Moments before a triumphant Jim Kenney took the stage on election night Tuesday to give his victory speech in front of a throng of political supporters, the presumptive next mayor of Philadelphia took a very brief private meeting with arguably the most powerful man in New Jersey — political power broker George Norcross.
Norcross, a Camden County insurance executive, is regarded as the pre-eminent political power broker east of the Delaware River. But he's also become a presence in Philadelphia in recent years. He is chairman of Connor Strong & Buckelew, an insurance and benefits firm that has a headquarters in Philadelphia. Until last year, he was a principal owner of the parent company of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.
The two met in a small room at the posh North Broad Street restaurant Vie, the site of the Kenney campaign's election night party. In the giddy afterglow of a landslide victory, as supporters packed the restaurant and danced to loud music, Kenney slipped in through a side entrance and then into a conference room where Norcross and another unidentified man were waiting.
The men spoke for just a minute or two before Norcross and the associate departed. About 10 minutes later, after greeting staffers and family, Kenney left the room to give his victory speech.
His campaign downplayed the significance of the meeting.
"Jim met with a lot of people last night and he invited them all back into the staff room because it was the only way to have a real conversation with anyone, given the crowd outside," spokesperson Lauren Hitt said.
But the interaction adds to speculation that the South Jersey political boss may have been indirectly involved in the Philadelphia mayoral election.
Two weeks before the primary, The Inquirer reported about a massive campaign donation to a super PAC that was supporting Kenney. Campaign finance records showed the money to the pro-Kenney PAC called Building a Better Pa came from a group called "The Turnout Project." A few days later, politics blog Citified reported that The Turnout Project was funded, in addition to a huge donation from a New Jersey carpenters' union, by donations from two law firms, one tied to Norcross' personal attorney and another to his brother, Philip Norcross.
Hitt did not answer questions about personal or political relationships between Kenney and Norcross, but sources close to Kenney said the two men know each other reasonably well — Norcross had dealings with Kenney's one-time political mentor, Vincent Fumo, a former state senator from South Philadelphia convicted in 2009 of corruption.
Norcross was also photographed at Election Day hangout Famous 4th Street Deli during the lunchtime power hour. (Below, Norcross is seated second from the right. To his right is David Cohen, a former adviser to Ed Rendell and a current executive at Comcast. Kevin Dougherty, whose brother, Philadelphia labor boss John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, is credited by many as the main force behind Kenney's election, is in the foreground on the left of the photograph, which was shot by a staff photographer.)
"Norcross is a regional power player obviously, especially, you know, South Jersey. We have a lot of common interests like the [Delaware River Port Authority], the port and the airport," political consultant Larry Ceisler said, referring to the bridge toll agency that is managed by representatives appointed by the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
And Norcross was the one who got in a last word with Kenney as the Democratic mayoral nominee memorized his victory speech.