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Small-Town Mayor, Grad Student Fight Democratic Machine in 1st District

Can Two Candidates with Virtually No Name Recognition Take On South Jersey’s Most Entrenched Political Interests?

Donald Norcross
Credit: philly.com
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden)

When 13-term Congressman Rob Andrews (D-1st) suddenly resigned in the face of a House ethics investigation last February, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) announced his candidacy to replace him the next day.

Norcross, brother of political kingmaker and former Camden County Democratic Party Chairman George Norcross, immediately raked in endorsements from dozens of fellow Democrats, including both U.S. senators from New Jersey and from Andrews himself.

Donald Norcross, who was appointed to his state Senate seat in 2010 because of a reshuffling that involved state-level politicians from his hometown of Camden, is expected to easily beat his two little-known opponents in the June 3 primary, then win the November general election.

Because Andrews, who claims his move to a private Philadelphia law firm had nothing to do with his ethics troubles, didn’t finish out his term, Norcross and his challengers are running concurrently in both a regular primary and a special primary to be held on the same day. This means that if a Democrat wins in November, he’ll fill Andrews’ seat until January, then begin his own full term.

Though Norcross says he didn’t know about Andrews’ resignation until the congressman alerted him the night before announcing it publicly, he’s being opposed in the primary by two men – one a Gloucester County mayor, the other a Harvard graduate student and military veteran – who say they’re running precisely to combat the tight grip the Norcrosses and their allies have on South Jersey Democratic politics.

minor
Democratic Congressional hopeful Frank Minor.

“Everybody knows what the (political) ‘machine’ is, what it does. I’m running as an alternative,” said 59-year-old Frank Minor, three-term mayor of Logan Township, who’s making his first run for higher office. “I’m a public servant who serves the people. Not a corporation, not a special interest group, not a machine.”

Candidate Frank Broomell says he initially entered the race because it looked like Norcross would be unopposed in the primary.

Frank Broomell
Democratic Congressional hopeful Frank Broomell.

“It looked like there’d be one candidate. If it had unfolded differently or if Andrews hadn’t resigned I wouldn’t have gotten into the race. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are ready for something different,” said the 27-year-old public policy student, who served two tours as a Marine officer in Afghanistan.

But Norcross’ name, campaign-finances war chest, backing by the party organization, and his status as the race’s only candidate to ever hold state office, all arguably boost his chances for victory.

He ran unopposed in his two primary bids for state Senate, then beat the same Republican opponent twice in general elections by approximately 15 points.

The Rothenberg Political Report, together with Roll Call, places the 40 percent Democratic and 46 percent Independent district in the “Safe Democratic” category, meaning that the winner of the primary isn’t likely to lose in November against one of four Republican hopefuls, including former Philadelphia Eagles football player Garry Cobb.

And then there’s the money. According to the Federal Election Commission, Norcross had raised almost $379,000 and spent $25,000 by the first quarterly filing deadline of mid-April, while none of his primary opponents had raised enough to meet the $5,000 threshold for required filing.

The candidates

Donald Norcross is business manager for Local 351 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.. He received an associate degree in criminal justice from Camden County College and now lives with his wife in a high-rise apartment building on the Camden waterfront.

He chairs the state Senate’s Law and Public Safety Committee and sits on the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, the Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee and the Transportation Committee. For the past two years he’s served as Assistant Majority Leader.

Legislatively, he helped deliver a massive tax-incentive package to companies that locate in Camden, and he co-sponsored the controversial higher education act that forged alliances to boost the ability of universities in South Jersey – and Camden in particular -- to fund high-tech health-science research, education and practice. He introduced the pending NJ TEAM Act to offer in-state tuition rates to any veteran enrolled in a New Jersey college and he championed a program that gives municipalities the right to set aside some contracts for veteran-owned businesses.

Of the three candidates, only Broomell, who interned for Andrews in high school, can claim any direct military experience. He attended Officer Candidate School after college and entered the Marines as a second lieutenant in 2009.

He deployed twice to Afghanistan, where he worked on air intelligence issues and volunteered for extra duty as a helicopter door gunner and aerial observer. He received several performance medals and was promoted to captain in the Reserves after leaving active duty last summer.Now between his first and second year at Harvard Graduate School, the Sicklerville native says he’s willing to put his schooling on hold to serve his country yet again.

“When I got started at Harvard I worked toward a focus on international and national security, but as fall drew on and we watched what was happening in Congress you just wanted to shake your head and say, ‘These guys are ridiculous down there.’ But if we leave it to them and walk away we’re never going to improve things. So I thought, ‘Maybe (public service) is something I want to do down the line.’ But things changed drastically when Andrews resigned,” he explained.

Minor looked toward assuming a more prominent position last year when his name reportedly landed on a short list of potential lieutenant governors for unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono. The two met when Minor was serving as floor whip for New Jersey’s Democratic National Convention in 2008. Despite the rumors, however, Minor was never formally asked.

Prior to that, Minor – who is African-American, served as president of the Gloucester County Minority Coalition and as a member of the board of directors of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. He recently joined the steering committee of The William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He’s received numerous awards from community organizations, and he started his own foundation in 2011 to “promote the advantages of academic achievement to economically disadvantaged students.”

Minor works as deputy executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates a bridge, two ferries, a police force, and four airports and an airline terminal in New Jersey and Delaware. He graduated with a B.A. in sociology from Syracuse University and is married.

The district

As the New Jersey district closest to Philadelphia -- comprising most of Camden County and parts of Gloucester and Burlington counties – the 1st District is almost entirely urban and suburban. With the exception of the struggling post-industrial cities of Camden and Gloucester, much of the district houses white-collar bedroom communities and high-tech firms. One-third of the population holds a college degree or higher, and the average home is valued at more than $222,000.

But that is not to overlook the reliably Democratic minority voters in the cities and the union workers in towns that line the Delaware River. As a union leader with strong ties to his older brother George and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), union bosses themselves, Norcross curries strong favor with these blue-collar workers. However, with a Teamsters truck driver father, Broomell b.ears his own labor credentials, and Minor boasts a strong track record on jobs and economic growth.

But Broomell and Minor have not received any labor endorsements, while Norcross has picked up nearly 20.

The issues

All three candidates profess a commitment to the working class and middle class. All promise to make job creation their top priority.

Minor, for his part, says his economic record in Logan Township speaks for itself: 60 new companies in the past five years (including two international leaders in the food-production industry); $800 million in ratables in a township with a population that’s less than 10,000; no long-term debt; no municipal layoffs; fully-funded pensions; a balanced budget, and the distinction of being one of the only localities in the state to operate with a surplus.

How does he do it?

“By keeping taxes low and my focus on infrastructure high,” said the mayor, who began political life as a Republican before switching parties in 2007.

If elected to Congress, he said he hopes to continue to promote job growth by supporting bills that authorize funds to repair aging infrastructure and offer tax credits to companies that hire returning veterans and the long-term unemployed. He also believes public agencies should work region to region to identify the evolving skill sets within the workforce, then court prospective employers in related fields who may be looking for new places to locate or expand. Norcross can point to his own record on economic development. In addition to his support for business-incentive packages to lure companies to New Jersey and his fight to turn South Jersey into a hub for “eds-and-meds” educational and medical entities, he sponsored legislation to bolster small businesses by liberalizing laws that govern the state’s beer, wine and liquor industries. As a congressman, he says he would favor tax credits for caregivers, a stronger emphasis on ports, domestic production of natural energy and fair-trade agreements to replenish some of the industrial revenue lost to overseas companies. “The best social program is a good job,” he said. Broomell fears that a suppressed minimum wage, high federal student-loan interest rates and a lack of funding for vocational and trade training programs will keep workers from finding meaningful employment or hold them back from reaping its full benefits. He’d like to emphasize those economic issues in Washington and repeal the “Cadillac Tax” portion of the Affordable Care Act that will impose a 40 percent tax on many healthcare plans that cover union, public and middle-class workers beginning in 2018. “The hit to families will result in higher taxes or higher deductibles,” he said. Broomell supports equal rights for gay employees and couples. He said Congress needs representatives who personally understand the balancing act between national security, budget, veteran services and the risk to soldiers’ lives posed by engaging in war or peacemaking missions. Similarly, when it comes to police officers, fire fighters and teachers: he believes in valuing their contributions instead of undermining them, Finallym he says he supports educational policy that starts with meaningful dialogue with educators about their needs. “It’s become popular in some circles to make public servants a target, in some cases accusing them of being lazy as an excuse to reduce benefits,” he said. “These are people who’ve committed their lives to serving communities, so we need to stand with them.” Broomell supports charter schools, saying they can help boost student performance in poor districts, but he is concerned that they might tend to dump children with learning disabilities -- who are expensive and challenging to educate -- onto already failing public schools. Minor claims a clear distinction between him and the other candidates: He’s completely “against siphoning money from public schools to charter schools,” while Norcross sponsored the Urban Hope Act that allowed for the creation of the hybrid public/charter Renaissance Schools, including the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy being opened in Camden by brother George. Norcross speaks emphatically on the issue of schooling, whether it’s for youngsters or post-secondary students. He says his fight for more state and federal aid for South Jersey has strengthened the position of the region’s universities, especially considering that only three of New Jersey’s 25 four-year institutions of higher learning sit south of Mercer County.
It echoes a familiar refrain for Norcross. Whether it’s lamenting the perception that South Jersey gets short shrift in a state that primarily looks northward toward New York’s suburbs or arguing that New Jersey ranks almost last in its return on investment to the federal government, he pledges to try to bring back more funding to the district. “We need help from Washington; we need to make sure we get our fair share,” he said. And if it takes machine politics, Norcross says, so be it. “I absolutely agree there is a machine,” he said. “It’s called a voting machine, and I hope on Election Day everyone comes out to use it.”

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