In 2017, the most volatile race is likely to be in Atlantic City with voters set to turn out for the Democrats in light of Governor Chris Christie’s dismal approval ratings. The Democrats may have lit on their candidate early in the gubernatorial, but the state’s gaming capital will see a referendum on Republican Mayor Don Guardian’s leadership during the year-long wrangling over the recent state takeover of its finances. Two Democratic councilmen are vying to challenge Guardian, and their bad blood is coming to the fore.
That competition between City Council President Marty Small and At-Large City Councilman Frank Gilliam has already gotten ugly—Small attempted to nix Gilliam’s council seat in a bid to take him out of the primary, and Gilliam has offered harsh criticism of Small and Guardian’s approach during negotiations between the city and the Christie administration over how to balance the city’s budget.
Tensions are running high in the resort town. The city is under the weight of $500 million in total debt, with the decline of its casino economy continuing apace. Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said that despite his failure to prevent the takeover, Guardian will likely be in good standing with his constituents for his folkloric campaign to maintain home rule.
At this point, she said, the race is Guardian’s to lose.
“He has enjoyed widespread support for his leadership from almost all segments of the community,” she said. “I think that people admired his stance against Governor Christie. I think people were impressed by his diligence in trying to create an environment in which the state would have to not take over the city.”
Reached by phone, Small said that he was still not ready to officially announce his mayoral bid but that he has every intention running. Small declined to run in 2013 when Guardian pulled out a surprise victory against black, Democratic incumbent Lorenzo Langford as a white, gay Republican.
“I think everyone knows my intention,” Small said, adding that he is focused on cooperating with Guardian as the state Local Finance Board assumes control over the city’s finances. “This is the year 2016. Our city is in a crisis. It’s more important to deal with the issues at hand regarding the city than political aspirations.”
As for currying favor with county or municipal Democratic chairs, Small said that he would hesitate to step outside of his own territory. Guardian won his first term after powerful Ocean County Republican chairman George Gilmore offered modest eleventh-hour contributions to get out the vote.
“I believe things when I see it,” Small said. “I don’t anticipate getting the line just because of who’s behind Atlantic County. You would think people in high places would respect people for their stance and for defending their turf, but when you fight back against special interests they have a problem.”
Gilliam was unavailable for comment.
Asked who she thinks has the better chance between the two men, Harrison said it could depend on whether Small’s public profile during the takeover can outweigh Gilliam’s name recognition as part of a large and well-respected Atlantic City family.
“It depends on how nasty that race gets. So it could be that the person who emerges from that primary is so bloodied that it’s difficult to move on. When you look at the city, while they have their different constituents, there are some similarities between them,” she said. “I think that a lot of it is the ‘inside baseball’ politics of Atlantic City that is driving the competition.”