Gov. Phil Murphy stepped into the barbershop on Camden’s Haddon Avenue, where an air-conditioning unit dripped water onto the front stoop, and inside, he heard about the need for job training and workforce development from the men gathered around.
At Corinne’s Place, up the street, Murphy ate fried chicken at a soul-food restaurant, where the owner doubles as a mentor for kids. The next stop on his Fourth of July listening tour: a storefront community center that teaches martial arts and African dance.
By the time Murphy got to First Refuge Baptist Church, he was already talking about his next visit to Camden – the red-hot center of an ongoing controversy over state tax breaks and the home base for South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, who also happens to be suing Murphy over an investigation into the multibillion-dollar tax-credit programs.
“Not enough residents in this community are partaking of any successes in this community," Murphy said, seated in front of the church, in front of a crowd of a few dozen people. “When there are jobs that are created – and that’s a good thing – too often it’s leaving out the folks who live here, the folks who have fought and stayed. … We have to turn that around.”
Job training, workforce development, and apprenticeship programs need to be put in place “first and foremost” for Camden residents, Murphy said. “Also, you’ve got this big debate about tax incentives that get put toward buildings or companies,” he continued. "We need to embed in those incentives requirements for workforce development” and hiring locally.
And in a nod, perhaps, to the blitz of messaging by Camden officials and Norcross allies that has labeled the tax-credit investigation an “attack” on the city, Murphy said: “The argument of the past number of months has been, Do you believe in Camden or not? Are you with Camden or not? That’s not the question. We’re all in with Camden. The question is, What type of Camden do you believe in?”
The tax-credit programs expired July 1, and Murphy has not signed legislation to extend them. This week, Murphy also put a “freeze” on $24.7 million in state budget funds for Camden-based Cooper University Health Care, which Norcross chairs – a move state Senate President Steve Sweeney called an act of "political retribution on a scale of ‘Bridgegate on steroids.’ ”
During the two-hour tour, Murphy was accompanied by Camden activists who have raised questions about how regular residents are benefiting from approximately $1.6 billion worth of tax breaks for businesses moving to the city.
Elected officials in Camden released a statement declaring that the governor wasn’t welcome in Camden until he stopped attacking it, but community organizer Ronsha Dickerson said: “He can come here anytime he likes."
Last month, Dickerson and fellow members of the Camden We Choose coalition organized a similar, so-called “equity" tour for Kevin Quinn, Murphy’s new pick to chair the state’s Economic Development Authority, which oversees the tax-credit programs.
Dickerson said that event opened doors for other officials to come tour neighborhoods beyond Camden’s waterfront. “The governor is coming to meet the residents that are impacted by where economic development doesn’t happen,” she said.
Since 2013, incentives for businesses pledging to invest in Camden have helped to fuel a development boom along the city’s waterfront. The insurance brokerage that Norcross chairs, Conner Strong & Buckelew, and two other firms won a $245 million tax-incentive package to build an office tower there.
Norcross has championed the tax-credit program as a much-needed boost to revitalize Camden, one of New Jersey’s poorest cities. But after a scathing audit of the program was released in January, Murphy launched a special task force to investigate. The task force has questioned claims made by Norcross’ insurance brokerage and other firms on their tax-credit applications. The companies have denied any wrongdoing.
Murphy started his day at the Camden waterfront, aboard the Battleship New Jersey for a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens. (State funding for the ship is also in Murphy’s budget “freeze.") Joining him on deck were Norcross’ brother U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, along with Camden Mayor Frank Moran.
All three appeared to be cordial to one another during the ceremony, with Murphy thanking both men during his remarks, and, at one point, patting the congressman on the shoulder.
Just a few hours later, Murphy was hanging out in Gregory Wyche’s yard, telling jokes and posing for pictures. After the governor left, Wyche said he views Murphy as “taking on the status quo."
“He’s going up against George,” Wyche said, “and that ain’t easy.”