To make the seven-minute walk from Camden’s City Hall PATCO station down to the metallic-gray wall of mini-skyscrapers now rising along the Delaware River waterfront, I had to cut through a sliver of Voorhees. Not literally, of course — but it sure felt that way navigating a no-man’s land of sprawling office-park-style parking lots with electronic gates and spiky black-metal fences and security cars with their flashing yellow lights, guarding rows of SUVs while their suburban owners put in their daily eight hours inside the city limits.

A large banner hung across the wire fence just past Riverside Drive where the towering structure that will house the insurance firm of de facto Camden County Democratic boss George E. Norcross III and two partner firms is nearing completion reads “Camden Rising." But it’s rising quietly, with only a few wandering souls and the occasional delivery truck rumbling on otherwise empty downtown streets now that it’s 10 a.m. and the commuter rush hour is over.

The Norcross firm’s office tower has been built essentially for free — thanks to a 10-year, $245 million tax break for mostly moving its 900 jobs from suburbs just a few miles away — yet it probably won’t win any architectural awards, not with so much of its lower girth consumed by a massive and arguably unsightly six-level parking garage.

“This is built for suburban commuters — that is a serious parking garage!” exclaimed my tour guide, Sue Altman — a community activist, Norcross-machine critic, and new state director of the progressive New Jersey Working Families. “These are people who will drive from Cherry Hill or Marlton or Voorhees and now they’ll drive a little longer and they’ll park here and not in the suburban office where they used to park.”

Community activist Sue Altman and her dog Bella are photographed at the Camden Waterfront where big corporations have received tax breaks for offices that don't employ many city residents. Thursday, May 9, 2019.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Community activist Sue Altman and her dog Bella are photographed at the Camden Waterfront where big corporations have received tax breaks for offices that don't employ many city residents. Thursday, May 9, 2019.

Well, maybe not George Norcross himself, since the new skyscraper will also boast a rooftop helipad — just like the one that the Democratic power broker and member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, with an estimated net worth of $250 million, already has at the Marlton office of his insurance firm, Conner Strong & Buckelew. The symbolism of Norcross commuting to his Camden HQ without his stylish shoes touching the ground of this struggling city is almost too much to bear.

Norcross’ role in bringing new office towers to a river city that saw virtually no investment for decades after de-industrialization and riots in the 1970s was until recently hailed in profiles like one in the Wall Street Journal, which called him the “power broker behind Camden’s upswing." But in recent weeks the upswing myth has been crumbling, amid rising questions about how much the apparent boom has profited Norcross, his family, and his business associates and how little of all this has aided longtime residents of one of the East Coast’s poorest cities.

“This is only my second time on Riverside Drive,” the longtime education activist Vida Neil Rosiji said at a Thursday news conference called to denounce how few dollars from the development tax breaks have trickled down to Camden residents — and the other time was also for a protest. Others, she said, only come to pay utility bills at a gleaming PSE&G office. “There’s nothing here for us. ... I’m sure you could run into another 60- or 70,000 people like me who’ve never been here, because this is not for us.”

Ironically, it’s been the rise of a fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Wall Street refugee who may be as rich as Norcross and who got elected without his help, that has triggered arguably the biggest crisis for the Camden County boss. Suddenly, hard questions are being asked about a report that firms in some way linked to Norcross and his family sucked up an astounding $1.1 billion of Camden’s $1.6 billion from the state job-creation program, and about what was claimed to get that money. It seems the perfect moment for a political challenge to the Norcross machine — but whether that can happen in 2019 is a serious question mark in a political system that is rigged for incumbents like no other.

“How do we define a vibrant and thriving democracy?” asked the activist Altman, thinking about the standards the World Bank or the United Nations might use for a developing nation. “Is there a robust press? Is there a multiparty system. Do you have competitive elections? It’s not clear we have those things here” — especially amid the rising criticism that government policies in South Jersey aid a handful of oligarchs and have done little for the everyday people.

Indeed, it’s hard to ponder Camden County in the 21st century and not see a miniature version of some kleptocratic state in Central Asia — an American Uzbekistan where the capital city is ringed by large, sterile edifices paying tribute to Dear Leader while the masses are handed ballots every couple of years to mark an "X" for the ruling regime.

Sound harsh? Read some of the recent reporting on the June 4 Democratic primaries and how progressive candidates have struggled to overcome a bizarre ballot that makes it easy to find party-endorsed candidates but shunts challengers off to a visual “Siberia” on the far-right. Or, the dirty trick where machine-encouraged “phantom" candidates flood the ballot (one who was tracked down by Politico New Jersey’s Matt Friedman told him he was running for “[j]ust stuff like parks and stuff like that, how kids don’t really have anywhere to go or anything like that. ... I don’t know, I didn’t really think it was going to be taken as seriously as it’s being taken”) so serious challengers are harder for voters to locate. Or, winning elections the old-fashioned way — by machine-backed clerks or judges throwing challengers off the ballot.

A Camden County Democratic primary ballot showing the party-endorsed candidates in Column One, the so-called "phantom freeholder candidates" in Columns Two and Three, and the South Jersey Progressive Democrats in Column Four, grouped with an unaligned candidate for county clerk. This mail-in ballot was sent to voters who live in Cherry Hill.
Jan Hefler/Staff
A Camden County Democratic primary ballot showing the party-endorsed candidates in Column One, the so-called "phantom freeholder candidates" in Columns Two and Three, and the South Jersey Progressive Democrats in Column Four, grouped with an unaligned candidate for county clerk. This mail-in ballot was sent to voters who live in Cherry Hill.

In Camden, the city clerk last month disqualified nine of 11 would-be challengers for slots on the county Democratic committee, foundation of the Norcross machine. (One of them was Altman, although she concedes that she got a very late start and didn’t get enough signatures.) In recent weeks, the Camden County political shenanigans have competed for headlines with the growing scandal over the tax subsidies — over how the incentives seem to have been hijacked by Norcross and his allies, over whether the tax breaks even made sense (the $260 million incentive for the Camden-based energy technology firm Holtec International was priced at $650,000 for each job created), and the role that a lawyer for a firm headed by Philip Norcross — George’s brother — played in crafting the 2013 legislation and amendments that steered so many of the incentives toward Norcrossistan.

But aren’t the two stories one and the same? Only a government rigged to benefit insiders, critics argue, would tolerate a “Camden Rising” without addressing the basic needs of most of the city’s roughly 75,000 residents and their complaints about crumbling schools, lack of a supermarket, or the failure to connect them with the waterfront jobs.

“Ultimately it seems a lot of people who have the power view the people of the city themselves as the problem,” said activist Keith Benson, head of the Camden Education Association teachers’ union, noting that some longtime residents are leaving. Benson is fighting the latest schools scheme that would close or re-purpose facilities like the R.T. Cream Elementary School in South Camden — a move officials blame on the school district’s $27 million budget gap.

The not-taxed waterfront high-rises, in other words, have done nothing to save traditional public schools. Critics say that’s keeping with an agenda to funnel kids into so-called renaissance schools created by a 2012 law sponsored by Donald Norcross — George’s brother who was then a state lawmaker, now a congressman — that cleared a path for new charter schools like KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, supported by the Norcross Foundation.

Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, holds a sign during a news conference advocating for tax-incentivized development to benefit longtime residents in Camden, N.J., on Thursday, May 9, 2019. The new high-rise office tower on Camden's waterfront involved $245 million in tax breaks, but activists and residents said the project would not benefit the community.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, holds a sign during a news conference advocating for tax-incentivized development to benefit longtime residents in Camden, N.J., on Thursday, May 9, 2019. The new high-rise office tower on Camden's waterfront involved $245 million in tax breaks, but activists and residents said the project would not benefit the community.

Local residents also wonder how much machine politics has played a role in this food desert’s lack of a supermarket, after learning about a legislative maneuver that would have created economic benefits for a grocery-store-building client of Philip Norcross’ lobbying firm but not a rival seeking to open in Camden. Neither was ultimately built, and so many locals still take a bus to Cherry Hill to buy food every week, no doubt passing the suburban SUV drivers en route to their Camden day jobs.

“How is Camden going to rise if we’re not going to take the people with it?" asked the Rev. Bryan McAllister of the Bethel AME Church in South Camden. McAllister is one of many residents who protested last year when the CEO of Holtec — which boasts Norcross, whose insurance firm was paid $400,000 from the project’s construction, as an unpaid board member — claimed it was hard to hire Camden residents because of drug use or people not showing up.

The ugly controversy revealed a harsher truth — that Camden’s problems that developed over decades of de-industrialization can’t be solved with a tax break and a helipad, but only through the hard work of fixing schools for every kid, creating a real training pipeline toward attainable jobs, and creating a government where no one is locked out. Those changes won’t happen, unfortunately, without a fight.

And Norcross is vigorously defending both Camden’s redevelopment and his role in it — insisting the city would have been completely dead in the water without government-subsidized economic development. “We busted our asses to do everything we could to get companies to come to America’s most dangerous city and its poorest city," he insisted to NJ.com in a lengthy interview.

George E. Norcross 3d takes the stage Tuesday during the Cooper's Ferry Partnership's annual meeting in Camden.
Kevin Riordan
George E. Norcross 3d takes the stage Tuesday during the Cooper's Ferry Partnership's annual meeting in Camden.

But the Murphy-commissioned probe of the tax incentives has clearly triggered Norcross. He lashed out at the governor and even his adviser-wife, Tammy — “He thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England,” the party chieftain (who was co-owner of The Inquirer for a time earlier in this decade) said. He is even talking of backing a 2021 primary challenge to Murphy. Meanwhile, despite the political games, as many as 100 progressive challengers to the Norcross machine did make the June primary ballot in Camden County.

As Thursday’s waterfront news conference where activists criticized Norcross and the incentive program was breaking up, organizers were stunned when a Camden County police cruiser pulled up and an officer started asking questions. They said he told them he’d heard there was "a disturbance.” And you know ... he wasn’t wrong.