In Atlantic Senate contest, the brawl goes on

Put a bunch of Irish politicians in the same party and what you’ve got is an old Hudson County primary, but put them in opposing parties, add gambling, boxing and war-time middle class angst to the mix, and you’ll find them down in present day Atlantic County, throwing punches long before you ever have to tell them to come out swinging.

In this case it’s Senator James “Sonny” McCullough, the longtime mayor of Egg Harbor Township and a Republican, in a district 2 standoff with Assemblyman James Whelan, the former long serving mayor of Atlantic City and a Democrat.

As the suburban candidate in this race and the mayor of a town that named a golf course after him, McCullough carries the burden of trying to show how forces beyond the shore towns here – namely state government and Atlantic City’s casino industry – have overwhelmingly contributed to the towns’ struggles. And he has to do that while avoiding the danger of appearing too provincial in the face of speedily changing demographics that have already upended long-standing GOP officials in the district.

“We build a brand new school every five years,” says the 65-year old McCullough. “I tell my fellow mayors, ‘Every three years I build a neighborhood bigger than your whole town.’”

Whelan, 59, the ex-mayor of a city where the county’s most notorious industry is concentrated, has to demonstrate that he can step beyond the boundaries of Atlantic City and deliver pragmatic solutions to this tax burdened and still Republican-leaning region – even as he fights the tag of being a field hand for Camden County mega-boss George Norcross.

“I believe there’s a general frustration that people feel – a sense that government has lost the connection that we should have with folks,” says Whelan. “For one, government’s too quick to raise taxes without recognizing the impact that might have on people.”

Both candidates have hung on in politics in a county where a lot of other elected officials from their generation are either dead or behind bars. McCullough was sworn in as mayor of Egg Harbor in 1985 and was appointed earlier this year to fill the unexpired term of Sen. William Gormley. Whelan was first elected to the Atlantic City Council in 1982 before becoming mayor in 1990 after defeating Republican James Usry, the city’s first black mayor and far from the first corrupt one.

Whelan prides himself on his twelve years as mayor, and on being the only Atlantic City mayor in the last 20 years who either wasn’t led away in cuffs or forced to clean out his desk in the dead of night.

“None of the six mayors before me left office on what you’d call a high note,” he says. “Four left office tied to very specific scandals. That was the climate here: a legacy of political corruption that historically goes back forever.”

A steely conservative, McCullough has had the difficult job, meanwhile, of serving a town that is bisected by a state designated high growth area, and a no-sewer, low growth zone that fits within the vast south Jersey Pinelands. Even given the peculiar demands of the state on his town, in particular those of the Pinelands Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection, “I’ll match our infrastructure against any infrastructure in the state,” McCullough says.

The barrier island politician Whelan can comb the streets in his working class car and say “hey, man,” to everyone with the kind of boardwalk gruffness people expect here. It seems to come easy for him in Atlantic City and he says as much.

“If you’re a city kid like I am, and you like the shore, there ain’t any other place to be,” says the Democrat, who un-retired himself from politics after Sen. John Kerry went belly up in his bid for the presidency. Whelan, who hammered out a win in his 2005 bid for the Assembly, argues that the Democratic Party must rededicate itself to correcting middle class squeeze issues: affordable healthcare, housing, good paying jobs and good, efficient government.

Asked why he never moved to the suburbs, why he’s stayed in Atlantic City all of these years, Whelan says, “When I go to eat Mexican food I want to eat real Mexican food, not Taco Bell. I just like the diversity.”

Between his All American swimming youth spent in a lifeguard chair at the Steel Pier, his job as a swim coach in the local public schools and his record in elected office, the Philadelphia native spins the heads of pedestrians on the boardwalk who either know him personally or recognize the 6 ft. 6 ex mayor. When he goes into the neighborhoods, African-American boys playing football in the streets stop to greet him with “Hey, Mr. Whelan.”

But to move up to the senate now in a contentious race, Whelan the consummate street operator and good government maverick has to kowtow to the George Norcross cash cow, and that’s where McCullough the Atlantic County native hopes to be able to hurt Whelan: by playing the frowning local patriarch in the face of outside interference.

That may put the fight in some old-timers especially. There are murmurings that while people like and respect Whelan, they wonder how independent he will be able to be now that he’s backed by “one of the most notorious party bosses in the State of New Jersey,” in the words of State Republican Chairman Tom Wilson.

“That’s a complaint he will have to answer,” says Dr. David Rebovich, director of Rider University’s Institute for New Jersey Politics. “However, the extended South Jersey Democratic organization has shown over the last decade that it’s been successful in South Jersey.”

Working in Whelan’s favor is the fact that newcomers not named Norcross are changing the classically Republican Atlantic County on their own. Independents (11,053 of them) outnumber Republicans (5,655) in Egg Harbor Township by a nearly 2-1 margin. Democrats trail with 2,534 registered voters. In Hamilton Township, Republicans have the edge in numbers but Independents again lead both parties by wide margins. In Atlantic City, registered Republicans number 1,656 to 9,224 Democrats. McCullough hopes a lot of Democrats still loyal to Whelan’s one time foe Craig Callaway stay home come Election Day when faced with the prospect of voting for Whelan. But Independent voters, whom Whelan says he cultivated during his tenure as mayor (as McCullough says he has in Egg Harbor) number 6,186. Then there’s Galloway: 3,715 registered Republicans, 2,978 Democrats and 11,004 Independents. Throw in heavily Democratic Pleasantville (3,331 Dems, 524 GOP and 3,430 Independents) and who wins comes down to that can win the war in the middle.

While acknowledging the changes that have occurred here, where thefreeholder commissionwas 8-1 Republican 30 years ago and just 5-4 Republican today, Whelan says this is a race in a district that remains GOP-leaning. He’s not about to turn down the party money if it means it can improve the party’s chances at a critical time. He says he’s also enjoyed a longtime friendship with Speaker Joe Roberts of Camden, a Norcross guy who worked with Whelan in the past from his platform in Trenton by helping to secure funds to revamp the Atlantic City Convention Center and finessing the state-sale of the airport.

The most recent campaign finance reports show McCullough with $206,165 in the bank, and Whelan with $171,104, according to Democratic Party spokesman Raiyan Syed. The senator is left to brood on information that the Democrats intend to throw $3 million at him before it’s all over, and he’s hopeful the Republican Party delivers some money, pronto.

“I don’t know a single Republican who doesn’t want Sonny McCullough to be successful,” says Wilson. “We’ve outlined our summer plans and set goals for door knocking. We’ll make our funding decisions when it’s time to spend money.”

Born in Egg Harbor, McCullough the mainlander and lifelong fisherman grew up in Margate, tended bar in Atlantic City before he was married, and for years ran his family’s auto supply business. Three-quarters Irish and a quarter Italian, he’s the longest-serving mayor in Egg Harbor Township’s 292-year history, and the great grandson of an early 20th Century Atlantic City mayor. A joke teller in the old school politician vein, his face breaks perhaps more easily into a smile than Whelan’s as he uncorks an old standard about a Chinese couple and an African American baby. But he also has a hard-edged stare, particularly when it comes to talk about taxes and the Democrats’ over $2.5 billion add-on to the budget this year, which he says “is not a way to run government.”

Game town has the rep as the urban center down here but McCullough’s 68-square mile burg is actually the biggest, fastest-growing municipality in the county.

“There were 20,000 people here when I was sworn in as mayor in 1985,” McCullough says. Now there are 42,000.

He has the casinos to the east and the Pinelands to the west, each with their specific challenges. Designated a high growth area, Egg Harbor Township catches a lot of the development that might otherwise cut into in the wilderness but for government protections.

Then there are the casinos. State law gives casinos a choice of either paying 2.5% of its gaming revenue to the state or reinvesting 1.25% of its gaming revenues through the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) in community and economic development projects. While Atlantic City – and Whelan – have enjoyed making use of those dollars on town improvement projects, towns like Egg Harbor don’t receive nearly enough, in McCullough’s view. The result, he says, is he’s stuck.

“This is sprawl,” McCullough says of Egg Harbor Township. “This is sprawl at its worst.”

But over the years McCullough’s complaint on this issue doesn’t add up, according to Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

First the mayor complained that the state’s comprehensive plan didn’t give his town enough growth. He refused to comply with the Pinelands Commission’s regs restricting development, which led the commission to subsequently take over the planning of his town. Then when Gov. Jim McGreevey sought to put in a building moratorium to curb growth, McCullough fought the measure. More recently, a bill that would ease pressures in the Pinelands growth area and transfer development rights around the state made it out of the Assembly environmental committee without Whelan’s testimony. Neither did he co-sponsor a version in the Senate.

“He never said boo about the bill,” said Tittel. “McCullough complains about too much development, even as he’s allowing his town to get sprawled over. He can’t have it both ways.”

But there’s still the issue of affordability and McCullough is convinced that’s on his side, as the Democratic Party has controlled Trenton over the past six years and presided over an increasing budget deficit.

For his part, Whelan believes the troubles of the GOP locally underscore a deeper accountability issue.

Every Jersey county has its legendary tough guy, of course, and down here it’s Hap Farley, a Republican scrapper who ran the party until the early 1970s.

A convincing Farley heir from the stand point of larger than life intensity, retiring Sen. William Gormley went into a special Republican County Convention in February focused on ensuring that good soldier Assemblyman Frank Blee would be his successor. County Executive Denny Levinson and McCullough had other plans. Tired of being bullied by what they saw as an Atlantic City-centric Gormley and confident that other on-the-ground Republicans felt the same way, they mounted a secret ballot counter-attack and won. McCullough’s alternative candidacy for state senate outdid Blee’s by a two-thirds majority.

“Sonny is a man’s man, a legitimate, Runyonesque, Irish tough guy and one of the finest mayors in Atlantic County,” says Levinson.

Gormley and McCullough never got along, a relationship that turned downright ugly when McCullough endorsed Frank LoBiondo instead of Gormley in the 1994 GOP House primary.

But this latest transgression was even worse.

Gormley walked away from the convention stunned and angry, feeling betrayed and not just a little disrespected – hard feelings for a legitimate strongman frankly used to getting his own way. What didn’t help matters was Gormley having to turn on the radio and listen to McCullough attack dogs liken him to Saddam Hussein on Harry Hurley’s radio show.

After 25 years in Trenton, Gormley decided to sit out the battle this time and let what he saw as his so-called successors mount their own battle.

While these internal struggles plagued the Republican Party, Whelan and the Democrats rubbed their hands together and delighted in what they saw as opposition meltdown. They weren’t even past the primary yet and the GOP appeared to be in tatters. Shunning McCullough, Blee endorsed Whelan. That coupled with Democrats moving into the suburbs and President George W. Bush in deep six mode didn’t bode well for McCullough.

But Whelan’s had to face the traumas of his own party, where former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway now sits in a federal prison for bribery. McCullough and Levinson say Whelan originally needed Callaway’s party connections in his mayoral elections and only recently, post conviction, has taken to walking around making a big show of being infuriated.

“They’ve accepted every single vote the Callaways have delivered,” says Levinson.

“They want to distance themselves,” says McCullough of Whelan and Democratic Party Chairman Ron Ruff. “But everyone knows the Democratic Party and the Callaways are one in the same.”

But Democrats say Whelan and Callaway fell out long before Callaway went to jail. By the late 1990s, Callaway’s people were following Whelan around on the streets and denouncing him with a bullhorn. And it was Callaway who supported then-Councilman Lorenzo Langford in creating partisan elections, which was what finally undid the independent-minded Whelan when he ran for re-election as mayor and lost to Langford in 2001. Callaway was elected to the council in 2002.

For all of the political wars, the pain from other fronts lingers here in Atlantic, in Atlantic City’s working class neighborhood, for example, which has a strong Latino accent these days. Two weeks ago, elected officials stood in the rain and unveiled Eric Rivera Way, named in honor of the Army specialist killed in combat in Iraq on Nov. 14, 2006. This was the block where Rivera lived with his mother and brother.

“I want to say thanks to Atlantic City,” said Jefferson, Rivera’s brother, in his Atlantic City Police Department dress blues, standing beside his mother Cayetana Palicios. “We grew up here, my brother and I. It really means a lot to us.”

Taxes and the war and changes like the tides. Life and death go on in the clam shacks, Baptist churches and marshlands of Atlantic.

They both say they’re in public service to help people, Whelan and McCullough, but whether they can convince voters that all the battles and alliances both past and present add up unequivocally to the public interest is an argument these men will have to make over the next few months, where there are few good guys and fewer do-gooders, where even the best have to be hard-boiled enough to navigate a boardwalk that cuts between two unforgiving forces: the casinos on one side and on the other, the sea.

In Atlantic Senate contest, the brawl goes on