Buckelew a longtime force in New Jersey GOP

For decades, he was a Republican force in a largely Democratic state. His search for consensus and shrewd eye for business distinguish Joseph Buckelew as an entrepreneurial and political elder of New Jersey.

Buckelew, 81, a lifelong resident of Lakewood, N.J., and a onetime GOP power in Ocean County, has amassed wealth from the insurance business and former interests in radio and cable TV.

is a longtime GOP leader in Ocean County.

He said Monday that he was excited to join his investment partners in buying a company that runs some of Philadelphia's major media properties, singling out The Inquirer as "one of the most famous newspapers in the country."

"Every great city has to have a first-class media outlet, and The Inquirer has always been that vehicle for Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley and parts of New Jersey," Buckelew said in an interview. "We hope that we'll continue that tradition."

Buckelew's interest in the newspaper industry stems partly from his lifelong involvement in politics. The increasingly beleaguered business has been on his mind as consolidation has thinned coverage and reporting ranks at papers across New Jersey, said George Gilmore, 62, who succeeded Buckelew as chairman of the Ocean County Republican Party.

Buckelew years ago worked his way from township committee member to the top of Ocean County's GOP political apparatus, a kingmaker post he held for two decades until stepping away in the 1990s.

That was when he befriended Camden's George E. Norcross III, who invited him into the new ownership of Philadelphia Media Network.

Buckelew sold his insurance firm, Buckelew & Associates, to Commerce Bancorp Inc. in 1996. That year, Commerce also bought the insurance company founded by Norcross, Keystone National Insurance. Both men became directors at Commerce and formed strong ties.

Buckelew and Norcross are opposites politically and in personality, with Buckelew a consensus-builder and Norcross more confrontational in style. Yet both share powerful traits, Gilmore noted.

"They both have an inner drive for success, to do the best they can in whatever endeavors they choose to pursue," Gilmore said. "They tell you exactly what they think, and they follow through on what they say."

In 2008, in a transaction that saw Commerce become part of TD Bank Financial Group, Norcross and other investors bought back the insurance division for $121 million and folded it into their own firm, Conner Strong. Buckelew joined Norcross, and the firm was renamed Conner Strong & Buckelew.

A former Ocean County freeholder, Buckelew helped candidates get elected through fund-raising and his own giving. His last donation was eight years ago, when he gave $500 to the Republican State Committee in New Jersey. In the decade before that, he contributed about $42,000, all to the GOP.

Norcross, 56 and a Democrat, said he considered Buckelew a father figure, who, like himself, was drawn to owning The Inquirer to preserve a journalistic institution.

"He has two sons [Brian and Kevin, with his wife, Carol], one of which is the same age as me, who likewise felt that this was something that we could reasonably create a success from," Norcross said, "and something that his children and grandchildren may someday want to be a part of."


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.