TRENTON — A New Jersey lawmaker ordered police to “clear the back row” after a chorus of boos rang out in his Statehouse hearing room Monday.
Sue Altman wasn’t making any noise. She wasn’t near the back row. But state troopers decided she was the one who had to go. “Why would you kick me out?” Altman asked when one cop requested she leave.
Moments later, multiple officers swooped in and grabbed Altman by her arms. They dragged the Camden political activist out of the room, out of the Statehouse, and into the cold while her supporters chanted “shame, shame, shame.” She was swept right past George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey businessman and political power broker she had come to confront. Norcross had a slight smirk.
The contentious scene — followed by displays of support from Gov. Phil Murphy and leading Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren — briefly rocked New Jersey politics. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise:
Sue Altman has a knack for angering people in power.
Altman, 37, is the head of New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance, a political group and part of the Working Families movement that’s been a growing force in progressive politics around the country (Kendra Brooks captured a Philadelphia City Council seat for the Working Families Party this month). Altman is known for her vocal criticism of the state’s Democratic establishment.
She has only been on the job six months, but her goals are clear, if not at all easy: tear down the Democratic machine and make Working Families “the political home" for people who want to transform New Jersey politics.
“Probably at my heart, I’m an activist. I have a fundamental mistrust of power," Altman said recently. "I like the challenge of pushing against power, especially when the power is undeserved.”
Sue Altman takes on George Norcross
If there’s a poster child for everything Altman says is wrong with New Jersey politics, it’s Norcross. The executive chairman of insurance brokerage Conner Strong & Buckelew is regarded as one of the most powerful people in New Jersey. In recent months, he’s faced allegations, reported by WNYC and ProPublica, that he manipulated New Jersey’s controversial tax-incentive program to benefit his companies and affiliated organizations in Camden to the tune of $1.1 billion.
Norcross has denied any wrongdoing, and went to Monday’s hearing, he said, to “correct the many misstatements, mischaracterizations, and outright mistruths” regarding his work in Camden and the tax credits from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. The Inquirer has reported that federal authorities are investigating the corporate tax-incentive program.
Altman hopes this moment will keep the pressure on Norcross and ensure that the Christie-era program is investigated.
“Keeping it in the news is the best insurance policy to make sure that happens,” she said.
Norcross spokesperson Dan Fee painted Altman as hungry for the spotlight. “If her goal is to win anything other than media coverage featuring herself, she’s been remarkably unsuccessful," Fee said. "We sort of hope she keeps focused on media attention for herself so that everyone else can remain focused on rebuilding Camden.”
On the night before Halloween last month, Altman took her anti-establishment message to the Shore Diner in Egg Harbor Township. More than 20 activists packed into a back room. Altman’s aim was to unravel the power of New Jersey’s Democratic Party in a tight 30 minutes, working off a heavily footnoted presentation called “Bosses and Ballots.”
If everyday citizens could learn how they’ve been stripped of power by the wealthy in New Jersey, she said, it would “incite them” and get them to act.
Her first slide, a picture of a man, got right to the point.
“This is George Norcross,” Altman said. “By design, George controls members of the Legislature.”
She riffed on how machine politics and party bosses like Norcross arose in New Jersey, saying they hold outsize power in how the state is run. Even if politicians want to defy the bosses, she said, they often can’t without risking the loss of lucrative government jobs or political influence.
“Much of the power wielded in Trenton can come from [controlling] people’s livelihood,” she said. Politicians "have to listen to leadership, and if they don’t, bad things happen.”
The ‘Hunterdon County Debutante’
A native of Clinton, in Central New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, Altman studied at Columbia University and Oxford, and also spent time as a professional basketball player in Europe (she recently took up boxing). After time as a high school teacher at prep schools in New Jersey and New York, she got her start in activism in late 2014.
She had just moved to Camden, where she quickly got involved in the city’s public schools. In the summer of 2016, she got into a six-minute spat with then-Gov. Chris Christie over his proposed school funding plan.
After Donald Trump was elected president, she organized a group of female activists and helped create South Jersey Women for Progressive Change.
In 2018, the group campaigned for Andy Kim, a former Obama administration official running for Congress in South Jersey. Kim’s victory turned a long-held Republican seat blue by less than 4,000 votes.
Altman has her share of critics. Some, like Camden City Councilwoman Felisha Reyes Morton, say she’s more flash than substance. “We need more Indians and less chiefs,” Reyes Morton said.
Reyes Morton and others have also questioned Altman’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. Records show Altman was a registered Republican until October 2008. She changed to independent one month later and became a Democrat in 2016. She did not vote in 2012, she acknowledged, saying she was studying in England.
Others, including Vic Carstarphen, a recent candidate for Camden City Council, call her a “Hunterdon County debutante” — the implication being she’s a rich white woman from upstate who has no place talking about Camden’s problems.
"[The machine’s] whole premise for existing is that South Jersey isn’t going to get what it deserves because evil other parts of the state will take it from them,” Altman said.
Steve Ayscue, a political strategist whose firm works for a Norcross-backed political action committee, has attacked Altman’s group for not disclosing its donors. Insurgent progressive political groups have increasingly taken undisclosed “dark money” in recent years.
New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance has an annual budget of about $500,000. Altman has a $75,000 salary, according to spokesperson Rob Duffey. Donations come from labor groups like the New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America, as well the Murphy-allied group New Directions New Jersey, Altman said.
“Her organization is being funded by some of the biggest special interests in Trenton,” Fee said.
“People don’t want to go up against the machine on paper," Altman said in response. “George’s tentacles run wide and deep, and there’s a real potential for retaliation.”
Is she running?
Altman wants to create a powerful political organization under the Working Families umbrella that can mobilize voters on issues like fair wages and a millionaires’ tax.
“It’s making the Working Families Alliance a larger player in the state conversation," Democratic strategist Brendan Gill, who has run the pro-Murphy New Directions, said.
She’s increasingly wielding power at the top echelons of state politics. “I’ve kicked around ideas with her,” one senior Murphy aide said. “With influence comes the ability to weigh in on stuff.”
Eventually, she wants to eradicate “the ballot line," a New Jersey electoral quirk that puts endorsed party candidates in one strategically advantageous column during primaries.
And she hasn’t ruled out running for Congress in 2020. Altman lives in Rep. Donald Norcross’ congressional district. George Norcross is his brother.
“It’s the crown jewel,” Altman said.