Sweeney’s South Jersey wager

The north/south divide widened this morning with Gov. Chris Christie’s embrace of a plan that back benches horseracing and reinforces Atlantic City at the center of the state’s gaming universe.

Standing – once again – on the same side of the divide were Christie – and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), whose South Jersey base is built in part on the 40,000 direct jobs and 20,000 indirect jobs ratcheted into the seaside city.

Positioned on the other side was a mostly North Jersey contingent that included the unlikely Democratic/Republican duo of Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) and State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank).

“You can’t underestimate the economic value of horse racing – and the open space enhancement created by horse farms,” said Beck, whose district includes Monmouth Park.

The senator amplified the gripe.

“I read the report, and there is one glaring omission,” she said. “There is no discussion of convenience gaming.”

That lack is especially troubling, according to Beck, when the facts bare out Atlantic City’s freefall occuring in 2007 as Philadelphia accelerated its own gaming offerings. Atlantic City’s revenues are down 11% from last year while other states – Maryland, Pennsylvania and Connecticut – continue to build out convenience gaming alternatives.

“How do you not do that analysis?” Beck asked, referring to the absence of a convenience gaming component in the plan as a way to revitalize North Jersey racing and strengthen New Jersey’s competiveness with surrounding states.

Sarlo amped up his critique of the commission report even more.

“I want a full-fledged casino for the Meadowlands,” said the Bergen politician. “I have no problem with keeping Atlantic City successful, but there is no master plan here for the Meadowlands. It’s almost as though the Meadowlands’ future is put on hold while we see if this government bailout works for Atlantic City.”

Sweeney issued a statement reminding people that the legislature is scheduled to convene a gaming summit in early August.

But the Atlantic City-centric portion of Christie’s commission study already places Sweeney in accord with the bulk recommendation.

Coming on the heels of the senate president’s delivery of Democratic votes for the governor’s $29.4 billion budget and his hammering out a deal with the governor to cap property taxes, political experts say the freshman senate president is hardly coming across as fierce opposition.

That could cost Sweeney if he decides to project himself statewide as a Democratic candidate.

“For the time being, he is playing along with him (Christie) a little too much to position himself as an alternative,” political scientist/pollster Patrick Murray of Monmouth University said in reference to Sweeney. 

The jilted figure of former Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) comes to mind in terms of what he might have offered as a foil to the dominant GOP governor. Codey favors(ed) video lottery terminals in the Meadowlands, for example.

Sweeney and Christie don’t.

“The whole past six months would have been different with Codey still there,” Murray said. “This whole thing is turning into a bit of a kick in the teeth to Dick Codey. This is the new political reality. Get used to it.”

But as opportunistically as North Jersey pols play the Christie/Sweeney tandem, Ben Dworkin, executive director of the David Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said he doesn’t believe Sweeney’s is an unsalvageable case of too much closeness to Christie.

“The governor today said the state would be out of the horse racing business, which benefits Atlantic City, of course, and, in the case of South Jersey, a tremendous constituency of people, businesses and job providers. The recommendations of the commission are in line with an Atlantic City-first focus, in terms of gaming. A South Jersey person would favor that.”

Murray, too, was willing to entertain the notion that Sweeney’s motives might be bigger than politics.

“You always leave open the possibility that he may actually be interested in governing,” he said. “It’s true, Steve Sweeney is doing the stuff he has put forward for the last few years. Now he has the opportunity to do it.”

Sweeney’s South Jersey wager