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Howard Forman says he'll be a no-show at forum about him

Broward Chief Judge Victor Tobin has organized a forum about the Clerk of Courts office to be held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the courthouse.

But Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said he isn't coming.

"I will not be in attendance at your inappropriate and unprecedented August 6th Forum,'' Forman wrote in a letter to Tobin today. "Please correct immediately your website notice that implies that this forum will be held in conjunction with the Clerk of Courts. This was never discussed with me and I did not give you permission to announce my attendance or participation.''

Forman said he's happy to meet with Tobin -- but not at this forum which is open to the public. The duo have been feuding about Forman's management of his office for months.

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Sally

ALAN GUENTHER

Courier-Post Staff

He can make or break careers with a single phone call. He's so powerful that mayors, governors, senators - even state investigators - all want to hear what George E. Norcross III has to say.

Because more than 50 elected and appointed officials in South Jersey owe their careers to him, he can pull strings to influence who gets hired, who gets contracts and whose legislation sees the light of day.

Through a network of of Democratic Party and labor union loyalists, he works behind the scenes. Even though he holds no position in government, he is able to exert more influence over public spending in South Jersey than any any politician. Parks, bridges, roads, hospitals - practically nothing gets built without his input.

A Rutgers-Camden dropout in his freshman year, Norcross began his career in the insurance business 25 years ago in a basement office at 514 Cooper St. in Camden. He had a one- line telephone, a 3-by-4-foot table and a single chair.

Today, as the 46-year-old chief executive of Commerce National Insurance Services, a unit of Commerce Bancorp, Norcross and his immediate family are worth at least $65 million in Commerce stock and unrelated businesses and real estate.

As the unquestioned leader of a Democratic political machine that has annihilated opposition in Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties, Norcross has also managed to win scores of local government insurance contracts. Under one of his biggest contracts, his company provides training to help workers avoid injury in 305 New Jersey communities.

There are those who say South Jersey should be grateful to Norcross. His behind-the-scenes influence in Trenton helped Camden County lawmakers win four key legislative positions that control the flow of state jobs and money. For decades, South Jersey has complained about being treated like a poor cousin to the more-populous northern counties.

Now, his supporters say, Norcross has begun to even the score.

"He's mastered the secret of winning political battles. He' s the best there is," says Nick Acocella, editor of the statewide Politifax newsletter that closely monitors state and local government.

Norcross and former state Senate President John Lynch of Middlesex County are the top two political powerbrokers in New Jersey, Acocella says.

In spite of all his influence, the tough-talking, silver- haired Norcross shuns the spotlight as though it were a laser beam. Evidence of his power, and how he achieved it, has received little public attention.

That's why, during the past three months, the Courier-Post conducted dozens of interviews with Norcross, his family, friends and enemies, and filed more than 100 public information requests with agencies and governments.

The goal was to find out: Who is George Norcross? How did he gain so much influence? Who are his allies? And how does his power affect South Jersey?

County governments, unions keep machine oiled

When Norcross won control of the Camden County Democratic Party in 1989, he accepted no county insurance contracts. He said he wanted to avoid any conflict of interest.

But since resigning as county chairman in 1995, he's gone after county and local government contracts with a passion. In his home base of Camden County, 31 of the 37 municipalities use Norcross' risk management services, the Courier-Post found.

Norcross is no longer party chairman. The job is now held by his younger brother, Donald, a growing power in his own right.

As president of the Southern New Jersey Central Labor Council, Donald Norcross oversees 85,000 union workers. On Election Day, more than 1,700 of them helped get out the vote - mostly for Democrats.

In sharp contrast, Camden County Republicans were able to assemble fewer than 50 Election Day volunteers. With that kind of manpower advantage, Democrats have won every seat in Camden County government for the past 10 years.

The grip Norcross has on the lives of South Jersey residents is hard to see because it's so pervasive, so everyday, and he has been building his political networks for decades.

Chances are the streets in your town have been reviewed or designed by engineers who've donated millions to Norcross' political machine.

Look at the men unloading the food at the grocery store, the hospital workers caring for your sick mother or father, the government workers spending your tax dollars.

With few exceptions, they're members of unions with direct ties to the Norcrosses. And they have taken strong steps to increase his influence and make his hold on local and county governments long-lasting and secure. For example:

•Since 1996, union members have worked hard to elect their own members to local government offices. In the past seven years, the Courier-Post found, 38 union members have won seats in municipal or county government, and more than 100 have been appointed to local planning boards and committees. They're in office, says Donald Norcross, to monitor progress "on issues of importance to working families."

•Thirty local government officials or their family members work for the Camden County government. Camden County Republican Chairwoman Gail Peterson says she questions whether people on the county payroll are "free to vote their conscience."

•Of the 312 municipalities that share insurance costs, no fewer than 305 use Norcross' company to train workers to avoid injury, according to David Grubb, executive director for the Municipal Excess Liability joint insurance fund. "They do a great job," says Grubb, whose agency administers the single contract serving all the communities.

•Commerce National earns roughly $3.5 million annually in fees from the 305 communities. It's only a small share of the company's total annual revenues, which Commerce recently estimated to be near $80 million. Still, Commerce is the state's leading provider of risk management services to municipalities, Grubb said.

Not your old-style bosses, but power still growing

In 2001, Norcross' childhood friend, Ironworkers business agent Stephen Sweeney, captured a state Senate seat. It represented a significant expansion of power for Norcross and the Democrats. With Sweeney's victory, Norcross ousted archenemy Ray Zane from the Senate and helped Democrats gain a 20-20 tie in the upper house, which had been under GOP rule for a decade.

Sweeney also heads the all-Democratic Gloucester County freeholder board.

Norcross and his allies control four county governments, which in turn control spending and jobs.

Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties are the nerve center of the Norcross machine. Together, they control a total of $556 million in spending, and they have more than 5,800 jobs to award - many of them reserved for the Democratic Party faithful.

And this year, for the first time in nearly a decade, Camden County Democrats captured at least partial control of the patronage-laden Delaware River Port Authority. Gov. James E. McGreevey selected Jeffrey Nash, a close Norcross friend and ally, to head the New Jersey delegation for the bistate agency.

Nash and Norcross have known each other for 14 years. Nash is also the freeholder-director of the Democrat-controlled Camden County government.

DRPA - which runs area bridges and the Hi-Speedline - has an annual operating budget of $98.9 million, with 997 jobs. Ninety-nine of those jobs pay more than $70,000 a year. In addition to the money it needs for daily operations, the DRPA this year will dole out $168 million more for other projects.

Norcross and his allies are so entrenched that "it would take a major scandal to unseat them," says Rider University political scientist David Rebovich.

"Certainly, when the name `Norcross' is mentioned in the State House, ears perk up," he says.

But it's important to note that Norcross' Camden County team is a talented, well-educated, articulate group, Rebovich says.

"This is not a group of cigar-smoking, back-room buddies," Rebovich says.

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts, for example, "is widely regarded as having enormously detailed knowledge of policy issues up and down the entire state, from local taxes to the environment and education." And another Norcross loyalist, state Sen. John Adler of Cherry Hill, " is a bright attorney and a passionate advocate for causes such as property tax reform."

The dark side to the power of the Norcross machine, Rebovich said, is that it could be hard for "bright young people with ideas" to get into office unless they are endorsed by the organization.

In dozens of interviews, most South Jersey residents said they had never heard of Norcross. But Robert Mohrfeld, 74, of Pennsauken, a staunch Republican whose family has been active in politics, said he knew Norcross well.

"He's a political boss. Let's put it that way," says Mohrfeld, a retired educator and minister.

Republican Alene Ammond, director of the government watchdog group Public Policy Research Project, calls Norcross' growing influence "dangerous to democracy." Ammond made Norcross' power the central issue in last year' s Cherry Hill mayoral election. She was crushed by Bernie Platt, the Norcross-backed candidate, by a better than 2-1 margin.

Politics are in his blood, his father in his heart

Norcross sleeps with his cell phone on, awaking daily at 5 a.m., when he begins returning calls.

Whether he's traveling in Europe or is in the United States, traveling to one of 23 states where he sells insurance, Norcross is on the phone all the time, talking Jersey politics.

During his frequent trips, he often takes his wife, Sandy, and two children with him. When he does, he rents an extra room to house his computers, fax machines and telephones. That way, he can begin work before dawn without disturbing his family.

Though he speaks often of his desire to slow down and someday quit politics, he still shows the same drive that once had him have a telephone installed in the bathroom of his offices. His Keystone insurance company was purchased in 1996 by Commerce, and it rapidly rose to national prominence.

But no story on Norcross would be complete without a visit to the graveyard, to Colestown Cemetery on Kings Highway in Cherry Hill.

That's where his father and other relatives are buried. A large stone, etched with the NORCROSS name, is held about 15 feet aloft, supported by four large Greek columns. The stone is one of the largest in the cemetery.

The father, George Edwin Norcross Jr., started out modestly, working as a television antenna installer. Later, he rose through the ranks as a union organizer, meeting his wife while he was recruiting workers in Tennessee.

Former Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti knew the Norcross family well. At one point, he says, when young George Norcross was dating his daughter, Michelle, he thought they might all become part of the same family.

"I thought he might be my son-in-law," says Errichetti, who appointed Norcross as chairman of the Camden Parking Authority in the late 1970s, the only government job Norcross ever held. Errichetti remembers young George was very close to his father, and the father always spent time with his children.

"They were very disciplined, everything you could want in a child," says Errichetti. He remembers young Norcross as " a hard worker. I took him to all the meetings with me. He took orders well."

By the time the Norcross children - George, Donald, John, now a psychologist, and Philip, a bond counsel and head of the Burlington County United Way - were in their teens, they traveled with their father throughout the country.

From their father, they learned the art of power politics and negotiation first-hand. Like many influential labor leaders and politicians, Norcross became well known for helping thousands of families when they were down on their luck.

He started a social service organization, helping needy union members get the food and medicine they needed.

"It was the first organization of its kind," says Donald Norcross, who today sits on the board of directors of the Union Organization for Social Service program. Last year, the organization answered thousands of calls for help throughout South Jersey. Donald Norcross also serves as head of the Camden County United Way. The job he holds with the Labor Council is the same position his father held until he retired in 1996.

George E. Norcross still visits his father's grave every week.

Often, he takes his son, Alex, along. After one recent visit to see his "pop-pop," Alex left behind a green and yellow Tonka truck, a red fighter plane and a small wooden car.

George Norcross' feelings for his father are intense and personal. He carries an 8-by-10 photo with him in a folder wherever he goes. It's a picture of young George, crew cut and smiling, sitting on his father's knee, with his dad's arm around him.

Norcross won't talk about his father. He said his feelings are private and will remain so.

Investigations of Democratic machine

Over the past 10 years, the growth of the Camden County Democratic machine has caught the attention of state and federal investigators, who have examined hundreds of files in the course of several investigations.

In Waterford, West Deptford and Oaklyn, authorities interviewed past and current officials, searching for any improper use of campaign donations, expenditures and the awarding of government contracts.

The results of the investigations have never been made public.

The most recent probe concerned a complaint by Palmyra Councilman John Gural, who two years ago secretly recorded conversations with Norcross.

In a lawsuit, Gural claimed Norcross threatened to have him fired from his job with JCA Associates engineering firm in Moorestown.

Gural said he was pressured by Norcross to vote against hiring a political enemy, attorney Ted Rosenberg, as solicitor in Palmyra.

The lawsuit was settled. Norcross denied the allegations but would not talk further about the case. Gural also refused comment.

State Deputy Attorney General Anthony Picione led the criminal investigation of JCA, which has contracts with 18 government agencies and towns, many of them in South Jersey.

From 1999 to 2001, JCA earned more than $3 million in fees from West Deptford, much of it for work on the RiverWinds project, a major housing and recreation project on the banks of the Delaware River.

During that same time, JCA donated more than $250,000 to political campaigns. Much of that money was donated to Democrats in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties.

Evidence was examined by a state grand jury in Trenton. No results have been publicly released.

Throughout the past decade, Norcross and his associates have promoted themselves as reformers who have cleaned up government.

Asked whether his political connections help him win business, Norcross, in a written statement, said: " Political or business relationships are meaningless if performance is lacking.

"Our clients want to do business with people they like and trust, but the client's first priority is delivery of quality service."


With high-placed friends, little escapes Norcross

Bill Clinton, when he was president, attended Norcross' campaign rallies in Cherry Hill. Ted Kennedy is a frequent guest at his fund-raisers. Norcross is so welcome at the State House in Trenton that he uses a private entrance to gain access to McGreevey's offices.

His alliances are well known, though he said he strictly adheres to New Jersey's notoriously weak campaign finance laws.

Contractors who make campaign donations to the Camden County Democrats often get professional contracts where competitive bidding is not required by law. Union workers loyal to him get jobs.

But those looking for information about Norcross may be surprised at how far his influence reaches.

For example, the Courier-Post contacted the state Department of Community Affairs for data. The newspaper wanted to know which municipalities used Norcross' insurance company, Commerce National Insurance Services.

A day later, a startled reporter received the return call - not from a state official, but from Norcross.

"Are you trying to do a hatchet job on me?" Norcross demanded.

An interview was then requested with DCA Commissioner Susan Bass Levin, the former Democratic Cherry Hill mayor who, until recently, had maintained her political independence from Norcross.

Some eyebrows were raised when the popular Levin publicly endorsed Norcross' handpicked candidate, Bernie Platt, to replace her in Cherry Hill.

Norcross and former Gov. Jim Florio had lobbied McGreevey to hire Levin as DCA commissioner.

For two months, Levin would not agree to an interview, then canceled a tentative appointment arranged by her staff. Finally, after 10 weeks passed, she was approached in a State House stairwell.

Her response to the leak of of information about the newspaper's request for information on Norcross was to deny it had happened.

"You are a liar," she said to a reporter.

Six days later, at 11:10 a.m. on Feb. 10, Norcross called. He knew about the confrontation with Levin and demanded to know what the newspaper was writing about him.

Norcross is so well-connected that he gets information even from Republicans.

On a Monday afternoon, the Courier-Post interviewed state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, on the floor of the Senate. By Thursday morning, Norcross informed the newspaper what questions had been asked and what Matheussen had said.

Even more surprising was an incident involving Republican U.S. Senate candidate Douglas Forrester.

The Courier-Post set out to investigate a rumor that Norcross had tried to influence the Republican primary by encouraging Matheussen to enter the race.

To check out the story, a reporter drove on a Sunday afternoon to Forrester's home in suburban West Windsor, Mercer County. He wasn't home. A handwritten note was left in Forrester's door handle.

The next morning, the call was returned. Not by Forrester - by Norcross.

In an angry conversation, Norcross again demanded to know what the newspaper was researching.

Later that afternoon, Forrester called. He denied giving information to Norcross. He said he had contacted only a Republican campaign official, and that he was amazed that the news had traveled to Norcross so quickly.

Going for it all: Norcross a fan of the `big play'

Norcross tells friends he is respected and feared in political circles because he is unafraid to kick the table over and start a brawl. The status quo has benefited North Jersey for so long, he reasons, that change can only benefit him and his supporters.

State Republican Chairman Joseph Kyrillos complains that Norcross favors "the grand gesture, the big play" - the more reckless the better. But in the next breath, he says he wishes he had someone like Norcross on his side.

Kyrillos says he would want "a quiet Norcross" - someone who would not be so visible or confrontational.

But throughout his career, while he has avoided the spotlight, Norcross has been the driving force behind the biggest political stories.

In November, Camden County Democrats were so flush with cash that they were able to contribute at least $187,000 to help Democrats win the top governmental job - the county executive - in Bergen County.

Last June, Norcross prowled the State House corridors with Joe DiVencenzo, whom he helped elect as county executive in Essex County, in part by lining up union support. Norcross tried to get the Legislature to consider building an arena in Newark, even getting into a shouting match in the private office of Republican Senate President John O. Bennett.

Published reports called it a shoving match. Bennett declined comment except to say, "It got ugly." Norcross wouldn't talk about it.

Such public confrontations are extremely rare for Norcross. He prefers to work behind the scenes, as he did in 2000, when he helped convince then-U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli to enter the race for governor.

For 12 days, Torricelli tried to topple McGreevey, who had been coasting along as the presumed nominee of his party. The coup attempt failed.

But Norcross survived. He is now a close confidant of McGreevey's.

Ironically, the governor's new chief of staff - Jamie Fox - held that same position for Torricelli only three years ago. He helped Norcross engineer the failed coup.

Now, Norcross and Fox are trusted comrades of McGreevey's in the State House.

Fox says he finds Norcross' blunt style a refreshing change from the diplomatic style of typical politicians.

"I'm awfully fond of him," Fox says.

Last year, Norcross helped orchestrate a deal that toppled his longtime nemesis, Joseph Doria of Bayonne. Doria had been the Democratic leader in the Assembly for more than a decade, and seven South Jersey Democrats had walked out of the Democratic caucus to protest Doria's treatment of them.

Perhaps as a payback for the Torricelli coup, McGreevey would not agree to replace Doria as Assembly speaker with Norcross ally Joe Roberts of Camden.

Instead, McGreevey and Norcross turned to political newcomer Albio Sires of West New York, Hudson County. Roberts would be named to the No. 2 post of majority leader, with expanded responsibilities and power.

Norcross accepted the deal. And he brokered other compromises with McGreevey. The governor-elect agreed to support the appointment of four Camden County lawmakers to top posts in the Legislature.

A friend of casino mogul Donald Trump and a gambler by nature, Norcross likes to tell friends how he takes risks to win clout for fellow South Jerseyans on the political scene.

South Jersey can be hurt only if things stay the same, he says.

To explain his philosophy, Norcross uses an old gambler's phrase:

"Heads you win. Tails you win more."

Labor union members in county, local government

Since 1996, 38 union members have won election to local and county offices in South Jersey. Donald Norcross, president of the Southern New Jersey Central Labor Council, said a union presence in local government helps ensure the interests of working families are represented. Norcross is the brother of George E. Norcross III, South Jersey's Democratic political boss.

Some of the following union members have won election more than once over the years.

The winners have been:

1996

Steve Sweeney, Gloucester County freeholder

1997

Frank Spencer, Camden County freeholder

Donna Pearson, Cumberland County freeholder

Robert Damminger, Gloucester County freeholder

Bill Bain, Deptford mayor

Russell Naylor, Woodbury Heights council

Duane Pheasant, Woodbury Heights council

1998

Chet Zimolzak, Pitman council

Harry Elton, Woodbury Heights mayor

Claire Poole, Woodbury Heights council

Kathy Simon, Monroe council

1999

Robert McGlinchey, Pine Hill council

Steve Sweeney, Gloucester county freeholder

Mary Beth Connelly-Monroe, Deptford council

Dan Reed, Deptford council

Paul Medany, Deptford council

Fred Ernst, Newfield council

Mike Seery, Upper Pittsgrove council

2000

Helen Albright, Camden county freeholder

Don Wilson, Magnolia council

Robert Damminger, Gloucester county freeholder

Lorraine Beckett, Mantua council

Walter Lenkowski, Mantua council

Dave Bruce, Washington Township council

Janice Hauser, West Deptford council

Duane Pheasant, Woodbury Heights council

Russell Naylor, Woodbury Heights council

Donna Pearson, Cumberland county freeholder

2001

Steve Sweeney, state Senate

Michael Wolf, Magnolia council

Bill Bain, Deptford mayor

Janice Hauser, West Deptford council

Claire Poole, Woodbury Heights council

John Crawford, Pennsville council

Melvin Beals, Jr., Pennsville council

Thomas McKee, Quinton council

2002

Mark Armbruster, Clementon council

Mike Wolf, Magnolia council

Bob McGlinchey, Pine Hill council

Jim Venello, Pennsgrove committee

John Washington, Pennsgrove committee

Steve Sweeney, Gloucester County freeholder

Kathy Simon, Monroe Twp. council

Fred Ernst, Newfield council

Gwendolyn Brown, Woodbury council

Harry Elton, Woodbury Heights mayor

Joe Smith, Woodbury Heights council

Joe Chila, Woolwich committee

On the county payroll

Thirty local government officials or their family members work for the Camden County government, the center of power for the Norcross machine.

- Councilman Chris Morris Berlin Twp. Director, Bldgs & Operations $92,715

- Councilman Lou DiAngelo Bellmawr Insurance Manager $49,168

- Mayor Frank Filipek Sr. Bellmawr Division Head $82,084

- Filipek's son, Frank Jr. Bellmawr Confidential Ass't to Director $67,771

- Councilman Steve Sauter Bellmawr Data Processing $55,605

- Councilwoman Regina Piontkowski Bellmawr Sr. Clerk $41,644

- Councilwoman Dana Redd Camden Division Head $62,807

- Councilman Israel Nieves Camden Exec. Dir., Bilingual Program $70,705

- Councilman Mike McGuire Camden Sr. Housing Inspector $39,654

- The son of Chesilhurst Councilman Elaris Robinson Sr., Elaris Robinson Jr., a Juvenile Detention Officer $44,821

- Municipal Party Chairman Larry James Chesilhurst Planner $47,776

- Councilman David Mayer Gloucester Twp. Deputy County Clerk $85,036

- Councilman Robert Bove Stratford Public Info. Ass't., Sheriff $37,940

- Councilman Anthony O'Toole Haddon Heights Sr. Engineer $54,336

- Commissioner Nicholas Laurito Haddon Twp. Ass't. Personnel Officer, Parks $78,713

- Laurito's son, James Haddon Twp. Sr. Clerk $27,188

- Laurito's daughter, Lisa Haddon Twp. Clerk $21,775

- Mayor Joe Wolk's daughter, Deborah Mt. Ephraim Confidential Ass't. $36,542

- Councilman Gary Tomar Hi Nella Stock handler $36,409

- Mayor Irene Murphy-Wolick Hi Nella Principal Clerk Typist $36,371

- Councilman Cliff Still Lawnside Recreation Supervisor $46,316

- Mayor Betty Ann Cowling- Carson Magnolia Office Service Manager $48,529

- Councilman Robert Barham Lindenwold Para Professional $50,481

- Councilwoman Karen SiÅ mons Oaklyn Confidential Ass't $54,286

- Former Mayor Bart Mueller Oaklyn Parks Director $96,000

- Councilman James Perry Somerdale Public Health Investigator $41,940

- Councilman Frank Reilly Stratford Gen. Supervisor, Roads $83,220

- Councilman George Fallon Waterford Supervisor, Roads $105,509

- Councilwoman Barbara HolÅ comb Winslow Supervisor, Customer SerÅ vice $45,498

- Councilman Ron Tomasello Winslow Systems Analyst $62,661

Source: Public payroll records

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