Many years ago, when I was a young and still naive reporter, I interviewed a popular wingnut legislator and we hit it off. We ended up talking for four hours instead of the half-hour that was scheduled.
This kind of connection happens more than you think. When you're a journalist, you spend much of your time talking to inarticulate people, trying like hell to weave a story out of their mumbling version of events. And when you're a politician, it's only rarely that you meet a civilian who not only understands, but is passionate about the fine points of policy. So politicians and reporters like talking to each other, because no one else wants to listen.
We talked about the legislative fight over funding Philadelphia's then-new convention center. He called it "a boondoggle."
"Then why did the Republicans end up supporting it?" I said.
He looked at me like I was a moron. "The bonds. The insurance. Follow the money," he said. "The Republicans are making money off all that stuff. It's always about insurance and bonds."
So I took his advice, and started delving into the esoteric world of municipal insurance. I discovered that the same insurance broker had almost every single insurance contract in the county, and that he was a heavy Republican contributor - which is why he got all those contracts in the first place.
New Jersey has a broker like that. His name is George Norcross, and he's a Democrat -- at least nominally.
To understand why he who controls the insurance controls the politics, you need to understand just how profitable insurance is. And if you own the political apparatus that runs along with it, you have a perpetual money machine that really doesn't require much upkeep.
It was the experience in the county I covered that the politically-connected insurance contracts cost an average of 30% more than a municipality or other entity would pay on the open market. Much of the excess profits get kicked back through political contributions. (These contracts are almost always an exception to the open bidding process, which makes it easy. Not so much for the homeowners paying the additional millage.)
But there are other benefits. For instance, a cooperative insurance broker who wields that much power with the carriers makes sure there are quick and speedy confidential settlements regarding messy little matters like police brutality cases or public officials who are stealing money. They control which attorneys are retained by the carriers, and they're always politically connected.
It may be tidy, but it's probably not democracy.
(I remember being really shocked when I finally got the CEO of the liability carrier for a large suburban municipality on the phone. "I see on their insurance application that they claim to have an updated police policy and procedures manual, but they don't have one at all," I told him. Updated procedures mean lower risks. He laughed. "Listen, your guy there brings me so much business, I'm not about to rock that boat," he said.)
Here's an example of how Norcross works -- and it's all perfectly legal, even if the taxpayers get screwed:
In another DRPA-related transaction, Norcross’s insurance firm received $410,000—not for actually doing the authority’s insurance work, but for referring that business to another insurance firm, Willis of New Jersey. While a report last year from the New Jersey comptroller was critical of that arrangement, it also noted that there was technically nothing unlawful about it, a point Norcross reiterates when I bring it up. “Look,” he says, “the report itself says nothing happened that was illegal.”
Did I mention that Norcross now owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News? The Inky now features something called "The Christie Chronicles," which until the last month or so featured flattering puff pieces.
Then there's Stephen Sweeney, Norcross errand boy and president of the NJ State Senate.
Why was it in Norcross' interest to support what most Democrats regard as a union-busting bill? Maybe it's because he's just as disdainful of public employees as Christie. The machine that Norcross runs is primarily suburban in nature; catering to the party's traditional coalition groups isn't nearly as important as making sure the suburban masses don't feel compelled to rise up against a tax-and-spend Democratic Party (the way they did during New Jersey's early '90s tax revolt). So Norcross has as much interest in neutering public employee unions as Christie -- which could help explain why Sweeney, four years before Christie became governor, was already lashing out against public employees and their benefits.
When Christie signed the benefits bill last week, he lavished praise on Sweeney, who was on stage with him. He also acknowledged having had personal discussions with Norcross about the bill. Norcross, by most measures, now has what he's always wanted in the governor's office—a philosophically aligned partner who actually knows how to use the power of the office to achieve results. That Christie is a Republican only makes it a better deal for Norcross. When Democrats controlled the front office, he was one of many bosses vying for the governor's ear. Now he's virtually alone.
Now that Christie's on a downward slide, Sweeney is starting to jump away from him, making critical remarks to the media. Let's see how far that goes, because if he really goes after Christie, he's a rat deserting a sinking ship.