ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — After a brutal four-year stretch in which five of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos shut down, costing 10,000 jobs and leading New Jersey to seize the reigns of local power, the seaside resort will elect its mayor from a four-candidate field in less than two weeks with challenges — and opportunities — aplenty.
Ending Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s takeover of local government and nurturing a budding recovery among Atlantic City’s seven surviving casinos are among the top goals of the candidates in the Nov. 7 election.
DONALD GUARDIAN (R)
Incumbent Guardian, the heavily Democratic city’s first Republican mayor in a generation, took office just as Atlantic City cratered in 2014. Within two weeks, the first of four casinos to go belly up that year shut its doors, setting a crisis tone that never dissipated during his four years.
The former head of the city’s special improvement district, Guardian tried in vain to fight off a state takeover by a governor from his own political party, who became convinced Guardian wasn’t willing to take the harsh steps needed to fix the city’s finances in an era of slimmed-down gambling revenue.
But Guardian says he cut tens of millions from the city budgets, including $40 million from this year’s, while inheriting a financial crisis from years of Democratic predecessors.
“I couldn’t have fought any harder than I did,” he said.
The 64-year-old Guardian says he will work closely with whichever candidate wins the governor’s office, noting he has met repeatedly, if somewhat clandestinely, with Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, the Republican gubernatorial candidate.
Guardian said job and budget cuts made during his four-year term are beginning to bear fruit, as evidenced by the purchase of the former Trump Taj Mahal casino by Hard Rock International, which will reopen it next year; by construction of a new satellite campus for Stockton University, and for new housing in the city’s north end.
FRANK GILLIAM JR. (D)
City Council President Gilliam is the Democratic nominee, counting on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy to end the state takeover as soon as he takes office. (Guadagno also wants to end the takeover, but has not given a timetable.)
Gilliam, 47, owns a student tutoring service and is completing a second four-year term on council. He supports Murphy’s plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and faults Guardian for not heading off a takeover of Atlantic City government by Christie, a fellow Republican.
“I have no ill will toward Mayor Guardian as a person,” Gilliam said. “But as a businessman, he doesn’t understand the art of the deal. I realize I’m just one cog in the wheel; I’m not the entire wheel.”
Gilliam says Atlantic City has untapped potential for vacation homes and mixed-use developments.
JOSEPH POLILLO (I)
Polillo, 70, is retired from his job as Atlantic City’s chief license inspector, and is making his second run for mayor. A political independent, he blames Guardian and Gilliam for allowing the state to take over Atlantic City.
“They didn’t have the guts to stand up to them,” Polillo said. “I voted for people to be my elected representatives. They took all my collective bargaining rights and civil service rights.”
Polillo said a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes bill for casinos should be repealed as too generous for the gambling halls, and he opposes the proposed sale of city assets, including the former Bader Field airport site and the city’s much-coveted water utility, preferring five or 10-year leases.
He says Atlantic City needs to become more of a family resort.
Polillo also is one of the more colorful characters in the race; with his flowing white beard, he portrays King Neptune in city beachfront parades, and has one of the largest collections of Atlantic City postcards.
HENRY GREEN (Green Party)
Green, 46, is the Green Party candidate, having previously worked in the Atlantic City Public Works department. He currently works as a local radio show co-host and producer.
His goals include ending the state takeover, reducing property taxes and increasing youth recreation opportunities.
His platform also calls for addiction rehab services for city residents, reducing repetitive flooding, and the opening of a supermarket in the resort city that has long lacked one.
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC