In a congressional race whose outcome every mainstream analyst considers a sure thing, frontrunner state Senator Donald Norcross (D-Camden) opened up an even greater lead over his six challengers by campaigning with House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and U.S. Senate President Harry Reid (D-NV).
The high-priced, high-profile Camden County events funneled even more cash to the Norcross war chest and boosted his visibility even further.
They also drew protests from Norcross’s Republican opponent, Gary Cobb, and his supporters in South Jersey’s first district.
Cobb, the major-party opponent fighting Norcross to fill the congressional seat vacated in February by long-time Democratic congressman Rob Andrews, picketed one of the events to criticize Norcross for bringing in such heavy hitters. He argued that as of the last Federal Election Commission filing on September 30, Norcross had already outraised him by more than 16-1. In addition to his significant financial advantage, Norcross received an endorsement from Andrews during his retirement speech. He is the widely known younger brother of New Jersey political kingmaker George Norcross.
“George’s connections (with highly placed members of Congress) will help Donald in Washington,” said Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton College.
The last required FEC filing indicates that the 55-year-old Norcross has raised nearly $1.6 million and spent almost all of it, some on air time on Philadelphia TV stations. The 57-year-old Cobb, a former NFL player who lives in Cherry Hill and makes his living as a sports broadcaster, has raised $96,000. None of the smaller party candidates -- DRP’s Don Letton, Reform’s Margaret Chapman, and independents Robert Shapiro, Mike Berman, and Scot John Tomaszewski -- have raised enough to trigger mandatory filing requirements.
While the super PAC Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security run by Reid’s former chief of staff pumped money into New Jersey to help candidates like Norcross during the primary election, the group does not appear to be spending money on campaigns this cycle. Still, this type of outside influence feeds allegations leveled by Cobb and other Norcross detractors who argue that the political family perpetuates cronyism, high-handedness, and even corruption, especially in Camden city, where Donald lives and George serves as chairman of the prominent Cooper University Health Care system.
“The Norcrosses have turned (Camden) into a moneymaking machine,” Cobb said. “You’ve got companies associated with them getting these huge tax breaks and the people in Camden aren’t getting any of those jobs. It’s pay to play. To do business in Camden you have to cater to the (Democratic) machine.”
Not true, retorts Norcross, pointing to a badly needed grocery store that just opened in the city.
“Seventy-seven percent of the jobs there are held by Camden residents,” he said. “Anybody can throw hand grenades when you have no vision. This is exactly the type of rhetoric that we don’t need in Washington.”
Camden is the biggest city in a district that covers all of Camden County and parts of Gloucester and Burlington counties. Despite being 70 percent white with a median annual household income of $62,141, according to the U.S. Census-American Community Survey in 2012, the district is fairly diverse.
The candidates themselves demonstrate this: Norcross is a white union leader and politician who lives in Camden, an almost exclusively black and Hispanic city that’s once again been ranked the poorest in the nation. Cobb is a black former football player who resides in an affluent white suburb known nationwide for its concentration of Jews. The district also is home to people of Italian, Irish, Mexican, and Puerto Rican descent.
Democratic District 1 voters got a boost from Trenton after the 2010 census when Cherry Hill was carved out of District 3 to make for a more solidly Democratic core in the first. Approximately one year later, district voters favored Obama over Mitt Romney by 20 points. They haven’t elected a Republican to Congress since 1973, and the seat’s been held by just two long-serving representatives, until now.
Douglas says this creates a favorable condition for Norcross, should he be elected.
“Replacing Rob Andrews with someone from the same organization will provide continuity and help the district,” he said.
Both major-party candidates talk up their ability to bridge D.C.’s yawning partisan divide, with Norcross pointing to his relationship with 2nd District Republican congressman Frank LoBiondo and his success working with Republicans in Trenton. Cobb is a moderate Republican who supports some traditionally Democratic ideas, such as creating tax incentives to keep American companies from offshoring their operations and the REDEEM Act, which keeps nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and in the workforce.
Cobb wants to join congressional committees that would allow him to focus his energies on fixing problems that cripple traditionally Democratic poor cities like Camden. The African-American suburbanite was recognized by former President George H.W. Bush for his decades spent volunteering with urban youth, and he has even written a book on the subject.
But after he publicly discussed his views that then-President Lyndon Johnson’s 1960’s War on Poverty programs dismembered black families by supporting single mothers and thereby encouraging black men to abandon them, elected Democrats in South Jersey called successive press conferences to accuse him of being a misogynist who espouses Tea Party values.
At the first of two conferences, Camden County Freeholder Michelle Gentek called herself outraged that the pro-life candidate’s remarks on the importance of a father implied that women can’t raise children without a male partner.
"It's not the gender of who raises the child, it's the characteristics of the person who is raising the child," she railed.
But Cobb defends his statements, crediting his own father for making sure that each of his many kids graduated from college, despite raising them poor in North Carolina. “If my dad hadn’t been there I would probably have ended up as a (negative) statistic,” he said.
Cobb says he wants to give hardscrabble urban children, teens, and adults the ability to create a vision for themselves by providing them with job training and intensive internships that could expose them to professionals in all fields. But to do so, says the candidate who’s spoken out against raising the minimum wage, he has to yank people out of their comfort zones by practically requiring them to show up at jobs and attend school.
For his ideas on how to improve the lives of poor people in the district, Norcross touts his participation in the creation of the Economic Opportunity Act, which provides significant tax incentives to businesses locating in Camden.
However, during an interview with NJ Spotlight, he repeatedly answered questions about Camden by referring to issues that affect other parts of the district, such as the recent appearance of job fairs in its aging inner-ring suburbs. In his campaign materials he emphasizes his commitment to the region’s ports, some of which are located in Paulsboro and Gloucester City, and calls for expanded light-rail service to the southern and eastern reaches of District 1.
On national issues, the two align with their parties. Norcross favors public school support, tax credits for caregivers, and mental health background checks for gun buyers. Where he addresses issues of public safety on his website, he discusses the passage of his bail-reform bill and the need to protect first responders, while Cobb takes on safety through the lens of national security and the need for a well-funded military. Cobb supports school choice, limited government, a flat tax structure and an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.
The two men nod to the constituency supported by the Joint Base MDL, part of which lies within the district, by pledging support to veterans. Norcross approaches it from the perspective of tax credits for their education while Cobb says he would seek to completely overhaul the struggling VA system. They do agree on an issue that’s dear to the heart of another constituency -- the significant Jewish population in and around Cherry Hill: They both stand with Israel.
But while Norcross proclaims that what the district needs is continuity and a proven record in office, Cobb and the five minor-party candidates insist that what the district needs are fewer entrenched Democratic interests.