TRENTON – A New Jersey lawmaker has ordered police to “clean up the back row” after a chorus of boos echoed in his Statehouse courtroom on Monday.
Sue Altman was silent. She was not near the back row. But the state soldiers decided she was the one to go. “Why would you want to fire me?” Altman asked when a cop asked for her to go.
Moments later, several police officers stormed in and grabbed Altman by the arms. They dragged the Camden political activist out of the room, out of the Statehouse and into the cold as her supporters chanted “shame, shame, shame.” She was swept away right in front of George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey businessman and political intermediary she had come to confront. Norcross smirked slightly.
The controversial scene – followed by demonstrations of support from Governor Phil Murphy and first Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth warren – briefly rocked New Jersey politics. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise:
Sue Altman has a knack for angering people in power.
Altman, 37, heads the Working Families Alliance of New Jersey, a political group within the Working Families movement that has become a growing force in progressive politics across the country (Kendra Brooks won a seat on the council Philadelphia City Council for the Working Families Party this month). Altman is known for her outspoken critiques of the state’s Democratic establishment.
She has only been in office for six months, but her goals are clear, even simple: to demolish the Democratic machine and make Working Families “the political house” for people who want to transform New Jersey politics.
“Probably in my heart I’m an activist. I have a fundamental distrust of power, ”Altman said recently. “I love the challenge of pushing against power, especially when power isn’t deserved.
If there’s a poster for anything Altman says is wrong with New Jersey politics, it’s Norcross. The executive chairman of the insurance brokerage firm Conner Strong & Buckelew is considered one of the most powerful people in New Jersey. In recent months, he has been faced with allegations, reported by WNYC and ProPublica, that he manipulated New Jersey’s controversial tax incentive program to benefit his Camden businesses and affiliates to the tune of $ 1.1 billion.
Norcross denied any wrongdoing and attended Monday’s hearing, he said, to “correct the many inaccuracies, misinterpretations and false truths” about his work at Camden and the tax credits of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. The Inquirer reported that federal authorities are investigating the business tax incentive program.
Altman hopes this moment keeps the pressure on Norcross and ensures that the Christie-era program is investigated.
“Keeping it in the news is the best insurance policy to make sure that happens,” she said.
Norcross spokesman Dan Fee described Altman as hungry for the spotlight. “If her goal is to gain anything other than media coverage of herself, she has remarkably failed,” said Fee. “We’re kind of hoping that she will continue to focus on media attention so everyone can stay focused on rebuilding Camden.”
On Halloween eve last month, Altman brought his anti-establishment message to the Shore Diner in Egg Harbor Township. More than 20 activists crammed into a back room. Altman’s goal was to unravel the power of the New Jersey Democratic Party in a tight 30 minutes, working on a highly rated presentation titled “Bosses and Ballots.”
If ordinary citizens could learn how they were stripped of power by the wealthy in New Jersey, she said, it would “spur” them on and inspire them to act.
His first slide, a photo of a man, got right to the point.
“It’s George Norcross,” Altman said. “By design, George controls the members of the legislature.”
She explained how machine politics and party leaders like Norcross emerged in New Jersey, claiming they wield inordinate power in running the state. Even if politicians want to challenge bosses, she said, they often can’t without risking losing lucrative government jobs or exerting political influence.
“Much of the power in Trenton may come from [controlling] people’s livelihoods, ”she said. Politicians “have to listen to leaders, and if they don’t, bad things happen.”
Originally from Clinton, Hunterdon County in central New Jersey, Altman studied at Columbia University and Oxford, and also spent time as a professional basketball player in Europe (she recently started boxing). After teaching high school at prep schools in New Jersey and New York, she made her activism debut in late 2014.
She had just moved to Camden, where she quickly became involved with the city’s public schools. In the summer of 2016, she argued for six minutes with the then governor. Chris Christie on his proposed school fundraising plan.
After Donald Trump was elected president, she organized a group of activists and helped create South Jersey Women for Progressive Change.
In 2018, the group campaigned for Andy Kim, a former Obama administration official running for Congress in South Jersey. Kim’s victory made a long-standing Republican seat blue by less than 4,000 votes.
Altman has its fair share of criticisms. Some, like Camden City Councilor Felisha Reyes Morton, say she’s more flash than substance. “We need more Indians and fewer chiefs,” Reyes Morton said.
Reyes Morton and others have also questioned Altman’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. Records show Altman was a registered Republican until October 2008. She became independent a month later and became a Democrat in 2016. She did not vote in 2012, she admitted, claiming that she was studying in England.
Others, including Vic Carstarphen, a recent candidate for Camden City Council, call her a “Hunterdon County debutante” – the implication being that she is a wealthy white woman from the upstate who doesn’t. is not allowed to talk about Camden’s problems.
“[The machine’s] The whole premise to exist is that South Jersey isn’t going to get what it deserves because other parts of the state will take it from them, ”Altman said.
Steve Ayscue, a political strategist whose cabinet works for a Norcross-backed political action committee, attacked the Altman group for not disclosing its donors. In recent years, progressive insurgent political groups have increasingly taken undisclosed “black money”.
The Working Families Alliance of New Jersey has an annual budget of approximately $ 500,000. Altman has a salary of $ 75,000, according to spokesperson Rob Duffey. Donations come from labor groups like the New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America, as well as the allied group in Murphy New Directions New Jersey, Altman said.
“His organization is funded by some of Trenton’s biggest vested interests,” Fee said.
“People don’t want to face the machine on paper,” Altman said in response. “George’s tentacles are wide and deep, and there is real potential for retaliation.”
Altman wants to create a powerful political organization under the umbrella of Working Families that can mobilize voters on issues such as fair wages and a tax for millionaires.
“It makes the Working Families Alliance a bigger player in the state conversation,” said Democratic strategist Brendan Gill, who led the pro-Murphy New Directions.
It wields more and more power at the highest levels of state policy. “I pitched ideas with her,” said a senior assistant at Murphy. “With influence comes the ability to influence things.”
Ultimately, she wants to eradicate “the ballot line,” a New Jersey electoral quirk that places backed party candidates in a strategically advantageous column during the primaries.
And she hasn’t ruled out running for Congress in 2020. Altman lives in the Congressional district of Rep. Donald Norcross. George Norcross is his brother.
“It’s the jewel in the crown,” Altman said.