CHERRY HILL – As the 2015 cycle slows to a simmer, South Jersey’s 2016 congressional elections are turning heads even in their earliest days. U.S. Representative Donald Norcross (D) will face 24-year-old newcomer Alex Law, who is campaigning on a platform of upending South Jersey’s Norcross alliance.
Law’s campaign has raised $3,000 to Norcross’ $257,000, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). If Law clears the roughly 20,000-voter bar against Norcross during the primary, he is unlikely to lose in a general election.
“When I think of Camden, I think of how much power Camden residents have that they don’t realize,” said Law from his Oaklyn campaign headquarters. Citing tax incentives and revitalization projects in the district and in the city of Camden, Law said that deals benefitting Holtec and Cooper Hospital were “too many for it to be a coincidence.”
Law added that housing, education and economic development projects have yielded over a billion dollars, much of which has gone to Holtec and Cooper, where Norcross’ brother George Norcross III serves as board member and chairman of the board respectively.
“You have to look at all of a sudden now, all of the money that was going to go to aid public schools is being driven towards private or [partially public, partially private] “renaissance” schools, which are controlled by foundations that are run by the people that created those bills,” said Law.
Law, who has made a name for himself as the only congressional candidate to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for president, is skeptical about the good such bills will do.
“They’re just moving jobs from places like Marlton or Mount laurel, or Cherry Hill or Philadelphia, into Camden, to gated facilities where people drive in, go to work and leave,” he said, adding his opinion that small to medium size businesses and tech firms would be better choices (Law was a consultant for IBM before mounting his campaign).
Norcross, for his part, said from his office in Cherry Hill that the focus is and has always been on improving the intertwined school systems and job markets of the district’s poorest municipalities.
Saying that the projects aim at “making sure that kids in some of our urban districts which have had outrageous outcomes in terms of their ability to learn, have the same opportunities as Collingswood or Voorhees,” Norcross was unabashed on the subject of Camden’s public schools.
“Camden had the 23 lowest performing schools in the entire state of NJ out of 25 schools. Nobody can argue or even have a conversation that education was being delivered for those children the same way it was in Voorees and Cherry Hill and other affluent areas. It had to change,” he said.
Norcross was quick to say that he understood the limitations of a strategy hinging on tax incentives, but said he did not see a viable alternative.
When Norcross asked what happened when business owners were expected to pay their “full freight” in property taxes, he let the question hang in the air for a beat.
“Nothing,” he answered.
“We need look to North Jersey, to Jersey City, to Newark, to the hundreds of millions of dollars of incentives that they have enjoyed over the course of the last 25 years. And what you have seen there is a remarkable change, yet Camden has not been able to capitalize on it.
“The incentives that were set up because NJ was losing much of its industrial base, and has over the last half century, but we were still losing it to the Sun Belt,” he said. “If we do nothing, we continue to lose.”
Mentioning the public safety improvements within Camden since county police stepped in in 2012, Norcross was careful not to overstate his case.
“They’re only incremental. Nobody’s declaring this a victory. It took decades and generations for it to get where it is and it’s going to take quite some time to get out.”
Law said he is confident that he can court the vote in majority-minority Camden, pointing to the 100,000 district voters who turned out for the 2008 Democratic primary — 40,000 of whom were from the city.
“If they wanted to show up and if they wanted to dictate how policy works in this district, Camden alone could win an election, a primary, any year,” he said.
Law has coordinated with public schools advocates like City Council candidate Moneke Ragsdale, and expects for grassroots campaigning within the city to propel him into being a true competitor against Norcross.
Saying that the campaign hopes to raise $100,000 to $150,000 for the primary, Law added that the thought of being outspent doesn’t concern him and that in-person canvassing will be more valuable than costly ad buys.
“Commercials are really good at convincing people who already know when it’s time to vote who to vote for,” he said. “But not so good at driving people to the polls on a Tuesday in June.”
“Donald spent over $50 a vote for his 180,000 votes.” he added. “We want to be hopefully $5 per vote.”
When asked about the issues and past accomplishments that would define his own campaign and fundraising efforts, Norcross pointed to the ailing Transportation Trust Fund and his own history of hashing out agreements despite conflict across the aisle.
“If commerce can’t get through, that means the jobs aren’t there to follow,” said Norcross of the Trust Fund. “They’re not going to be able to keep the roads open, or the bridges from falling down.”
“There’s no question about it, there were some things when I served as a Senator that we had very big policy differences with the governor. Others we were able to either convince him or come to an accommodation that the bill would pass. Nobody gets everything they want.
“In Washington, it’s making sure that when the legislative process isn’t working, that’s where my experience and relationships and being able to work the system has benefitted the district, because obviously we have a very good working relationship with the administration of President Obama,” he said.
On Christie’s absence from the capitol and from the state during his presidential bid, Norcross was ambivalent.
“I don’t think anyone envisioned that the lieutenant governor would enable the governor to be out of the state, but it’s his choice,” said Norcross of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. “We’ll certainly hear from his constituents.”
Though he did not want to name the representative, Law claimed that there would be “at least one member of congress” present when his December fundraisers kick off.