The Electrical Worker online
October 2014

A Candidate of Our Own:
IBEW's Norcross Runs for U.S. House
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One of the only journeyman wiremen ever to run for Congress took a break from the campaign on Labor Day to lay a wreath at the grave of Peter McGuire, a giant of the 19th century labor movement, and the man credited with creating the only national holiday honoring working men and women.

Folsom, N.J., Local 351 Assistant Business Manager Donald Norcross has been coming to McGuire's grave in Arlington Cemetery in his hometown of Pennsauken every Labor Day for decades. First he came as child with his father, George Norcross Jr., a legendary figure in the South Jersey labor community, then as a member of Local 351, as president of the Southern NJ AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, state senator and now as the Democratic candidate in New Jersey's 1st Congressional District.

"The fight for a decent life for working families began with people like McGuire. All these years later, we're still fighting for it," Norcross said about the founder of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners who called for a national day of rest in 1882. McGuire died in Camden in 1906.

The 1st District is a heavily Democratic semi-circle across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Unlike many congressional districts gerrymandered to hold one race or class, the district has a bit of everything from the wealthy suburbs near Cherry Hill, the former industrial powerhouse of Camden — now best known for being one of the poorest and most violent cities in America — and sandwiched in between, the working class neighborhoods where Norcross grew up with his three brothers George III, Phil and John.

"My parents said we could be anything when we grew up, whether it was a Ph.D. or an electrician," Norcross said. "The measure of your success was if you worked hard and served your community."

If he wins, Norcross will be in the select company of union tradesmen who served in Congress, a group that includes at least one other IBEW member. In 1922, Frank J. McNulty was elected for a single term to represent New Jersey's Eighth District. At least one other member of the trades currently serves in Congress: Steve Lynch of Massachusetts, an ironworker.

"It makes a difference having us in the room," said New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney, an ironworker and an old friend of Norcross. "It makes a difference having someone who worked outside through the winter, who had to come home from a job and tell his wife he'd been laid off. It makes a difference because it is harder for politicians to make unions into something they're not when one of our own is there in the room to remind them what working men and women look like."

Norcross comes from a storied family in South Jersey labor and politics. His father, George Norcross Jr., was a civic and labor leader in southern New Jersey for more than 50 years. From 1955 to 1993, he was president of the Union Organization for Social Service, a nonprofit group created so unions could provide free services to the Camden community. He was also president of the Camden Central Labor Council and a longtime board member of the Camden United Way. The Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO's annual humanitarian award is named in his honor.

His brother George Norcross III has established a reputation over the last two decades as one of, if not the, premier power broker in New Jersey politics, the phone call every governor and senator has to take. His brother John is a professor of psychology and the youngest, Phil, is a lawyer.

"I knew how to build things," Norcross said. "And my father told me that electricians were top of the food chain on the job site, so I applied for the apprenticeship and got in. The second time around."

Norcross worked with the tools for 10 years before taking over UOSS when his father retired in 1993.

"I kept my card, and kept coming to monthly union meetings the whole time though," Norcross said.

In 1995, Norcross was elected president of the South Jersey AFL-CIO. He said his role included recruiting and preparing candidates for office. Norcross said his goal was to stop endorsing traditional politicians who promised to be labor supporters and start running union members instead.

"Back then, unions weren't that involved in state politics beyond making some donations," Norcross said. "It's hard to believe, given where we are now, but when we started there was maybe one or two statewide."

Nearly a decade later, Norcross said more than 100 union members form a coalition that has a real say in Trenton, where three IBEW members serve in the state legislature.

"Some people call us a machine, but there's really only one machine: the voting machine," Norcross said. "We are successful to the extent that people believe what's good for working people is good for everybody. And our success speaks for itself."

Returning to the IBEW

In 1994, three South Jersey locals were amalgamated into Local 351. When Edward Gant took over as business manager, he said the first call he made was to Donald Norcross.

"I was from Atlantic City, and needed a business agent with knowledge and relationships on the west side of the state," Gant said. "Donald was the first person I called."

For the last 14 years, Norcross has been working for Local 351's 2,000 members, first as business agent, then as assistant business manager. In 2010 he added three new titles in quick succession: candidate, assemblyman and then state senator.

"I had knocked on dozens of doors and asked people to run for office. When a seat opened up in Camden, the knock was on my door," Norcross said.

A successful run for the state Assembly led to a quick promotion when State Sen. Dana Redd quit to become mayor of Camden. In the last five years, Norcross has won four elections, yet he has spent at least part of nearly every day working out of Local 351's hall.

"In New Jersey, being a senator is a part-time job," Gant said. "Most other legislators have another job. This is his."

Norcross said he is still "turning jobs, getting the bad guys out and building relationships to put our members to work."

Gant said that having a member in the state legislature means a great deal to Local 351 and all union members. There have been important bills making state solar projects subject to prevailing wage legislation and requiring crane operators be licensed, but he's been extremely valuable making sure that the rules on the books get enforced.

"It makes a difference when a senator calls the Department of Labor to ask about wage enforcement actions rather than just some guy from the union," Gant said. "You don't think they move a little faster when a senator calls?"

Working for the People Full Time

Gant said knowing the many different kinds of power legislators have -- beyond just writing laws — will be useful in a Congress that is seemingly incapable of passing legislation. As an example, he said even though Local 351 has the manpower and knowledge, they have been unable to break through and win contracts at New Jersey's many military bases, which Gant attributes to a lack of transparency and anti-union bias in the bidding process.

"Even without any legislation, I think it is realistic to think that a congressman who understands the issues involved could help open that process up and then we might have a better shot," Gant said.

Ann Miller, director of the IBEW's political department, said that when Norcross wins, he will have an immediate impact. Unlike most candidates for Congress, Norcross is running to replace a representative who left before his term was up. Come November, voters will be deciding not only who will serve from 2015 to 2017, but who will finish the last few months of former Rep. Rob Andrews's final term.

"There are crucial votes on the budget, potentially another sequester or even a shutdown, and Norcross will be in the thick of it almost the day after Election Day," Miller said.

Gant said that Norcross has an excellent chance this fall against Garry "G" Cobb, a political newcomer, but one with high name recognition from his time playing for the Philadelphia Eagles and his post-football career as a conservative radio host. The Cook Political Report rates the district solidly Democratic and Cobb has had trouble raising money.

"People know Donald here. They respect him and they'll vote for him," Gant said. "He'll finally be able to work for the people full time."


Donald Norcross, assistant business manager for Folsom, N.J., Local 351 and a state senator, is running for an open seat in New Jersey's 1st Congressional District.


Norcross attends the annual Labor Day event honoring AFL-CIO pioneer Peter J. McGuire, the holiday's founder, who is buried in Norcross's hometown, Pennsauken.


N.J.'s 1st District is centered on Camden and Cherry Hill, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.


Norcross and a local businessman, Tim Ellis, at the groundbreaking of a new memorial near McGuire's grave.