It was at the legislative correspondents club dinner in May that a longtime New Jersey politics watcher expressed surprise that George E. Norcross III was there. The person had also recently seen Norcross in Trenton. We marveled about the two appearances, trying to decipher what it might mean, like we were dishing about a reclusive rock star suddenly spotted in public.
Norcross does seem to be out and about more in 2012. He had only been to the correspondents dinner once before, in 2002. Then there are the media interviews he has been doing for profiles. There was the Gannett profile by Jason Method in February that even had the headline, "South Jersey power broker stepping out from shadows." Norcross sat for a four-hour interview with the Inquirer—before he owned it—for a March story about Cooper University Hospital. Then he did a profile with NJBIZ, part 2 publishing today and part 1 ran last week. There may even be more profiles pieces to come in 2012, but already this year, Norcross has done the same number of profiles as he did the first decade of this century.
So why is he on the circuit now? That was a question I asked many of the people I interviewed for the NJBIZ profile. They floated five theories, which really could be variations on the same theme, about what Norcross is doing:
--Working on his legacy;
--Norcross in his 50s is a different guy than Norcross is his 30s: he has matured and is no longer just thinking about how to win the battle but how to influence the outcome of the war, as one person put it;
--Earlier, Norcross felt he had something to prove, but now he has already proved it so he is relaxing a bit;
--The success of his endeavors, like Cooper and Camden, now rely on being identified with a face; they need a crusader who has to be out in public;
When I asked Norcross, I started running through the above ideas, in order. He stopped me at the third one and said, "There's a big difference between George in his 30s and George in his 50s. In the 30s, it was all about building a political organization, recruiting the best and brightest to run for office and winning. That's all it was about."
The 30s sounded like intense years for Norcross. Each day was powered with 2.5 packs of cigarettes, 10 to 12 cups of coffee loaded with sugar, and a McDonald's lunch of two cheeseburgers, fries and a vanilla shake. Same drill, every day. Norcross quit smoking, cold turkey, around 1996 and now drinks about four cups of coffee daily after swearing off the sugar. Dinner now is often a salad—he says he hasn't had a McDonald's cheeseburger in about 20 years.
That earlier, severe pace began when Norcross became chair of the Camden County Democrats, and the results can be seen in the number of Democratic seats picked up in the Legislature and locally in South Jersey. It can also be seen on the top of Norcross's head. Norcross told me his hair went from brown to silver "overnight." This was early in our conversations, before I discovered that the stern-seeming Norcross can be quite funny and self-deprecating. So I took him literally, picturing Norcross waking up one morning and screaming when he looked in the mirror and discovered his newly white hair. But when I started asking more about this "overnight" transformation, Norcross looked at me like I was a moron. Turns out, his hair went silver in a 2-year period, beginning right after he became chairman of the Camden County Democrats in 1989. It was completely silver/white/gray—Norcross says it's been called all those colors—by the time he was 35.
Even people who don't like Norcross will tell you that his devotion to his family is genuine and admirable, both now and when he was in his 30s. So whatever is motivating Norcross to be more public now—take your pick of the theories—I'm guessing his two kids are wrapped up in there somewhere. With his daughter out of college and son in high school, perhaps Norcross is thinking about what type of work and philanthropy they might do, and how his reputation might impact it. No doubt Norcross wants his children to continue something he's worked on, just as he followed through on his father's mission with Cooper.
Maybe Norcross wants his kids to be involved, without being workaholics pumping caffeine, sugar and McDonald's. Maybe he wants his kids to be able to go to something like the legislative correspondents club dinner or walk down a street in Trenton without it being a big deal.