TRENTON — Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo (D-2) and Chris Brown (R-2) don’t agree on much. Nor should they — they’re a Democrat and Republican, respectively. And they’re both running for reelection this year.
But there is one issue on which they agree, and it might be the most important of all.
The proposal to expand gaming beyond Atlantic City, brought to a head this afternoon with the introduction of a constitutional amendment that could lead to up to three new casinos being built in North Jersey, has highlighted the unholy alliance Brown and Mazzeo share on the issue. Both South Jersey lawmakers have voiced their opposition to the measure, citing the likely and potentially devastating harm a couple well-placed North Jersey casinos could do to the seaside gaming mecca’s already floundering economy. Both have sought instead to ensure its economic rebound by focusing on the city itself, drafting legislation aimed at creating jobs and stabilizing its shrinking property tax base.
Both, moreover, have chosen to go against the leadership of their respective parties in opposing the move: Mazzeo against Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), and Brown against Gov. Chris Christie, who most recently came out in favor of gaming expansion in the state.
On the surface, the pair’s interests seem aligned, creating the potential for a bi-partisan counterattack by two lawmakers whose district includes Atlantic City and thus constitutes ground zero for the state’s ailing gaming industry. And such a collaboration wouldn’t be outside the realm of imagination, as Trenton is, if not chock-full of them, then at least flecked with instances of lawmakers reaching across the aisle on controversial issues, particularly when it comes to South Jersey. But this year is an election year — and Brown and Mazzeo are running opposite each other in what is expected to be one of the state’s most contentious Assembly races.
The timing of a North Jersey gaming referendum — Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28), the bill’s primary sponsor, said he would like to get a question on the ballot for November — is apt, given Mazzeo and Brown’s race. The measure will undoubtedly complicated things in LD2, and while some political observers might wonder why Democrats would risk putting in jeopardy one of their own seats this year rather than simply waiting until next, sources behind the push for North Jersey gaming note that the issue will be easier to bracket out and drawn attention to during an off-year election.
Speaking to PolitickerNJ following this afternoon’s press conference, both Mazzeo and Brown sought to distance themselves from those lawmakers pining for casinos outside of Atlantic City, but also from each other in light of their shared interests. Brown called the plan “disruptive” and argued that lawmakers — including Christie — are making a “grave mistake,” but suggested Mazzeo has not be earnest in his opposition to the plan. He pointed to a resolution he had tried to author late last year that would have continued limiting gaming to Atlantic City, and said the when he went and sought Mazzeo’s support for the measure, he was stonewalled.
“We only needed 41 votes. The resolution said Atlantic City would be given the time it needs to transition into a destination resort, that we would at least honor the five year plan. And that would have put to rest any talk of a North Jersey Casino. I went to may counterpart, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, and told him I wanted to do a resolution,” Brown said. “I then went out over the summer and met with my caucus members, was able to get 24 out of 32. In September I came back, I said, look man, I’ve got 24 out of 32. You only need 17. And he came back to me, and he said he did not call anybody. He said he did not get one signature. So I said, well Vince, will you sign it? He said no I will not sign it.”
“So nobody is painting anything,” he added. “What has happened is, somebody is being a typical politician, and now saying one thing, and having done nothing. People deserve better. We have hardworking, middle class families in Atlantic County who just had an additional 10,000 laid off and out of work. A North Jersey casino means an additional 10,000 out of work, $350-500 million casino revenue taken out, two more casinos closing. This is devastating to Atlantic County.”
Hitting Mazzeo accountable for his refusal to sign on to that proposal, as well as linking him to Democratic lawmakers like Whelan and Sweeney who support North Jersey gaming, has been one of the main lines of attack for Republicans in LD2. They’ve created a website and Facebook paged called “Meadowlands Mazzeo” to drive the point home, saying that when “given an opportunity to stand up against special interests pushing for a North Jersey casino and support a bipartisan plan to stop them, ‘Meadowlands’ Mazzeo refused.” Brown and his runningmate, Atlantic County Freeholder Will Pauls, have also criticized the Democrat for a lack of conviction on the issue.
Whether that strategy still holds water, however, now that the state’s top Republican has jumped in on the opposite side of the debate is an open question. It would at least seem to blunt the criticism, allowing Mazzeo to make the case that both parties are in favor of the initiative, thus making moot their own opposition. But Brown stressed a difference between Christie’s openness to North Jersey gaming and that of someone like Sweeney — it comes down to their role in authoring legislation and setting policy in Trenton.
“Let me be real clear. There are those who if they’re not accurate or being clear with their readers, might bring Christie into it. But the truth is that Gov. Christie plays absolutely no role in a constitutional referendum. Gov. Christie has absolutely nothing to do with it,” he said. “Senator Sweeney is the person. Jim Whelan is on the chair of the Senate Gaming and Tourism Committee. Without them throwing in the town, there is no referendum, there is no conversation.”
Also, it wouldn’t be the first time Brown won reelection with lukewarm support from his own party. He was, after all, the one who first hinted in 2013 that Christie might have been holding back in battleground South Jersey races for the sake of preserving good relations with powerful Democratic machines. Republicans lost a seat in LD2 that year, and those same Democratic machines are expected to come out strong for Mazzeo again this time around.
“There’s a very clear differentiation. From the beginning Chris Brown has stood up to casinos moguls, he’s stood up to the governor, he’s stood up to the governor, and he’ll continue to stand up for what’s right. That’s a pretty clear contrast,” Brown said.
But Mazzeo, who is running with Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell in this year’s Assembly contest, contended that he’s been as active in defending Atlantic City from outside interests as Brown has, if not more so. He noted his sponsoring of economic legislation that would lead to the roll-out of a PILOT program in Atlantic City, which came close to passing through the legislature last year before being tabled amid controversy. Mazzeo said he still hopes to get that package through, and called lawmakers’ movement on North Jersey gaming — including from Sweeney and Whelan’s — “dead wrong.”
Asked by PolitickerNJ if he was concerned with the position his bill could put Mazzeo in as he vies to hold his seat against a team of Republicans, Caputo said the South Jersey lawmaker will eventually have to come around on the issue anyway, suggesting politics is the only thing holding him to his current stance.
“I think the interest should be on them, getting those through, getting people back to work and growing the economy. So I’m going to be adamant talking to leadership, and focusing more on Atlantic City than this talk about North Jersey casinos,” Mazzeo said. “We can’t have it right now.”
He also rebuffed Brown’s accusation that he had refused to sign his resolution, saying it was nonbinding and thus meaningless.
“Nonbinding doesn’t mean anything, there’s no teeth to it. So why should we give people false hope? I’m about solutions,” he said.
Ultimately, Mazzeo granted that on the issue of North Jersey casinos, the two are on the same page. But he later said that for a similar reason Christie’s support for the measure doesn’t ultimately have any practical effect, his own opposition, as a lawmaker in Trenton, means that much more.
“I’m on the majority party. And being in the majority I can make this happen and bring real change,” he said.