Why a Progressive Democrat Was Dragged Out of an N.J. Senate Hearing

TRENTON, N.J. — The confrontation was brief but explosive, and it laid bare the deepening fault lines within the Democratic Party in one of America’s bluest states.

New Jersey state troopers singled out Sue Altman, the leader of the left-leaning Working Families Alliance, grabbed her by the arms and forcibly removed her from a standing-room-only State Senate hearing on corporate tax breaks.

She was led past her main political rival, George E. Norcross III, a Democratic power broker who was at the hearing to testify in support of an $11 billion economic incentive program that Ms. Altman had criticized harshly and that is the subject of state investigations and subpoenas.

The imagery and its aftermath have roiled Trenton, exposing a generational and philosophical rift between progressive and mainstream Democrats that is mirrored nationwide.

The clash thrust Ms. Altman into the limelight and offered a vivid example of how the grass-roots energy in New Jersey that helped Democrats flip four seats in Congress last year has spilled into the State House.

“It was not fun,” Ms. Altman, 37, said of the confrontation. But, she added, it had underscored the current volatility in Trenton — “a perfect storm” — that she believes has created an opportunity to “reshape New Jersey’s political system.”

Saily Avelenda, a lawyer from Essex County who worked to elect one of the four new Democrats, Representative Mikie Sherrill, said that New Jersey’s progressive activists had deliberately shifted their focus from Washington to the state capital.

“We created a conversation that wasn’t there before, and, boy, do we need to have it,” she said. “It culminated in that one picture of Sue.”

Images of the clash were shared widely on social media — including by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate — amplifying tensions between the Democratic factions that control the state government: lawmakers aligned with the progressive first-term governor, Philip D. Murphy, and those, including the powerful State Senate president, who are linked to Mr. Norcross.

Mr. Norcross, an insurance executive whose company and business associates benefited significantly from tax breaks passed under Mr. Murphy’s predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, is widely regarded as the state’s most powerful unelected official.

His influence extends well beyond New Jersey. He is a member of both President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and the Democratic National Committee. His brother, Representative Donald Norcross, is a Democrat who represents a South Jersey district.

Ms. Altman’s ejection from the November hearing is being reviewed by the attorney general, and it is coloring the discussion of a range of issues, including the renewal of the corporate tax-break program and the fight for control of the Democratic State Committee.

“The whole atmosphere here has changed somewhat,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who initially called Ms. Altman’s removal one of the hearing’s “disruptions,” but later acknowledged that it was improper and “embarrassing.”

Ms. Altman became the leader of the Working Families Alliance in May, after the previous director left to help run Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

A former prep-school history teacher with an M.B.A. from Oxford University, she speaks in rapid-fire sentences that pivot quickly in tone from policy wonk to street-savvy organizer.

She is at home in front of a power-point presentation, holding forth on what she sees as the ultimate prize: dismantling established political structures to make it viable for outsiders to run and win without the blessing of county bosses who still rule with tight fists in many parts of the state.

“I want the whole thing to be rethought,” she said in an interview at the rowhouse she rents in Camden.

To some people, Ms. Altman’s background makes her an unlikely champion of Camden, one of the poorest cities in the United States. She is an Ivy-League educated former basketball star who was raised in Hunterdon County, an affluent enclave known for its horse farms.

Critics have said that Ms. Altman, who earns $75,000 in her new role, has been reluctant to speak out on issues that might upset the governor.

She was a registered Republican until 2008. “My parents were, so I just signed up as them,” she said. She later registered without a party affiliation before becoming a Democrat.

Her outspokenness about corporate tax breaks and her decision to live in Camden, a city seen as the Norcross family’s inviolable power base, made her a ready target for opponents long before the contentious Senate hearing.

Felisha Reyes-Morton, a Camden councilwoman, said that she was tired of hearing Ms. Altman blame George Norcross and the tax breaks for everything that was wrong with the city.

“I think she uses it to her advantage, not that she’s a caring Camden resident,” Ms. Reyes-Morton said.

Ms. Altman regularly spars with the powers-that-be on Twitter and seems to revel in the role of outside agitator. Barely a week into her job as the alliance’s director, she participated in a demonstration where protesters stood near an inflatable pig handing out fake million-dollar bills stamped with Mr. Norcross’s face.

She credits her years on the basketball court with making her comfortable in the political scrum. After leading her college team at Columbia University in scoring, she played professionally in Ireland and Germany. She went on to teach and coach at Blair Academy before studying at Oxford, where she also played basketball.

“You’re going to get booed,” she said. “You still have to make your foul shots.”

She is flirting with the possibility of making a primary run against Donald Norcross. “I haven’t ruled it out,” she said, despite taking no concrete steps toward a campaign.

A spokesman for the congressman declined to comment, but provided a list of re-election endorsements that include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Planned Parenthood.

The alliance, a wing of a national labor-backed umbrella organization, cites New Jersey’s adoption of a $15 minimum wage in February as a key victory. The group’s legislative agenda syncs closely with the governor’s, and includes approving driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a so-called millionaire’s tax and the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“When the Democratic Party is not fighting for progressive values, we’re going to fight the Democratic Party,” said Kevin Brown, a vice president of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, an alliance member.

A senior Murphy administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly said that in the past year Ms. Altman had influenced the debate in Trenton more than any other person, calling her a “game changer.”

A fellow Camden activist described her as fierce.

“She doesn’t have to stay here,” said Ronsha Dickerson, 42, an African-American mother of six who works for an organization that has called for a moratorium on new charter schools in Camden. “But she’s chosen this space to really be committed to making change.”

In college, Ms. Altman took up boxing to stay in shape. She picked it up again this past fall, parrying punches with the ease of a lifelong athlete during a recent workout.

As she left the gym, Wayne Shareef Jr., a boxing coach and trainer, jokingly cautioned her not to get in trouble.

“I can’t guarantee that,” she said, chuckling.

A spokesman for George Norcross, Daniel Fee, bristled at the depiction of Ms. Altman as an independent reformer. He pointed to a $100,000 donation to the Working Families Alliance from New Direction New Jersey, a group aligned with Mr. Murphy, as evidence of her financial dependence on the governor.

The alliance is not required to disclose its donors, but Ms. Altman has been criticized for not doing so voluntarily.

“I wouldn’t ascribe to them any success other than getting media coverage,” Mr. Fee said. “The way to make change is to win elections, and so far they haven’t.”

The well-oiled political organizations in New Jersey’s 21 counties are skilled at nurturing obedience, in large part by controlling which candidates share the ballot line with incumbents. The structure makes it almost impossible for an insurgent to win a primary, as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in New York.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Once you’ve got the line, you hold the power to keep the line.”

Perhaps nowhere is the schism within the Democratic Party clearer than in the fight over who will lead the state committee. The victor controls the party’s purse strings, and the true prize: command over selecting a committee that will redraw the legislative map, a power that can make or break candidates and is a potent bargaining chip.

Ms. Avelenda was hired two weeks ago to be the campaign manager for Mr. Murphy’s choice, John Currie, the current state party chairman. Mr. Currie is locked in an uphill race against LeRoy Jones, who has the support of George Norcross and the Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney.

If Mr. Currie loses, the governor will face re-election in 2021 with a party chairman he did not select, or want.

Ms. Altman welcomed the choice of Ms. Avelenda, who may be best known from a 2017 episode involving Rodney Frelinghuysen, to run Mr. Currie’s campaign.

That year, Mr. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey’s most powerful member of Congress at the time, highlighted Ms. Avelenda’s political activism in a personal note attached to a fund-raising letter sent to a member of the board at the bank where she worked.

She resigned from the bank and devoted herself to electing a Democrat; Mr. Frelinghuysen decided not to seek re-election.

“Love seeing the Dems recognize the talents of progressive women,” Ms. Altman wrote on Twitter. “Plus, we need a win.”

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