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Election Officials in New Jersey’s County Ignore Norcross’s Request

A meeting with one of the most prominent men in New Jersey took place in a modest environment. In December, lobbyist Kevin Drennan, Mercer County Commissioner John Cimino, and rich insurance broker George Norcross met in a central New Jersey Starbucks. Norcross has long been one of the most powerful figures in New Jersey politics.

According to two people with knowledge of the meeting, Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic power broker, asked those he met to remain impartial in the Democratic primary for Mercer County executive, where Norcross’ ally, incumbent Brian Hughes, who has served in that position for 20 years, is facing off against challenger Dan Benson, an assemblymember from Hamilton.

A lengthy list of regional supporter endorsements for Benson’s campaign was made public a few days after the conference. Cimino and Martin, whose town is the most populous in Mercer County, were included.

According to others who were present during the meeting, Conner Strong & Buckelew, the insurance provider for Norcross, immediately ceased to be Cimino’s engineering firm’s customer.

Drennan, a Hamilton resident who served as Steve Sweeney’s senior adviser for several years, has tight ties to the South Jersey Democratic machine and set up the meeting (D-Gloucester). Despite this, Drennan, who is friendly with Cimino and Martin, is regarded as a Benson supporter as well.

The endorsements were a rare rebuke for Norcross, the son of a labor leader who, starting in the early 1990s, built New Jersey’s most powerful Democratic political machine, formed allies across party lines, and expanded Conner Strong & Buckelew into a company that now attracts clients from the public and private sectors both within New Jersey and outside of the state.

Election Officials in New Jersey's County Ignore Norcross's Request

Norcross confirmed the encounter but claimed Cimino wasn’t honest with him in a statement. Kevin Drennan organized a gathering of friends to discuss the future of the county executive contest.

After exchanging opinions, we departed on good terms. Three of us were honest about where we stood, said Norcross. John Cimino was one person who turned out to be a blatant liar. One day after our meeting, when he promised to be impartial, he changed his mind and gave an endorsement.

Mercer County’s insurance fund is one of the clients Norcross’ company covers. Another was T&M Associates, where Cimino is an executive. It is a politically linked engineering company and one of the largest political fundraisers in the state.

According to individuals who attended the conference in December, Conner Strong dissolved its partnership with T&M soon after. The chief political advisor for Norcross, Steve Ayscue, reportedly broke his ties with T&M around the time of the meeting, according to a report from InsiderNJ.

Cimino declined to respond, and T&M Associates did not answer the phone when contacted.

Election Officials in New Jersey's County Ignore Norcross's Request

The argument demonstrates how heated the county executive contest has become and how its political repercussions have spread outside of Mercer County, where Democrats control all countywide positions but lack a single figurehead who rules local politics as Norcross does in all of South Jersey.

The county executive race is in danger of affecting nearby elections due to this factionalization in Central Jersey.

Hughes told POLITICO in December that he may put together his slates of candidates for the state legislature if he is unable to obtain the crucial “county line” for the Democratic primary. “Some people urge me to join the lines and start fighting.

At the time, Hughes made the statement while choosing not to identify the lawmakers who were eager to support him. “Let’s just put it there, then. Being in that second column is essential if you want to be competitive.

Inquiries about a potential state Senate primary between incumbent Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and her steadfast running mate, Assemblymember Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), were conducted among some Mercer County residents earlier this month by an unidentified group, according to the New Jersey Globe.

Although DeAngelo told the outlet he backs Greenstein, the fact that polls are being conducted on the races indicates that insiders are at least ready for the prospect of a larger battle.

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