Politics

05.27.14

New Jersey Political Boss Loses Control Of Newspaper

George Norcross, the most powerful politico in New Jersey, lost control of the Philadelphia Inquirer Tuesday to his estranged business partner.

The most powerful man in New Jersey became a lot less powerful Tuesday—and it’s not Chris Christie.

George Norcross III, white-haired like a cartoon villain, is South Jersey’s Democratic boss. If Norcross’s press is to be believed, he is to Jersey politics what Voldemort was to Hogwarts. But Tuesday, he lost control of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadephia Daily News, the two major newspapers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, which includes almost all of South Jersey.

In April 2012, the well-respected Inquirer and its more tabloid-ey sister, the Daily News—were sold for the fifth time in six years, for $55 million, to a group of influential locals, led by Norcross and Lew Katz, himself a successful businessman with ties to the Democratic Party (he was an early supporter of Bill Clinton and Ed Rendell). The relationship between the partners soured and devolved into ugly squabbling and litigation. Tuesday morning Katz finally wrestled control of Interstate General Media, the parent company of the papers (and Philly.com), out of Norcross’s hands with an $88 million bid. 

Norcross and Gov. Christie’s relationship has been vital to Christie getting things done with the support of Democrats (which allows him to perpetuate the image of a leader capable of working in a bipartisan fashion). At an event after Bridgegate, Norcross joked in Christie’s presence that he was the only one who could close a bridge in New Jersey.

The son of a union boss, Norcross dropped out of college and “started his [insurance] business with a fold-up card table and a phone,” New Jersey Senate President and Norcross ally Stephen Sweeney told me in a recent interview. Norcross’s business became a success and turned him into a millionaire.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Norcross began financing campaigns and installing candidates in local and state office. He became so powerful that, in his own words—according to secret recordings released after Norcross was investigated for corruption (he’s never been found guilty of a crime)—"in the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me…Not that they like me, but because they have no choice.” Norcross was also recorded recalling a threat he made, “If I catch you one more time doing it, you’re going to get your fucking balls cut off.”

As the U.S. Attorney, Christie chose not to indict Norcross, saying that the attorney general had screwed up his investigation—which Democrats have long considered a political move by Christie. Whether or not it was, it no doubt helped him when he moved onto his next job: governor.

The scope of Norcross’s power extends even beyond South Jersey, making the power of Democratic bosses in North Jersey seem feeble in comparison. A relationship with Norcross would be vital to any governor, and Christie is no exception. The legislators from Norcross’s territory—Sen. Sweeney among them—allowed Christie to pass things like pension and property tax reform in his first term.

In 2012, before Norcross and Katz partnered to buy the papers, Daily News reporter Wendy Ruderman told NPR that she thought the proposed deal was “about buying access. I can’t imagine that someone like George Norcross is being philanthropic…He absolutely despises the media.”

Some sources maintain that it was Norcross’s attempt to have editorial control that created friction between him and Katz—it has been charged that Norcross’s 26-year-old daughter, Lexie, wielded editorial control over Philly.com, which some worried she was trying to turn “into BuzzFeed.”