Under NJEA attack, Norcross enlists Florio, Booker to defend his education reform initiatives

CINNAMINSON – With a cast of formidable personas ready to call teachers’ union attack ads nothing but a proxy fight against education reform, South Jersey power broker and insurance broker George Norcross stood to defend his name today.

The New Jersey Education Association went head hunting today with ads accusing Senate President Steve Sweeney of protecting Norcross by introducing legislation to reform pension and benefits that they say is both bad for employees and bad for the state.

The only problem, Norcross said today, is that the ads are less an attack on his pension and benefits stance – he is keeping mum if he has one – but rather because he has been uncharacteristically vocal about voucher programs, charter schools, and other education reforms opposed by the NJEA.

“Their union and leadership,” he said, “They’re defending the indefensible.”

It’s time, he said, for people with “influence, power, (and) financial well-being to affect change” in schools. “It’s probably pure politics,” he said, that “there haven’t been reforms that have taken place in education (already).”

Norcross, who is regularly in the news for his connections to politicians, said he’s led a private life for the last 30 years until he came out in support of a Camden charter initiative that drew Gov. Chris Christie down to South Jersey as well. The result was the recent advertising assault, which Norcross said is  “attempting to intimidate, frighten – whatever – me, Steve Sweeney, and others.” It won’t work, he said.

He called on the Legislature – who are handling landmark reform, an education bill from the courts, and  what seems to be a tight, austere budget in the next few weeks – to pass legislation guaranteeing charter school reform and allowing boards of education to transfer failing schools to charter or private operators.

He said the NJEA campaign could backfire, unleashing a “groundswell of support to affect change.”

He only took one question from the press this evening, which was in regards to the potential benefits to himself and his company if a part of Sweeney’s legislation that would create an opening for insurance brokers – although it has been removed from the bill  – were to have gone through. He said his company does over $1 billion in business across the country annually and called the potential business from public agencies “immaterial” to his success. He also called the numbers circulated by the NJEA today on brokerage fees “factually inaccurate” because they are based on estimates. Part of the NJEA’s issue is that the actual cost for brokers is not transparent or readily available.

He turned the question back on the NJEA and said he would be “embarrassed” if his “work product” was as unsuccessful as the state’s schools.

“Some of us gotta get serious,” he said. “I’m embarrassed by the Democratic Party, to be honest with you…We should be the leaders in education reform…This is about a fundamental right.”

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian issued a statement in response to Norcross’ claim that the ads are about his reform ideas. “That is absolutely untrue,” she said. “Mr. Norcross’s role as an insurance broker – and the relationship he has to Sen. Steve Sweeney, who is attempting to change how New Jersey’s school employees receive and pay for health benefits – has been in the news for several months… (He is) trying to distract people from the kinds of questions being raised by many outside of NJEA, including (by) some Republican supporters of health benefit reform.”

“Mr. Norcross’s positions on the privatization of public education are well known,” she said. “But they are not the issue right now. The only issue is whether any legislation that is passed will put the interests of taxpayers ahead of the interests of insurance brokers. So far, the proposed legislation fails to do so.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker was one of the prominent figures standing at Norcross’ back today. “When leaders have the courage to say let’s try new things, do real things, substantive things,” Booker said, like Norcross and Sweeney, “those leaders should not be attacked, they should not be vilified, they should not be lied on.”

“This is not a time to point blame,” he said, calling the ads “a departure from the sensible,” and “painful and poisonous.”

“Let’s raise a level of dialogue,” Booker asked. “We cannot keep blaming each other when our children, at the end, fail and falter.”

Former Gov. Jim Florio came as a “spokesperson for civility,” calling the ads “the very opposite of responsible, the very opposite of constructive dialogue.”

“We try to think of teachers – and I think the vast majority of them are – as role models,” Florio said. “And that’s not what it is we’ve seen (in these ads)…I would hope that teachers themselves would reach out to their leaders.”

Former NJEA senior executive Jeannine LaRue said she can’t recall the union “going after a citizen,” as she referred to the non-office holding Norcross, in an ad campaign “They really wanted to go after him for the education reform,” she alleged, noting that she encouraged the NJEA to explore schooling-option programs at her time there.

“Competition is healthy,” she said. “I believe that even the public schools will perform better.”

The Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the N.J. Black Ministers’ Council, said in regards to the education reform movement, “I salute George Norcross, I salute Steve Sweeney, in fact, I applaud Gov. Christie…Our fight is not with the NJEA, but our fight is on behalf of our children.”

Also speaking on Norcross’ behalf were Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart R.C. Church in Camden; Chancellor Wendell Pritchett of Rutgers University-Camden; and Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, chairwoman of LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden.
Both U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) and the Rev. Joseph Galante, bishop of the Diocese of Camden, sent statements at his defense.

Andrews said, “As part of his family’s longstanding commitment to the City of Camden, George Norcross has stepped forward to support efforts to improve the quality of education for the city’s children. As the leader of the city’s largest employer, Cooper University Medical Center, he has correctly emphasized the impossibility of fostering a growing city without a strong education system. The effort to give all the city’s children the education they need and deserve requires cooperation among all those with a stake in the city’s future – not negative attacks on those who would dare to suggest that we try new approaches to solve old problems. Instead of spending its resources attacking Mr. Norcross and those who seek a better city, the state NJEA leadership should join local leaders – including local NJEA members – in a common effort to improve education for the children of Camden.”

Under NJEA attack, Norcross enlists Florio, Booker to defend his education reform initiatives