His last name is synonymous with South Jersey politics, but Donald Norcross is building his own legacy.
This is the story of a hard-working, blue-collar approach to white-collar success. The true American Dream, if you will.
Donald Norcross has quietly risen through the ranks in recent years, from electrician to labor leader to member of the state General Assembly to state Senator to most recently, Congressman.
The Norcross name has long been synonymous with political influence, wealth and power in South Jersey, with Donald’s brother, George Norcross III, firmly in the South Jersey spotlight. The millionaire businessman at the helm of the Marlton-based Conner Strong & Buckelew, former newspaper owner and chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital in Camden is the stuff of South Jersey legend, garnering both notoriety and criticism as a political power player—despite never having held office.
But what is Donald Norcross’ story? How does he fit into the Norcross political machine? What makes the “other Norcross” tick? South Jersey Magazine wanted to know, so we spent some time with him and got the story—his rise to the top, his political plans for South Jersey and beyond, and what it’s really like to be in the Norcross family.
One thing is for sure: this isn’t the Norcross people love to hate.
Norcross, 56, began his career as an electrician, installing power lines in refineries and atop bridges. He became the assistant business manager for Local 351 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and was president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council for 16 years.
Officials from AFL-CIO say he is still involved in his union today—even as a Congressman.
“I just went down a slightly different path. I loved to work with my hands, and that’s where I started. My father was a labor leader in the South Jersey region and I gravitated towards working with my father and actually had the honor of working with him before he retired,” he says, of the elder Norcross, now deceased.
But, as Norcrosses are apt to do, he was on the up and up. In 2009, Norcross was tapped by the Democratic committees in both Camden and Gloucester counties to replace Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, who was retiring. Donald received endorsements from former U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, former state senator and now Camden Mayor Dana Redd, then Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney and state Sen. James Beach.
“I always recruited others, so I knew what I was always asking them to do, being able to help other people other than yourself and advocating on things you believe. So literally, when Joe Roberts announced his retirement, many of my friends knocked on my door, saying, ‘It’s your turn,’” he says.
“I immediately dismissed it and then I started to think a little bit more about it. First of all, how can I advocate other people to run and not do it myself? And it was a weak moment [laughs.] And I decided to do it.”
The trajectory continued. Norcross replaced Redd in the state Senate before taking over
Andrews’ vacated seat and being sworn into the 113th Congress late last year.
New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech, who has worked with Norcross on labor issues for more than 25 years, says that for years, labor unions in New Jersey and the AFL-CIO have worked to get union members into office, through the NJ State AFL-CIO Labor Board Candidates Program.
“At that time, we had a million union members in the state of New Jersey,” Wowkanech says, of the inception of the program. “Rather than just support candidates with our money, our signs … we felt that we had a lot of bright and articulate members [that could run for office]. We just felt that with all of those issues that affect our lives both on the job and off the job that we should have a seat at the table … and Don was very interested in that.”
Wowkanech also lauds Norcross’ character. “He comes from great stock, a great family,” he says. “He doesn’t shout and that kind of thing. He’s very professional, he carries himself very well. He has a very friendly style, and started early on [showing] that he could get things done … he’s a 24-7 type of guy.”
After spending the better part of an afternoon shadowing the freshman congressman on a tour of the Barrington-based Edmund Optics—a leading provider of defense optics and optical assemblies to defense contractors around the world—one thing is clear: Wowkanech is right.
Norcross isn’t a typical politician, who loves to hear himself talk. In fact, he comes across as more of listener, spending most of the tour hearing the workers in Edmund’s on-site labs explain how they manufacture their different products, used in everything from DNA sequencing to retinal eye scanning. Dressed in a blue pin-striped suit with a red tie, his brand-new Congressional pin affixed proudly to the lapel, the most he spoke at a stretch was before the tour, when he addressed a cafeteria full of employees, talking for maybe 15 minutes, sharing his story and goals while in Congress before leading a Q & A discussion, which inevitably skewed toward national security and defense.
The third of the four Norcross boys, Donald is far from the only success story. In addition to George, there’s Philip, an attorney, and John, a psychologist. But Donald seems the one most closely following his father’s footsteps—and why wouldn’t he?
His father, the Norcross patriarch George E. Norcross Jr.—also known as “The Chief”—was the longtime Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council President, chairman of the United Way of Camden County, and Cooper University Hospital trustee. Donald Norcross held the same AFL-CIO post, and was active in the United Way of Camden County for nearly two decades before becoming a board member of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Wowkanech also draws comparisons between Norcross and his late father. “His father had a long history of being a really progressive labor leader. … His father was clearly an innovator. And it’s my belief that Donald is following in his footsteps.”
Norcross’ mother, Carol, was a stay-at-home mother for years, raising four boys in the family’s Pennsauken home. Sweeney and his family also lived in Pennsauken; the two broods are old friends.
Norcross remembers his childhood fondly. “When we got into our teen years, every year, my mother would have us switch rooms, because there were two of us per room. We would have to switch with another brother, to get to learn what that brother is like at that point in his life.” It was a positive experience, he recalls, although the younger ones often got the short end of the stick when it came to closet and drawer space, he laughs.
Their mother eventually went back to school. “My mom was a stay-at-home-mom, except when we all [entered] our teens, then she went to Camden County College at night. So she raised four boys and went to school at night,” he says. “When I graduated high school, I also went to Camden County College. Long story short, we both needed one class to graduate; we have a health class we had to take. So we both took it at the Camden campus.
“[S]o the instructor calls out the name Carol Norcross, and then says, ‘Donald Norcross,’ who just happens to be right next [on the list.] He looks at me, he looks at her, and [finally] I say, ‘She’s my mom.’ So I had the honor of taking health class with my mother. Thank God we both got A’s in that class. I just couldn’t live with my mom if she would have gloated on that.”
The senior Norcross’ commitment to education paid off.
“My parents understood education was key to any success in life and wanted us to pursue that. You couldn’t ask for four more diverse areas of employment—insurance, a psychologist and professor, a lawyer and an electrician,” he says of himself and his siblings. “And our parents were just so proud of each of us pursuing our dreams, getting married, having [families] and enjoying literally, the American Dream.”
And what are his priorities while in office? As a former labor union leader, that’s simple: jobs.
“What I know I bring [to D.C.] is [this:] virtually every day of my life for the past 15 years was about helping my members find jobs, knowing how important that is to a family, to an individual, to have the dignity of a job with good pay and good benefits,” he says. “I know the devastating toll [unemployment] took on not only our [union] members, but South Jersey as a whole. Losing health insurance, which used to be devastating, was only the first step. Then … you were about to lose your house or you did lose your house. And in some rare cases, unfortunately, people who couldn’t deal with it took the ultimate solution and took their lives. … So when I’m down in Washington, we talk about jobs; it means something to me very emotionally, very personally.”
For his first vote as a freshman congressman, Norcross voted in favor of a bill to pass the Keystone XL pipeline, breaking with party lines. He was one of only 31 Democrats (and only one other Democrat from the Garden State) to vote in favor of the bill. President Obama later vetoed the bill.
“[With] my first vote being the Keystone Pipeline, it in many ways, was rather simple to me. It’s about creating economic opportunity in the United States for employment. Now it’s simple from that [aspect,] it becomes very complicated when we start throwing in the political side of it. It was lost long before I got there. But I understood that creating jobs and economic opportunity in our region was No. 1 on my list.”
But straying from party lines doesn’t come without cost.
“[G]etting yelled at by some of your colleagues before you even put your voting card into the machine was not an easy place to be,” he says. “But when you’re comfortable with what you’re doing it makes it easier. And they now understand why.”
As a state senator, Norcross co-sponsored the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act, or Grow
NJ, which locally doled out more than $600 million in tax incentives for eight projects in Camden, including funds for Holtec International, where his brother George sits on the board; and Camden’s Cooper University Hospital, where George is chairman; and $82 million for the Philadelphia 76ers. Brother Philip, the attorney, represented the team in this deal.
Also as a senator, he authored the New Jersey Tuition Equality for America’s Military (NJ TEAM) Act, recently signed into law. The law offers in-state tuition rates to veterans going to New Jersey schools.
Like his father, Norcross has a soft spot for Camden. He’s a resident of Camden, where he lives in the Victor building—the site of his father’s first job.
“Certainly, the place I call home, which is Camden, has a special place in my heart,” he says. “My father was born and raised in Camden. I moved there seven or eight years ago.”
But he’s not immune to the city’s problems. “[R]epeating the same behavior and expecting a different outcome is something that came to mind so many times when we talk about Camden,” he says. He makes no bones about his support of the county’s takeover of the Camden police force, and like many before him, is hopeful about the city’s recovery. “Nobody is declaring victory in crime. But it has come a long way, because investing into a city [where] you don’t feel that investment is safe, is something that is preventing people from coming into [Camden].”
To answer his critics, Norcross maintains nepotism isn’t the driving force behind his success. “I got here because the people who I represent decided that they would vote for me. Nobody gets here alone,” he says, noting that he has known Sweeney, now the state Senate President, for years—the two even went to high school together.
“[Sweeney’s] family had four boys and they lived in one part of Pennsauken; we had four boys [and lived] in the other part. Steve follows his father’s footsteps and becomes the ironworker; I become the electrician. We worked on jobs together. … And it’s remarkable that … years later, we’re sitting in the Senate and he’s the Senate President and I’m the Assistant Majority Leader. We just kind of shake our heads like, ‘How did this happen?’”
As to how his brother George’s reputation— and corresponding trail of press— affects him, Norcross puts it simply. “It doesn’t,” he says. “I love my brother. Actually, this is what many people fail to see: I had worked [for nearly] 20 years as the president of AFL-CIO, helping to elect people in the four-county region. I’d been involved. That’s why … when I asked for support, that’s why support came, because of the foundation I laid over 20 years working with organized labor. That’s the true secret.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May, 2015).
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