ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Don Guardian is in the final days of what his friends call “the worst job in the world.”
Atlantic City’s outgoing mayor presided over the closing of five of the city’s 12 casinos, with the loss of 11,000 jobs, and could not fight off a state takeover of his city’s assets and major decision-making power.
He also helped plant the seeds of a recovery that he won’t be around to enjoy. Guardian will become municipal administrator for Toms River, a Jersey shore town about an hour north of Atlantic City that was devastated by Superstorm Sandy five years ago.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Guardian, Atlantic City’s first Republican mayor in a generation, said he could not have worked any harder in his four years in office.
“Many people would say this was the worst job in the world, but I really love helping people through local government,” he said Wednesday. “I know how much a street sweeper costs, how to negotiate a police contract. This really is my calling, what I love to do.”
Guardian is fascinated by street cleaning, sometimes riding along with Public Works employees as they do their jobs, and has been known to perform spot checks of the cleanliness of Boardwalk toilets during his daily early morning bicycle ride.
He was defeated in November’s election by Democrat Frank Gilliam Jr. in an election that he still insists was tainted by “massive voter fraud” involving fraudulently filled out absentee ballots by people supporting Gilliam’s campaign. Gilliam has repeatedly denied any fraud took place, and county authorities have yet to act on Guardian’s pre-election request for an investigation.
Guardian took office in January 2014, just two weeks before The Atlantic Club shut its doors, the first of four casinos to go out of business that year. The Trump Taj Mahal became the fifth to close in 2016, but will reopen next summer as a Hard Rock casino resort.
All told, more than 11,000 people lost jobs in the shutdowns, which Guardian took stoically. Instead of criticizing the casino companies for closing down properties, Guardian emphasized the need to work with their owners, most of whom still owned other casinos in town.
He won’t second-guess the political wisdom of such a response.
“I wasn’t the typical politician,” he said. “I was always looking long-term, instead of looking at what short-term thing I could have done or said to benefit politically. I didn’t do that, and I didn’t get re-elected.”
Guardian also fought an unsuccessful battle along with other elected officials to try to prevent Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, from seizing power over Atlantic City’s assets and major decision-making authority. That loss of local government control also figured prominently in his electoral defeat, even though Guardian and several casino executives acknowledge that some aspects of the state takeover helped whittle down the city’s crushing debt and restore stability to its finances.
He says he is proud that the city did not have to declare bankruptcy, and noted some major developments that began under his leadership that will blossom under his successor’s, including the Hard Rock re-opening, the opening of a satellite campus for Stockton University and a new corporate headquarters for a natural gas utility. Four hundred units of affordable housing are due to open soon as well.
“We were able to bring some stability to city government,” Guardian said. “I think 2018 is going to be a good year.”
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