The sharp rhetoric that has dominated the debate over Atlantic City's future reached a new level Tuesday as Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a potential gubernatorial candidate, questioned why South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III was involved in the discussion, and Norcross said the mayor was "making a fool" of himself.
"Why is an insurance broker, a nonelected official, who has made tens of millions of dollars on the backs of public taxpayers, actively involved in drafting Atlantic City's takeover bill and then lobbying for it all over New Jersey?" Fulop said in a statement.
"Why is a nonregistered lobbyist who is an insurance broker actively calling Assembly members throughout New Jersey? Does anyone in New Jersey actually believe that what is happening is in the best interest of Atlantic City or New Jersey?"
Norcross, responding to Fulop's statement, said he had "never hid" his interest in "ensuring that South Jersey is strong and united."
Fulop, also a Democrat, obliquely acknowledged his interest in seeking his party's gubernatorial nomination in 2017, saying he didn't care if his remarks hurt his prospects. He's expected to compete against Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a Norcross ally, among other possible contenders.
Norcross, executive chairman of the insurance brokerage Conner, Strong & Buckelew and chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper Health System, is widely considered the most powerful political operative in New Jersey. He's also a key ally of Gov. Christie.
Fulop added, cryptically, that he knew that "people will say that Christie and Norcross will use, as they have done in the past, government entities and law enforcement in Trenton to intimidate me - however, the truth is the truth."
Fulop did not provide examples of such intimidation, and a spokeswoman said, "The statement speaks for itself."
Christie has told investigators in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure criminal investigation that he canceled meetings his office had set up with Fulop because the governor did not want to jeopardize his relationship with Sweeney. (Christie has denied involvement in the lane closures and has not been charged with wrongdoing.)
For its part, Fulop's administration in 2014 abruptly terminated a contract the City Council had awarded 10 months before to the law firm Parker McCay to serve as bond counsel. It gave no explanation. Norcross' brother Philip is the firm's managing partner.
Philip Norcross is also a lobbyist for Optimus Partners L.L.C., which represents New Jersey American Water, a firm that has expressed interest in buying Atlantic City's Municipal Utilities Authority. Philip Norcross did not respond to a request for comment.
Other firms also have expressed interest in the utility.
Sweeney, backed by Christie and a clear majority of the Senate, pushed through a bill in March authorizing a state takeover of Atlantic City's government. The legislation would allow the state to dissolve agencies, sell assets, fire employees, and, most controversially, modify or terminate the city's labor agreements.
The bill would give the city one year to "maximize the value" of the water utility before the state could step in.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) has objected to the labor provision and proposed an alternative bill that would give the city two years to meet certain fiscal benchmarks before the state could gain such powers.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote on Prieto's bill Thursday.
Atlantic City, still reeling from the closing of four casinos in 2014, owes about $150 million in property tax refunds to the Borgata casino, as well as about $250 million in debt to bondholders.
Mayor Don Guardian characterized the debate on the state level as 90 percent politics, 10 percent policy.
"I've been trying to keep it on policy," Guardian, who backs Prieto's plan, told the Inquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday. "But it's really about politics."
Guardian said the city would run out of money in June without a solution. It made a $1.8 million bond payment Monday.
George Norcross said in his statement, "For 30 years, I have been single-minded in trying to build our region and ensure that it gets the respect and support it deserves. The collapse of Atlantic City presents a risk not just to Atlantic City, but to the entire region."
He suggested that Prieto and Fulop, also of Hudson County, oppose Sweeney's plan for political reasons.
"I can only question whether today's release is a sign that the bill Speaker Prieto is finally running later this week is likely to fail and Mayor Fulop wants no blame for the delay that has put the city at risk," Norcross said.
He added: "I don't have much else to say about Mayor Fulop's release - my father always told me never to interrupt someone making a fool out of themselves - but it is important to note that the mayor did not always have a negative impression of me.
"He has repeatedly sought my advice and support, including just a few months ago when he traveled two hours to my office in South Jersey and begged for my support for governor. I respectfully declined, but perhaps that rejection is behind today's unhinged statement."
Fulop wrote on Twitter that this was "nonfactual."
The mayor also suggested that Norcross was dictating to Christie, who for months has accused Prieto of carrying out Fulop's agenda.
Fulop said his "only involvement" in the takeover debate regarded his recent visit to Atlantic City "because residents reached out to indicate to me that we should be wary of inviting casinos to Jersey City."
Fulop has backed proposals to expand casinos to North Jersey, but has said recently he might rethink his position. A constitutional amendment that would end Atlantic City's monopoly on casinos will be on the ballot in November.