Who’s the Boss?
When you look at the leadership of your town, or your county, your state, even your country, who do you think of? The usual, and easily the most common answer, is something like, “the mayor”, or “the President”. But is that all there is? What about the other positions? We have a Vice President who is also a leader. We have Senators and Representatives, also leaders. At the local level, we have county commissioners, sheriffs, judges. They too are all leaders. But there are other leaders, leaders that don’t necessarily hold any elected office. Some would call them “community leaders”. But in the political arena, there is a certain person I am alluding to. You may have heard the term; the political “boss”.
But what, or who, exactly are they the boss of? Well, the answer is simpler than you would think. To help understand this, let's go back a little bit. From a period spanning over thirty years (circa 1910-1940’s), New Jersey was home to two notorious political bosses who wielded large amounts of power in their regions.
Enoch Johnson was a larger-than-life figure in Atlantic County, active in the county’s, and Atlantic City’s, political scene from the 1910’s to 1941. He held a variety of positions of power, including county sheriff (at the time a non-elected position), county Republican Committee secretary, county treasurer, clerk of the State Supreme Court, and most notoriously, “crime boss”. In all of these capacities, Johnson was considered the “most powerful” Republican in the state of New Jersey, and was known as the undisputed “boss” of the Republican political machine in the state. He used his power to distribute funds, often towards enterprises that lined the pockets of himself and fellow cronies, to secure the election of a state governor, and even to control the then-illegal importation and distribution of alcohol throughout the state, of which he received percentage points from the profits. When asked why he never ran for a high-status elected position, like senator, Johnson’s reply was that “it was beneath the dignity of a real ‘boss’ to stand for election”. Johnson was not a man to be trifled with, and even after a 4 year prison term for tax evasion, Johnson emerged practically unscathed, still enjoying the reputation and respect befitting of the “boss”, and was always given a seat at the “head” table during political dinners and outings.
A political counterpart to Enoch Johnson, Frank Hague was the equally notorious Democratic “boss” of Hudson County, active during the same years as Johnson. Of the various positions of power that Hague enjoyed, most notably were his terms as the mayor of Jersey City from 1917 to 1947, and as the Vice-President of the Democratic National Committee from 1924 to 1949. Known as the “grandaddy of Jersey bosses”, Hague has a sincere reputation for corruption and “bossism”. Ironically enough, it was these two platforms that Hague always ran against while on his various campaigns. While only receiving a yearly city salary of $8,500, Hague had an estimated worth of around ten million dollars at the end of his life, with the city salary as his only reported source of income. Hague was also not a man to be messed with, and come time for local elections, you could find Hague directing outright assaults on voters who publicly stated their intent to vote for an opponent. His history of alleged voter fraud is the stuff of legend.
These two seemingly mythical individuals used their power to amass enormous fortunes, and used these fortunes to influence their politics, oftentimes at the highest level. They used a mix of this power and wealth, as well as their appointed or elected positions to shape their political parties to their liking. But this was back during a time when politics was rife with corruption (see “Harding administration”), and Prohibition made gangsters of seemingly everyone, so this must really all be in the past, right? Well, not so fast.
While the days of “political boss” and “crime boss” being synonymous are fairly behind us, the idea of a political “boss” is still alive and well. George Norcross is the very successful executive head of a large insurance brokerage firm based in South Jersey, and has also held the position of chairman of the Camden County Democratic Committee. He has been cited as one of, if not the, most powerful non-elected political leaders in New Jersey. While not as notorious as Frank Hague or Enoch Johnson, Norcross has been the subject of state and federal investigations, and businesses he is associated with have been investigated for receiving “special treatment” from New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority, which has a primary emphasis on providing access to state funds for small and mid-sized businesses. As the head of a political party’s county committee, Norcross had influence in the selection of candidates, and had a large influence in shaping the political landscape of his party in his region.
The position of chairman of the various county’s political party committees has certainly become a seat of growing influence and power. They have their hands on the spigot for funding political campaigns, and hold direct influence in the selection and vetting of candidates across the various levels of local, state, and even federal elections. The chair also holds influence, and calls for votes, in establishing a county “line” during an election. The “line” refers to a favored position on a voting ballot, commonly positioned on the far left of the ballot. Various studies have shown that whatever candidate is on the “line” generally achieves victory, as many voters unfortunately do not research candidates in depth, and generally vote “down the line” for their favored political party. Currently, nineteen of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties use a “party line” crafted by their local committees headed by the committee chair. There are arguments both for and against the use of the party line, with advocates explaining that it helps create a unified front behind the candidate that the committees feel has the best chance at victory, while also keeping campaign costs lower during the primaries so that the majority of funding can be better spent during the partisan general election. A county line also helps newcomers with minimal campaign funding by allowing these candidates to focus on securing the endorsements of a smaller committee than spending large amounts of money on convincing the county's aligned voting population. Opponents allege that a party line is a “less democratic” process than having an open primary, as it replaces open primary votes from citizens, and replaces them with endorsements from the county committee. With the influence the committee has over the creation of the party line comes the possibility that many party “bosses” and committee members are vulnerable, especially to payouts from well-funded candidates, thus corrupting the true integrity of the line. Buying off “bosses” is nothing new. From the time of men like Enoch Johnson to now, money has always played a role in political influence. Current New Jersey governor Phil Murphy “donated” over half a million dollars to county committees, with some in his own party alleging that Murphy was effectively “buying party bosses” in order to control the sphere of influence, and all but assure his ballot positioning, and his eventual victory.
Whether serving in an official capacity as a county committee chair, or influencing politics through more personal means, these political “bosses” often hold the keys to the kingdom. Without the endorsement of a local “boss”, a candidate’s chances at victory are lower than those who do have the endorsement and monetary backing of the boss, chair, or whatever you want to call it. Having such power can be a tricky thing, for as Acton and Orwell both famously explained, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.