Progressive Democrats are mounting an aggressive push to end George Norcross’s stranglehold on New Jersey politics, but it’s going to get messy.
By David Todd McCarty | Friday, November 1, 2019
We are in a precarious place in American history. The future of democracy is at stake and in many ways, New Jersey is at the center of this crisis. Congressman Jeff Van Drew is one of only two Democrats who chose to vote against a House Resolution to approve an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump for abuse of office, obstruction of justice and violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
You may think we live in a state run by democratically-elected officials, but the reality is closer to a system of political corruption that would surprise most Americans. The truth is, the mafia is alive and well in New Jersey and it controls the political machine in the state. This isn’t the Cosa Nostra of the old days, but an even more sinister cabal of powerful men working to consolidate power and enrich themselves at the cost of the taxpayers.
George Norcross has been called the most powerful unelected person in New Jersey. He controls nearly every elected Democrat in South Jersey including party chairs, state senators and assemblymen. Even if you get elected outside of his control, you will get nowhere in the party. Norcross and his team have done a masterful job of consolidating power in a relatively short period of time; only a few decades. They have insured that you can’t get elected without his support, and if you do, and you don’t play ball, you will be sidelined to political Siberia. Without his endorsement and the cooperation of Senate President Steve Sweeney, you won’t get on any committees. You won’t get resources. You won’t get money for staff. You will be irrelevant.
Consequently, the candidates you find on your ballot have been hand-chosen by Norcross and his political organization. The Democratic Party is beholden to his fundraising machine and his political influence, so the only hope you have of electing a candidate is choosing one that will serve the machine. So everyone plays ball.
Which is how we got Jeff Van Drew, a conservative dentist turned politician. He began as a Freeholder, then moved slowly through the ranks to Assembly and the State Senate before finally making the leap to national politics when Frank LoBiondo relinquished his seat in 2018.
When Van Drew won his election against a Republican so reprehensible that the GOP rescinded their support, he left his State Senate seat vacated. The political machine rewarded Bob Andrzejczak’s loyalty to Van Drew by appointing him to Van Drew’s seat and nominated party loyalist Matt Milam to join Bruce Land in the General Assembly. There were votes in local committees of course, but there were no choices given, and no discussion was allowed. All these decisions were made in a room by a few white men.
Many people have lamented the political situation in New Jersey, where the Senate President Steve Sweeney, working with George Norcross, have refused to work with the Democratic Governor on his political agenda. This includes a majority of the Party Committee Chairmen in South Jersey. It seems like an entrenched political system that is unbreakable. But there is no such thing in a real democracy. Their system relies on apathy and the acquiescence of the electorate.
Many Democrats in South Jersey have been convinced that Party loyalty is more important than ideology and that gaining or maintaining power is more important than serving the people. But there is hope that the tide may be turning.
There is a small, but vocal community of progressive Democrats in South Jersey who are fed up with the status quo and more specifically, with the party leadership, and they are organizing around the idea of flipping the party on its ear.
Helen Duda, a local activist, organized a Facebook Group of progressive Democrats committed to removing and replacing the more conservative Democratic Congressman Jeff Van Drew (CD-2). The group has been growing daily she explains, and they’ve already had their first in-person meeting outside of social media.
“We are trying to change the whole party system and Van Drew is a prime example of what’s wrong with the party’s leadership and direction in South Jersey,” said Duda.
Even among the more Progressive wing of the party there are a range of ideas and differences in the thinking behind their common desire for change and a return to a local Democratic party that reflects traditional Liberal values.
Angela Bardoe, who says she considers herself a Pragmatic Progressive explains, “I was listening to commentary recently about needing a national candidate who can unify moderate democrats and progressives. I think the same is true on a local level. The party apparatus has been right of moderate which has only driven away the progressive voter, to the point of causing them to actively work against the party with a write-in campaign. Progressives are not self-sabotaging or delusional; nor are we expecting a purist candidate. We just want candidates who reflect Democratic values and who will work hard to energize voters.”
“Our district is not a monoculture,” said Bardoe. “It’s very diverse. I want our candidates to reflect that diversity. It should include women, black and brown people, with backgrounds from all walks of life. The Party has the opportunity to harness the Progressive energy and turn that into volunteers, donations, etc. The party has utterly failed in that regard, viewing Progressives as a threat, instead of an active voting block who will turn out in the primary in force.”
What the Progressives do have in common is a fierce desire to topple the current political machine. The George Norcross Democrats, known in the 1st Legislative District as Team Van Drew, all lost their seats in the recent election, in large part because they had strayed from their Democratic values and turned off a significant portion of Democrats, especially Progressives.
There was a last-minute write-in campaign, supported by many Progressives, that while doing little to actually sway the election, was a significant signal that the Party and the candidates they had promoted, no longer had the support of the electorate. It was easier for Republicans to just vote for a Republican rather than a Democrat that didn’t offend them. Democrats stayed home or wrote-in candidates.
The goal of this party insurgency seems to be two-fold. The first is to find a candidate that can successfully primary Congressman Jeff Van Drew, who they view as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and not a true Democrat. There has even been some speculation that Van Drew would simply switch parties and just run as a Republican.
The second goal of the group is changing the local party leadership. They say they want to break the grip of the Norcross political machine and be allowed to vote independently, for candidates of their own choosing. They also say they want a more transparent, democratic process for choosing candidates and making party decisions.
“We must remove Democratic County Committee Chairs that are tied to George Norcross and his money, and that do his bidding,” said Helen Duda. “They wield far too much power, and have corrupted the democratic process here in NJ.”
It might not seem unreasonable for Democratic voters to want to embrace democracy, but in an arena where political power is tied to personal power and wealth, the people who hold the reins, do not give up those reins easily or willingly. The Party machine is well-entrenched, and controls nearly all fundraising efforts in the district. There are also many older members of the party who do not wish to see the boat rocked.
It will be interesting to see how the Party moves forward here. Either the establishment will decide to embrace the Progressive wing of the party and attempt to bring them into the fold, or the leadership will be overturned and the power structure changed.
Of course, nothing could happen. It’s possible that the Progressive wing of the party isn’t powerful enough to unseat the current leadership, and that no changes to the status quo would occur, in which case, you’ll end up with a weaker Democratic Party in already conservative South Jersey and the Republicans will be able to strengthen their position.