U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., is quick to tell you that one of his top priorities in public office has been to fight for jobs.
These days he’s fighting for one job in particular: his.
Alex Law, a 25-year-old technology consultant from Voorhees, is challenging Norcross for the Democratic nod in New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District, which includes most of Camden County and parts of Gloucester and Burlington counties.
And it’s shaping up to be one of the more competitive New Jersey primary races of 2016.
On the issues
Norcross won the seat after fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, resigned in 2014 to take a job at Philadelphia law firm Dilworth Paxson. Andrews had been investigated for ethics violations before he left Congress.
An electrician by trade, Norcross counts his blue-collar background as one of his chief assets in a House of Representatives filled with lawyers. “They’ll call me over and say ‘hey, I got this electrical problem, can you help me out?’ It’s all in good fun.”
In his first full term, Norcross introduced a bill to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 over seven years. That legislation is still awaiting a vote. “Personally I would love to see it change overnight,” he said, “but we’re in an economy that needs to absorb this so that we’re not putting businesses out of work.”
His other top two priorities, according to Norcross, have been education and national security.
But his challenger is not buying it. Law, who’s never run for elected office before, says Norcross cares more about special interests than he does about his constituents in South Jersey. Law further accuses Donald Norcross and his brother, George, widely seen as one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, of running a South Jersey political machine.
“It is a machine made up of the worst kind of politicians, ones loyal to machine first and constituent second. It is a machine with parts oiled by money plundered from the state and our hometowns,” Law said in an online video. “It is a machine people are afraid of.”
One example of this political machinery, according to Law, is the Economic Opportunity Act, which Norcross helped write during his time in the New Jersey Legislature. The EOA, among other things, offered tax breaks to businesses that relocated to and invested in Camden.
“When we look back over the last two decades, nothing has been happening with economic development. There were many stops and starts that happened there,” said Norcross, adding that the city is now seeing unprecedented investments from companies such as Subaru, Holtec International, and the Philadelphia 76ers.
For Law, the EOA is an example of how the Norcross machine enriched its friends and wasted taxpayer money, while doing little for city residents.
“Why did zero of it go towards addressing the fact that there isn’t a single supermarket in the city?” said Law. “Why did virtually none of it go toward small business owners that live in Camden city, people that would actually hire folks in Camden city?”
While Camden has had periods without a large-scale supermarket, it currently does. In the fall of 2014, a PriceRite opened in what was a shutter Pathmark in South Camden. Though many Camden residents don’t consider that to be in the city since it’s in a small portion on the edge of the city and many residents would tavel through a section of Woodlynne to reach it. Similarly, there is a smaller Cousin’s Supermarket on Marlton Ave. in East Camden.
Much of the attention to Camden’s dearth of supermarkets focused on plans for a ShopRite on Admiral Wilson Blvd, which was supposed to open in 2015. That has been delayed, backers say it is opening sometime this year, but have not announced a specific date. Norcross says the Economic Opportunity Act did provide incentives for a full-size supermarket and it should aid the ShopRite project.
The candidates agree on the importance of some issues, like education. Norcross has called for improving public K-12 education and often discusses the value of apprenticeships, which he opted for instead of a bachelor’s degree, while Law hopes to reduce student loan debt among college students.
But they also have distinct priorities. National security is a crucial area for Norcross (“Whether it’s our neighborhoods … or our nation”) while Law’s central concern has been overhauling the country’s campaign finance laws (“We cannot have real compromise … unless we prevent our democracy from being up for sale”).
Law has also accused Norcross of voting too often with Republican majorities while in Congress, particularly on high-profile matters like the Keystone XL Pipeline (which Norcross supported) and the Iran Nuclear Deal (which he opposed).
Norcross does not see it that way. “I don’t vote Democrat. I don’t vote Republican. I vote for what is right for the district,” he said. “If it’s a good deal for my district and it works for our country, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The race so far
Just weeks from the June 7 primary, Norcross has collected a slew of endorsements from the Democratic State Committee and groups like the Sierra Club and the state’s largest teachers union.
He’s also out-raising Law by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through the end of March, when the most recent federal campaign filings are available, Law had raised just over $41,000 in the cycle. Norcross had raised about $917,000.
But that has not slowed down Law. The former IBM consultant built a computer program to target likely voters, he has railed against Norcross on popular websites like the Huffington Post and Reddit, and he says his campaign is stronger because he has ignored all the time-honored political advice he has gotten.
“[People say] ‘oh, you need to spend all your time fundraising. You know, talk to rich people. Get them to give you money. If you ask rich people’s permission to run, that’s the only way to do it.’ Well, no.”
Whether Law can overcome Norcross’s name recognition and incumbent status will be the question on June 7th.
“You really never want to bet against an incumbent,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Congress.
But because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have made this an unpredictable political year, said Baker, the insurgent might have a chance after all. (Law has endorsed Sanders. Norcross, one of New Jersey’s superdelegates, has not endorsed a candidate.)
“It may be one of those kind of lightning strike opportunities for an insurgent like Alex Law to come in and knock off a big name and certainly make an important statement about the viability of insurgent candidates in a state that generally doesn’t support them,” said Baker.
Because a Republican has not represented the 1st District since the 1970s, the winner of the Democratic primary seems likelier than not to prevail in the November general election.
This is an edited story. A previous version inaccurately said there are no supermarkets in Camden. We regret the error.