Fellow business leaders will tell you that Hanson transcends politics, thanks to his storied career and the respect he has among the state’s business community, but one insider said he “is as engaged as he ever was” because of the work he’s doing for Gov. Chris Christie.
That includes everything from his active role in Christie’s presidential campaign, for which he serves as a financing co-chair, to the tasks he has now spent years on back home. In case you’ve forgotten, those tasks include trying to help solve Atlantic City and bring the American Dream Meadowlands project to the finish line — two of the heaviest lifts imaginable.
“It’s not like he’s waning in (interest) — I find him picking up the pace, actually,” the person said. “As things have gotten more interesting, he has played as big a role as he has in the past, so he belongs in that top tier.”
The American Dream is still at least a year away from opening and the fate of Atlantic City is still uncertain, but Hanson has not let up even while turning his attention to Christie’s run for the White House. The source argued that Hanson, the real estate magnate and founder of The Hampshire Cos., has even been more proactive in recent years as the governor’s administration has turned over.
“Jon is at the later part of his career; he probably will not have this chance again,” the person said. “He has always had an impact on things that are outside of his business.
But I think it’s also a function of, this governor’s office is not the governor’s office of the past, so there’s been a bit of a vacuum.”
True, it’s likely that Hanson’s role in matters such as gaming and the Meadowlands will slow down or come to an end once Christie has exited the State House (on whatever terms). But that could still be more than a year away.
Either way, the consensus is clear: He may be tied to Christie, another source said, but “obviously Jon Hanson is really his own player.”
One political insider said the state Senate president was “at his zenith in the first two years of Chris Christie being governor.” That may be true, given the logjam that followed in Trenton after breakthroughs such as the property tax cap in 2010 and the pension and benefit reform law of 2011.
But that doesn’t mean Sweeney isn’t a force to be reckoned with these days.
For one thing, Christie being out of state means Sweeney is often the most high-profile and most powerful elected official in New Jersey. And the state’s top Democrat hasn’t shied away from using his platform as he prepares for an expected gubernatorial run in 2017.
To that point, another observer notes that Sweeney will “probably have to cut to the left to energize some of the natural Democratic constituencies in a primary, (but) ... Sweeney, with the solid backing of the construction trades, has been pro-business on a number of fronts through the years.”
He’s also well-respected.
“In a world where there’s not a lot of men of their word, he is,” one business leader said.
Sweeney has shown he can still flex his political muscles, doing so earlier this month when it came to the legislative divide on bringing casinos to North Jersey. With the support of both Christie and Norcross, his plan for a voter referendum on the issue won out over Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto’s proposal.
It was a victory for the union ironworker from South Jersey. And his work as a lawmaker isn’t necessarily done, even though both he and Christie might have their sights set on their next job.
“In terms of power, he controls the board in the Senate,” the observer said. “So anything the governor might want to do if he were to come back to New Jersey to create a legacy in his remaining months on the clock will require the cooperation of Sweeney.”
Of course, that begs the question: If Sweeney is in fact running for governor, is it in his interest to cooperate with Christie with the campaign only a year away?
“It will be very fascinating, however it plays out.”
If there’s anyone who makes this list because of potential, Fishman is that person.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen on these various Bridgegate cases,” one observer said. “I don’t know how it’s going to affect Gov. Chris Christie.
“But, quite literally, he could affect the run for president.”
It’s largely the same speculation we heard as we compiled last year’s Power 100 and tried to gauge the impact of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. There are just a few major differences this time around: In May, Christie allies Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly were indicted for their alleged roles in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, as former Port Authority executive David Wildstein pleaded guilty in cooperation with Fishman’s office.
There’s also this fact: Christie has since become an official candidate for president.
“We could read in the paper that Paul Fishman could do something that really splashes back against him,” said another political junkie.
One thing we do know is that the trial of Baroni and Kelly won’t begin until at least May. Just last week, a federal judge pushed back the date from April, the latest of several delays as defense attorneys review more than 1 million pages of documents and other materials tied to the case.
If you’re keeping track, that’s well after the start of the primary season — and there’s no telling how things shake out on the campaign trail.
But as we all wait for the proceedings and watch for Fishman’s next step, a source even suggested putting Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein high on the list for essentially the same reason: They, too, could throw a wrench into Christie’s presidential aspirations.
Of course, the person also noted they could do the exact opposite.
“By them walking in and saying, ‘I’m taking a plea, there’s no one higher than me I can hand up. I’m the guy that did it. Guess what? It wasn’t Chris Christie — I didn’t tell him about it,’ ” the source said. “Those people could vindicate Chris Christie.”
Political influence always has been his calling card, but Norcross continues to show just how much overlap there is between business and politics.
In Camden, the city that’s most near and dear to the South Jersey power broker, there are real signs of economic development beyond the “eds and meds” that have long been its anchor institutions. Look no further than the new 76ers practice facility slated to open this fall, or the Subaru of America headquarters that broke ground last month, alongside the Campbell Soup complex.
Insiders, of course, say Norcross is the driving force — not just as board chair at Cooper University Health Care, but through his ability to bring those companies to Camden and steer them to the state’s lucrative incentive programs.
“In terms of absolute power, I’ve got to say Norcross,” one business leader said. “He’s just pulled so many strings in Camden — more of ‘Here’s my vision of a place and the steps necessary to get my vision to that place’ (than anyone else). I can’t imagine anyone else having more of that as a credential.”
His ability to sell the city as a corporate address was especially visible last fall, when details emerged of a planned $1 billion waterfront development by Liberty Property Trust. Already, the project has support from area businesses such as NFI Industries, the Michaels Organization and Archer & Greiner P.C.
By no means, though, is his influence limited to Camden.
“Now, as opposed to two years ago, behind the scenes on everything in Atlantic City, there’s a George Norcross position that has weight,” another insider said. “It all flows through him.”
And, as if we needed a reminder of his pure political power, another source had this to say when we asked who would emerge as the Democratic nominee for governor in 2017:
“The answer to that question is: Which one does George think can win? And that’s who the candidate is.”
As 2015 came to a close — with his presidential campaign in full swing — we learned Christie had spent more than 250 days traveling outside the state. His job approval rating had new reached new lows, Trenton seemed as quiet as ever and critics were blasting him as an absentee governor.
It was the same issue we faced last year as we toiled over whether he was still the most influential force in New Jersey’s business community. This time, however, the stakes seemed to be higher, as the New Hampshire primary was only weeks away.
But even that wasn’t enough to change the minds of many of the state’s top business and political leaders — even those who aren’t exactly Christie supporters.
“The governor really is No. 1, because whatever he does with the levers of his own life, he affects everybody else,” said a source who was decidedly anti-Christie. “And it’s not powerful in that he’s exerting power. It’s the vacuum. … Just by virtue of him creating a vacuum makes him powerful.”
This political guru wasn’t alone in his opinion.
“I guess the question is: If Christie was not No. 1, who would be? Anyone connected to the state is dependent on Christie,” another source said. “He’s always going to be No. 1, whether he’s here or not here.”
For all of his time spent in New Hampshire, Christie has shown just how powerful he is whenever he has paid a visit to the State House. On Jan. 11, the governor arrived in Trenton and within hours seemingly had brokered a peace between Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who had been feuding for weeks over how to expand casino gaming to North Jersey.
It was a triumphant moment for Christie that caught some political observers off guard, regardless of whatever backroom dealings inside the Legislature actually led to the compromise.
It also happened to be the last day of the legislative session, and Christie wielded the power of the pen when it came to some key business issues. Chief among them was a bill he signed that authorizes tax credits for businesses that were due grants under a phased-out incentive program.
And one week later, it was the bills he didn’t sign that also weighed heavily on the business world — such as a bill to regulate nonprofit hospitals’ contributions to their host municipalities. Christie pocket vetoed the bill, as he did with the so-called rescue package of bills for Atlantic City’s finances.
It was the type of week that proved the point made by several sources.
“When he pays attention or doesn’t pay attention, it’s very powerful, because there’s nobody making decisions without him,” one said.
Another source added this: “He’s not No. 1 because he’s the most powerful chief executive in the state. He’s No. 1 because he’s the most consequential person in the state.”
Make no mistake — the state is still chock full of issues that need Christie’s attention: the Transportation Trust Fund, the still-looming pension crisis and what will actually happen with Atlantic City. It just remains to be seen if Christie will be the man who solves them or if they become the work of the next governor.
But for anyone who still calls him an absentee governor, one Christie ally bristled at that notion.
“Steve Sweeney knows where to find him,” the source said. “It’s a handy excuse, but with this constitution, whether he’s in his bedroom in Mendham or a hotel room in Saigon, he’s in control.”
NJBIZ Power 100: No. 5 to No. 1