Norcross uses his muscle in South Jersey

In the rough-and-tumble culture of New Jersey politics, few carry more sway than George E. Norcross III.

He uses that muscle, his supporters say, on behalf of South Jersey, a region that historically has lacked clout.

Above all, his admirers point to his advocacy for Cooper University Hospital, which Norcross views as the engine of a reborn Camden.

Critics, though, deride his tenure as the unelected Democratic leader in Camden and Gloucester Counties, saying it has been marked by cronyism and insider deals.

On Monday, at a news conference to announce the sale of The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News to a group of investors including himself, Norcross said he saw the papers as filling crucial civic roles. He promised to pour his energy into improving the papers' business operations.

"I have pledged publicly and otherwise," he said, "that there will be absolutely, positively, no interference" in editorial content.

Norcross, 56, is chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew, an insurance brokerage he built into one of the nation's largest, with a lengthy list of public and private sector clients.

He founded the insurance business in 1979 and later sold it to Commerce Bank, where he became a top executive. In 2008, he and other investors bought it back, for $121 million - twice the sales price of Philadelphia Media Network.

As Cooper board chairman, he has turned around an institution on the brink of financial ruin. On top of a new $220 million main building, Cooper is to open a $140 million medical school this summer and a $100 million cancer center next year.

Now a resident of Cherry Hill - he and his wife, Sandy, have two children, Alessandra and Alexander - Norcross has deep local roots.

Born at Cooper, he is the oldest of four sons of a labor leader. He started in politics in the 1970s, shortly after he dropped out of Rutgers-Camden.

For much of his career, he was the man behind the scenes who could get a campaign financed or figure out where Republicans were vulnerable. Race by race, using TV ads in local campaigns, he dislodged the GOP from slots across South Jersey. Now he is a power statewide.

A dozen years ago, Norcross became the subject of a state police investigation into public corruption, but he was never charged with a crime.

Afterward, he receded into the shadows even as he helped childhood friend Stephen Sweeney ascend to state Senate president.

In the last year or so, Norcross has made a conscious effort to raise his public profile. He's been speaking out on such issues as the need to expand charter schools or get a grip on Camden's crime.

Late last year, he pledged $5 million of his own to Cooper.

Politically tight with Republican Gov. Christie - as he was with Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine before him - Norcross and Christie are pushing a plan to merge Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University.

Though he came from a union family, Norcross joined with Christie to support a measure requiring unionized government workers to pay more for their health care and pension benefits.

He has also said that the police force of Camden could be expanded if workers' compensation was reduced.

Asked to explain his drive, Norcross often talks of his father, a one-time Cooper board member who died in 1998.

"I want to carry on the legacy of my father," he said Monday. "I've been blessed in my business career and my business life. There are things that I believe are important to the region and I'd like to continue focusing accordingly."

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or