Camden was ostensibly the focus of a special New Jersey Senate committee hearing Monday when, before testimony even began, state troopers forcibly removed city activist Sue Altman. Longtime Trenton observers said they’d never seen anything like the raucous — and disturbing — spectacle. It was the latest episode of a drama that has consumed the state for months, attracted unflattering national media attention, and sparked a federal investigation.
Amid the chaos, millionaire businessman and political boss George Norcross was captured by Inquirer photographer David Maialetti placidly facing the camera with a vaguely amused, above-the-fray smile that seemed to be saying, I haven’t even taken center stage and started testifying yet and already I’ve got this thing nailed.
Norcross had gone to Trenton to defend the state tax-break program he helped inflate into a lavish array of incentives that have fueled the city’s unprecedented development boom. Altman, one of his fiercest and most media-savvy critics — and lately the one most likely to get under his skin — was there to rally the opposition. Gov. Phil Murphy, leader of the non-Norcross wing of the New Jersey Democrats, wasn’t in the hearing room, but he later issued a statement calling the treatment of Altman “outrageous."
An audit and a task force Murphy commissioned to look into the incentives program statewide have harshly criticized its slapdash oversight and insider-ish dealmaking — particularly in Camden. Others have remarked on the almost total absence of any job training or employment targets in what was touted as an economic development program to help poverty-plagued communities. The approach seemed to be “Let’s get the corporate welfare arrangements in place and reel in the big companies now, and worry about their hiring city residents, giving back to the community, and paying actual property taxes later, if ever.”
Characteristically, Norcross has mustered a ferocious counterattack, including a legal challenge to the task force that was struck down by the courts (he’s appealing that decision). Helpfully, state Senate President and Norcross chum Steve Sweeney impaneled the special committee to counter the unsympathetic activities of the task force; Monday’s meeting was intended as a showcase for the “Camden Rising” narrative, of which Norcross is the primary author and lead actor. Sweeney wanted to make sure it would be a congenial setting, with pro-Norcross labor union members bused up from South Jersey just for the occasion.
During what was described as a 90-minute (!) presentation, Norcross spoke, as he often does, about the beleaguered city where he was born undergoing a profound transformation, one that would never have occurred were it not for the incentives (or, presumably, his guidance). And the reality is that Norcross has indeed been the driving force behind big-picture improvements to public safety, education, parks, recreation, and health-care facilities.
Of course, no staging of a Camden Rising performance would be complete without some Norcrossian jabs at his critics. And by Tuesday morning, faithful surrogates — including daughter Lexie Norcross and City Councilwoman Felisha Reyes Morton — were savaging Altman in the signature style that has made the Norcross political machine famous, and feared.
In a tweet, Lexie Norcross posted a meme that featured a heinously unflattering photo of Altman being dragged from the meeting. The viral piece was also decorated with adjectives such as rude and disorderly. Meanwhile, Morton unleashed a “Dear Friends" letter describing Altman as having displayed “psychotic” laughter at the hearing; previous epistles by the councilwoman have characterized Altman as a carpetbagging “Republican debutante.”
Even before these attacks, Murphy, in his statement, said Altman deserved an apology. That may well be the case. But an apology also ought to be offered to the 75,000 other people living in Camden, who once again find themselves and their city being used as a backdrop for a clash of political titans.
Machine Democrats, emboldened by being in more or less permanent charge of the city and the county, and inspired by dreams of replacing the governor with someone more ... agreeable, miss no opportunities to paint themselves as saviors of Camden. For their part, the progressive Democrats and others (Altman is state director of the Working Families Alliance) have seized upon Camden as a poster child for why they and not the machine ought to be in charge.
Critics may dismiss the flashy corporate headquarters and neon-streaked facades downtown and on the waterfront as much as they’d like, but the heart of Camden is brighter than I’ve seen in 40 years of writing about the city. That hotel going up on the waterfront? It will be the first to open in Camden in more than 50 years.
But what good are all the tax breaks and the neon if people who live in Camden don’t work in these buildings?
Until more people in the city are working and opening businesses and buying houses, until more people in Camden have the tools they need to begin rebuilding their city themselves, the battles among the power brokers and would-be power brokers will be a show that goes on and on — without the people who should be at the center of the Camden Rising narrative.
Kevin Riordan is a staff writer for The Inquirer’s editorial board.