Norcross takes off the gloves

The Star-Ledger | July 2, 2002



They say he cursed. Threatened. Screamed.

Some say he shoved.

By most accounts, during Sunday’s wild legislative session, George E. Norcross III certainly made his presence felt.

As undisputed Democratic leader of Camden County and a vaunted fund-raiser, he has become one of Gov. James E. McGreevey’s close allies. He is a top executive at the very politically connected Commerce Bancorp, which sells government bonds, holds government deposits and handles government insurance.

Normally a press-shy, behind-the-scenes player, Norcross’ lobbying on legislation for a Newark arena could not have been more visible in Sunday’s session that spilled into Monday. He worked his cell phone. He popped up in back rooms. He buttonholed legislators.

Along the way, he made a new political enemy, whom he promptly vowed to bury in the next election.

And by midnight, he was the buzz of an already frenetic Statehouse for his back-room confrontation with Republican Senate Co-President John Bennett – a fight loud enough that one legislator thought a band of terrorists had infiltrated the Statehouse.

The late-night imbroglio came in Bennett’s wood-paneled office, just off the Senate floor, where the upper house was debating budget bills.

Norcross and former Sen. John Lynch were pushing a bill that would help team owners pay for a sports arena in Newark, a soccer stadium in Harrison and a civic center in Pennsauken (where Norcross’ minor-league hockey team could play).

Sunday night, Norcross and Lynch strode into Bennett’s office with a beef: Bennett had agreed to allow a vote on a bill financing a Newark sports arena, but the deal had hit a snag. Loudly, according to various reports, Norcross accused Bennett of reneging.

Expletives flew, witnesses said. Bennett demanded that Norcross get out of his office. Norcross bluntly threatened retribution.

What happened next? Depends on whom you ask. Several legislative sources say the argument got physical, that one person shoved the other. Norcross threatened to force a government shutdown, according to three people who spoke to Bennett immediately after the fight.

Bennett would not confirm or deny a shove. Neither would he go into the specifics of the conversation. And Norcross likewise declined comment.

A source close to Norcross denied that the fight escalated to shoving and said he never told Bennett he could shut government down – which really would be quite a feat for a guy who doesn’t even hold elected office.

Late yesterday, a person close to Norcross faxed another account to reporters.

The faxed account says Bennett tried to sweeten the arena legislation by including financing to redevelop a horse track in his own district. When key Republicans balked over that side deal, Bennett abruptly reneged on his deal with Democrats on the arena.

When Norcross and Lynch came in to argue, this account goes, Bennett threatened retribution – against McGreevey, against Lynch, against Norcross, against Democrats at large.

Norcross retorted by saying he’d raise money to blast Bennett in his next election.

Reached yesterday, Norcross said only: “If I got caught betraying my colleagues with my hand in the till, I’d be looking to blame someone else, too.”

Bennett, for his part, denied (a) pushing for the race-track sweetener as a payback for moving the arena bill forward; (b) threatening anybody; or (c) reneging on any deal with the Democrats on the arena legislation.

“Perhaps Mr. Norcross should learn that when you’re doing the right thing, you don’t have to worry about someone accusing you of doing something improper,” Bennett said. “I would hope he could say the same.”