunities the city is experiencing put at risk.”
So what has the result of all of this been? Essentially, Murphy’s agenda, which is moderately progressive by New Jersey standards, has slowed to a stop. In recent weeks, marijuana legalization has all but died in the state, with the issue likely being settled in a 2020 ballot referendum rather than a law passed by New Jersey legislators. Politico also speculates that the Murphy-Norcross-Sweeney impasse could lead to a government shutdown next month—yes, in a state where Democrats control all the major levers of power—and earlier this month, Norcross said that Murphy would probably face a primary challenge in 2021.
New Jersey politics truly are a clown car of corruption, but the dispute provides an important lesson for the left: in many places, the first step towards winning has to be made by breaking the backs of some of these longstanding political machines that hold enormous sway over existing power structures. There is no reason why someone like George Norcross, who has never been elected to any office in his life, should be anywhere near as powerful as he is. Norcross simply saw an opportunity, a vacancy of political leadership in an area decimated by a whole host of problems, and has used that to dominate Jersey politics for years.
Breaking the backs of these machines is, of course, easier said than done. A good start, however, is enlisting support from community activists and groups who watch money and jobs flow into Camden every morning, and then right back out of the city at 5 p.m. If the machine isn’t doing anything for the people it’s claiming to help, where does its power come from?