The guard chair origins of Atlantic County politics

Senator Jim Whelan

Senator Jim Whelan

Ah, almost summer in the beach towns of South Jersey. Sunny skies, a blue ocean, beaches packed with visitors. 

And quietly, in lifeguard stands all along the coast, but particularly in Atlantic County, future political alliances and political feuds are being formed.

Call it the Brotherhood of the Beach. It’s a process as old as … well, as old as the oldest still-operational lifeguard organization in the United States – the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, which was founded in 1855. And it’s a ritual mostly unknown to North Jersey power brokers and somewhat mystifying to those who do know about it.

The Eagleton Institute has never studied this strange shore subculture. The Record and The Star-Ledger have never written about it. But the bonds formed among lifeguards last a lifetime, and an inordinate number of former guards go into politics, where the relationships and the enmities formed long ago in lifeguard stands are never far away. Countless current and former mayors, councilman, freeholders, state lawmakers and other pols are former guards.

The truth is, a lifeguard’s day is mostly endless hours of staring at the ocean, tracking the sun across the sky while sitting cheek-to-cheek with another guard, talking nonsense and busting chops. It creates a bond – kind of like the Marines, only with more bikinis, no bullets and lifeguard stands instead of foxholes.

Joe Tanfani, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer now with the Los Angeles Times, once said he had never seen a city like Atlantic City, which he once covered, where “everything depended on who went to high school with whom.” He was almost right. Who worked as a lifeguard with whom is often more important. 

Atlantic County Democratic state Sen. Jim Whelan, a former mayor of Atlantic City, was a longtime Atlantic City Beach Patrol guard who won back-to-back South Jersey swimming titles in 1970-71. 

Former Atlantic County Republican Assemblyman John Amodeo, who just won election to the Margate City Commission, was a long-time guard and competitive swimmer for the Margate City Beach Patrol.

Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, also is a veteran of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol and the son of legendary ACBP Chief Art Brown, who died in 1986.

And this is my favorite part of lifeguard life here in small-world world: Brown was once Whelan’s mascot on the beach. (You ask: What’s a mascot? A mascot is a kid too young to be a guard. Mascots run errands for the guards – important stuff, like being dispatched to ask a girl her phone number or to get lunch. In return, they get to go for rides in the boat and maybe wear a whistle around their necks.)

The competition to get a job on one of Atlantic County’s beach patrols is intense. It helps to know someone. There’s no doubt that the sons and daughters of former guards have an advantage. Now-retired Atlantic City Fire Chief Dennis Brooks recently got himself in trouble for allegedly trying to pressure ACBP officials to hire his daughter. But connected or not, you first have to score well on the lifeguard test, which involves running, swimming and rowing.

And the annual lifeguard competitions up and down the coast provide lifelong bragging rights that can transfer into votes – and sometimes lifetime feuds. Jim Swift, a former Margate guard whose family dominated the lifeguard competitions for years, once had to drop out of a race for state Senate in late summer after a dispute at a lifeguard race in Atlantic City ended in a physical altercation between several Swifts and some A.C. guards. (The Swifts won.) John Froonjian, who was manning The Press of Atlantic City Trenton bureau then, said at the time that Statehouse politicians were amazed and confused – saying, “He’s dropping out because of a lifeguard race?”

True story: At a lifeguard competition in Ventnor years ago, I overheard one woman say to another: “This isn’t a race – it’s a religion.”

She was right.

Jim Perskie is the former editorial-page editor of The Press of Atlantic City. Email: jperskie@comcast.net.

The guard chair origins of Atlantic County politics