Charles Stile North Jersey Record
Published 5:26 AM EDT May 23, 2019
In the summer of 2017, George Norcross, the south Jersey political power broker, put out an “urgent” request to meet with Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee for governor.
Norcross, a wealthy insurance executive and perhaps the most powerful un-elected Democrat in the state, was alarmed. He just had gotten word that a top Murphy lieutenant was quietly plotting to depose Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a close political ally of Norcross and friend stretching back to their high school days.
Several Democratic senators had recently alerted Sweeney that they had been approached by Brendan Gill, Murphy’s campaign manager, about the possibility of removing Sweeney from the Senate president post through a party caucus vote after the November election.
Norcross said he caught up with Murphy that day at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. An “astonished” Murphy denied any knowledge of Gill’s efforts and argued that “nobody in his right mind” would try to knock Sweeney from his perch, Norcross said in an interview last week.
If Gill was attempting to marshal votes, it certainly didn’t happen with his approval, Murphy replied according to Norcross’s account. Norcross thought Murphy was lying. In his view, it defied reason that Murphy could be unaware that of his political maneuvering of his joined-at-the-hip campaign manager.
“He swore up and down that he was supporting (Sweeney),” Norcross said. “His nose had grown so long he had trouble getting out of the door.”
Murphy officials and Gill declined to comment. Murphy allies apparently reluctant to get in a point-by-point rebuttal of Norcross — and Sweeney’s claims. In the view of Murphy’s allies, re-litigating events of the 2017 campaign is a strategic, almost Trump-like diversion from the controversy of the moment – a sustained probe into tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks were steered to companies and allies in Norcross’s south Jersey orbit.
But in the eyes and the long memories of Norcross and Sweeney, all the bad blood with Murphy flows from this brief episode. In their eyes, it ratified suspicions that the progressive Murphy — who endorsed Sweeney’s reelection — was a determined enemy and would attempt to defeat or defy them once in office.
And in the process, Murphy has made an enemy out of Sweeney, who has control over the Senate and has the power to block large portions of Murphy’s progressive agenda. The friction between the two could now determine the fate of Murphy’s pledge to raise taxes on millionaires, the push to legalize marijuana and Sweeney’s vow to squeeze cost cuts from public employee benefits.
“There is no question…they wanted show Sweeney who the boss was,” Norcross said of their targeting of Sweeney. “If you try to kill the king, you better make sure you kill him from a political standpoint.”
”He (Murphy) didn’t want me here. It was clear,” Sweeney said during a Facebook live appearance with the Asbury Park Press and North Jersey.com on Tuesday. He said the summer of 2017 coup attempt “kind of speaks volumes, doesn’t it?”
As Norcross and Sweeney see it, Murphy’s investigation into corporate tax breaks — which benefited Norcross and his allies — is proof of Murphy’s intentions.
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Tax break investigation brings spotlight
Yet, to some grassroots liberal groups, North Jersey Democrats and public employee unions, the intensive investigatory spotlight on tax breaks has brought a long, overdue reckoning of a Norcross-Sweeney political alliance that has dominated the Trenton agenda for far too long.
The panel of white collar criminal lawyers, formed by Murphy and armed with subpoena power, is examining the 2013 tax incentive law, signed by Christie, that sparked a gold-rush of companies to the waterfront in Camden, the economically depressed city near Philadelphia that Norcross has long championed.
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’ own insurance brokerage, his business partnerships and charitable affiliations, and clients of the law and lobbying firms of his brother Philip, an investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found.
The panel has raised questions of whether firms falsely threatened to leave the state in order to extract the tax incentives. The task force has a “criminal referral” to an unnamed law-enforcement agency regarding potentially unregistered lobbying related to the drafting of the 2013 law. The subject of the referral has not been disclosed.
Norcross has un-apologetically defended their work steering companies to Camden. The companies have helped spark a long-awaited renaissance in Camden. Norcross, who normally shuns the spotlight, has publicly lashed out at Murphy, accusing him of trying to “smear” his family.
His push back crystallized Wednesday in the form of an expected lawsuit, claiming the investigatory panel lacks the constitutional authority to operate. The suit also asserts that panel members have ”falsely and publicly accused” him and his allied organizations of misconduct.
Darryl Isherwood, a Murphy spokesman, maintained that the task force was to increase accountability, not carry out a political agenda. It was created in the wake of a state comptroller’s report in January that found gross mismanagement of corporate subsidies.
“Governor Murphy’s task force has never been about one geography, one company or one person,” Isherwood said in a statement. ”It has always been about ensuring that every dollar of taxpayer money is accounted for, and every promised job was created. The task force will continue its work until that job is complete.”
Teachers union gets political
Tension between Norcross and Sweeney and the Murphy campaign had been building long before that summer 2017 summit meeting at the Tropicana.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s most powerful public employee union with 200,000 teachers and staff, had put a bulls-eye on Sweeney’s back in 2017. A year earlier, Sweeney canceled a promised Senate vote on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing annual state payments to the pension system.
It was the union’s top priority, and Sweeney went quickly from savior to traitor.
Furious NJEA officials then embarked on a plan for payback, recruiting Fran Grenier, a Salem County Republican and supporter of President Trump to defeat Sweeney in his reelection for the 3rd Legislative district, which includes parts of Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties.
Norcross, who was involved in fundraising for Sweeney, worried that defending Sweeney would be costly and drain resources that could be better spent on other Democratic candidates in competitive races that fall. In a meeting with Murphy that spring, Norcross said he asked Murphy, who was endorsed by the NJEA, to have the union halt its campaign against Sweeney.
Murphy declined, arguing that he lacked the authority to persuade the union to back off. To Sweeney and Norcross, that seemed implausible, given Murphy’s status as a Democratic nominee, and — by all indications — the far-and-away front runner to win in November.
His opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno trailed in fundraising, organizational support and in the polls. That gave Murphy powerful leverage over the union, who after eight years of being thrashed by Christie, was eager to have an ally in the governor’s office. The union, in Norcross and Sweeney’s view, had no choice but to heed Murphy’s request.
“What are they going to do? Back Guadagno?,” Sweeney said in an interview. ”They (NJEA) would have shut it down.”
To some Murphy allies, the request to call a halt was unreasonable, given the NJEA fury over Sweeney. One associate noted that Sweeney had set the union “on fire” with his actions and now was expecting Murphy to put it out.
Murphy’s reluctance only fostered the impression among the Norcross and Sweeney camp that Murphy tacitly approved of NJEA’s plans to remove Sweeney and weaken the Norcross-south Jersey bloc in the Legislature.
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Failed coup attempt
By late summer in 2017, Sweeney got calls from a group of senators about Gill’s overtures. He called Murphy. ”I said, Phil, my members are calling me. They wouldn’t be calling me if it wasn’t taking place.’,” Sweeney said.
Joe Cryan, a former Union County assemblyman who was running for his first term in the Senate, confirmed that he was approached. He also said Gill “hinted” at the possibility of enlisting him as a candidate for Senate president, a move that would require a majority of the 25 Democratic senators.
But Cryan said he had already pledged his support for Sweeney. He declined to discuss the matter further.
Bob Gordon, a former Bergen County senator, was also approached. Gordon, who was appointed by Murphy to the Board of Public Utilities, declined to comment.
Hudson County Democrat Brian Stack, who is also the mayor of Union City, also was reportedly approached. Stack did not return phone message seeking comment. And Sen. Nicholas Scutari of Union County, recalled the idea being floated by someone connected to Murphy’s campaign, but not Gill.
Scutari said he “didn’t take it seriously” and dismissed it as the common kind of chatter about leadership changes often heard during campaign season.
In November, Sweeney returned to the Senate president’s post, which he has held since 2010. Meanwhile, Murphy invited Norcross out to dinner in Red Bank in February 2018, making good on friendly wager over the Super Bowl.
It may have been a chance to clear the air and hit the reset button on their relationship.
Norcross said they talked sports and family and other topics. But there was no discussion about politics, he said.
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