Donald Norcross gets early and productive start in Congress

 Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, poses for a photo with Representative-elect Donald Norcross, D-N.J., center, during a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, poses for a photo with Representative-elect Donald Norcross, D-N.J., center, during a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

New Jersey’s newest congressman has landed his first leadership role in D.C.

Donald Norcross (D-NJ) was elected by fellow freshman House Democrats to co-represent them on the House Democrat’s powerful Steering and Policy Committee.

Norcross was sworn in on November 12, after winning both his first full two-year term, but also being chosen by voters to finish the final two months of Rob Andrews’ term. Andrews resigned and left office in February 2014. 

Chaired by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca), the committee holds responsibility for advising the Caucus on issues, carrying out the party’s agenda, and assigning members to committees.

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“I am humbled and honored to join such a distinguished and diverse group of party leaders as we work together to create better opportunities for America’s middle class,” Norcross said. 

Norcross says he is learning to juggle several days’ worth of orientation activities while concurrently functioning as a sitting congressman.

Though he’s new to Washington, Norcross’ election to the committee suggests he may wield more power than most of his incoming colleagues. If true, if puts him in an advantageous spot that can only help his career, political causes and his district. Norcross represents the state’s 1st congressional district, which includes all of Camden County, along parts of Gloucester and Burlington counties.

So how has he risen so quickly? One might credit strategic timing, relationships and familial ties, the politician’s own charisma and experience, and geographic advantage.

Norcross does already know some of the biggest players in Congress. His older brother George Norcross, who, as the center of South Jersey politics, has been called the most influential unelected resident of New Jersey, has ties to top Democrats in Washington. To showcase these relationships, the younger Norcross brought both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to Camden County to campaign for him. Norcross the elder is believed to make decisions about every Democratically-filled political position in the district, including his brother’s, but Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton College says the backing of his brother can only get Norcross so far.

“The name opens doors for Norcross but once he gets there he has to prove himself,” he says. “However, Congressional leadership recognizes he’s an up and comer.”He also comes from a prominent east coast district that’s been held by powerful Democrats (first Jim Florio, who went on to become governor, then Andrews, who won re-election 11 times) for 39 years. Because history would suggest that Norcross will almost assuredly retain his seat for as long as he wants it, Douglas says he’s freer to express his political will than colleagues who may represent more divided districts.”(The district) has been more or less in the hands of the same group of people for two or three generations,” says Douglas. “So he has the luxury of pursuing his agenda without constantly looking over his shoulder at re-election.”

Case-in-point: Norcross cast his first vote on Friday, in favor of constructing the controversial Keystone Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Though 31 Democratic representatives also voted “yea,” the project has generated more support from the Republican Party, and it’s vehemently opposed by environmentalists and President Obama.

Norcross says he voted in favor because of its potential to create jobs – the primary platform of his campaign. “I don’t know that we bucked the president or the party but my years in Trenton were based on creating job opportunity,” he said. “This vote is also about gaining energy independence from the rest of the world. It doesn’t take much to remember the gas embargo (of the 1970s) when you could only buy gas on odd or even days.”

Eventually, the labor organizer would like to sit on the energy and commerce committee but sets his near-term sights on the education and workforce committee and the armed services committee. Andrews sat on the latter two, so Norcross sees it partially as a way to carry on his predecessor’s legacy and represent constituents who work at Joint Base McGuire-Fort Dix – Lakehurst.

Norcross is piggybacking on Andrew’s tenure in other ways, too. He’s keeping Andrew’s Haddon Township office, and he’s keeping up a dialogue with the former congressman, as well as the deep pool of defacto political advisors who populate the Democratic Party in South Jersey.

Additionally, he’s maintaining continuity with pieces of his former life in that he brought along his chief of staff, Michael Maitland, from Trenton to continuing serving in that role, and he intends to stay in his Camden apartment even if he decides to also rent in D.C. “I love where I live,” he said.

Norcross’ vacated Senate seat will be filled by party leaders in the coming weeks.

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