Phone call between Norcross and Scutari ended with insults

Matt Rourke/AP Photo

A recent phone call about campaign funding between New Jersey state Senate President Nicholas Scutari and South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross grew tense and then ended with Norcross insulting Scutari.

The call, which took place about two weeks ago, was recounted to POLITICO by four Democratic officials and party insiders with direct knowledge of it but who were granted anonymity when divulging phone calls about political strategy. It came as Norcross seeks to rebuild South Jersey’s once ultra-powerful but recently diminished Democratic delegation.

Norcross, according to the Democrats, requested $2 million in funding from Scutari (D-Union), who controls the Senate Democratic PAC, for Democratic legislative campaigns in Districts 2, 3, 4 and 8 — all of which, save for the District 4, are currently held by Republicans.

But Scutari was non-committal, in part because South Jersey Democrats at the time had not settled on candidates to run in the districts. That angered Norcross, who according to one of the Democrats, told Scutari to “go fuck yourself.” Another one of the Democrats said Norcross called Scutari a “traitor.” Scutari, they said, did not respond in kind, and the two have not spoken since.

Scutari did not respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment. Norcross also did not respond to a request for comment.

Norcross, a wealthy insurance executive whose power peaked during the Christie administration thanks to his alliance with the Republican governor, was for decades one of the most respected and feared figures in New Jersey politics.

But the row between the two powerful Democrats shows how Trenton’s power structure is shifting. Scutari came to power following the shocking 2021 defeat of Norcross’ close friend and ally, former Democratic President Steve Sweeney, by largely-unknown Republican Ed Durr. Norcross supported Scutari for the Senate presidency as part of a coalition that included Middlesex County Democrats, who have arguably become the most powerful organization in the state.

Sweeney's 2021 defeat followed the loss of Democratic legislative seats since 2018 in South Jersey's Districts 1 and 2, and it coincided with the 2021 loss of Republican-turned-Democratic state Sen. Dawn Addiego in District 8.

More recently, Norcross’ political maneuvering, previously discussed in hushed and awed tones, have made their way to the media when he’s been unsuccessful.

POLITICO recently recounted how Norcross unsuccessfully sought to get two influential Mercer County politicians to remain neutral in the county executive race, in which Norcross was backing 20-year incumbent Brian Hughes over a challenge by Dan Benson.

The politicians, Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin and County Commissioner John Cimino, backed Benson anyway. Later, Norcross and Sweeney held a Zoom call with Assemblymember Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer) to encourage him to challenge his longtime running mate state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex). DeAngelo declined.

Hughes, who only garnered roughly 20 percent of the votes for the Mercer County Democrats’ endorsement at their county convention earlier this month, dropped out of the race.

About a week after the Scutari-Norcross phone call, state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) temporarily withdrew her support for a bill that's a top Scutari priority, the “Elections Transparency Act,” and abstained on it during a hearing in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

That was seen by some Democrats as a consequence of the phone call, and, as a result, according to one of the Democrats, Scutari did not include initially on Monday’s Senate agenda some bills sponsored by Cruz-Perez that had been expected to get a vote.

By Monday's full Senate vote that spat had been ironed out, and Cruz-Perez voted in favor of the Elections Transparency Act when it came before the full Senate. Cruz-Perez’s bill, NJ S3333— which restricted water companies’ actions against low-income customers — also passed.

Since the phone call, South Jersey Democrats have also settled on legislative slates for candidates in each of the four districts, ahead of the March 27 filing deadline.