New Jersey’s most closely watched race this year will be in the second legislative district, where incumbent assemblymen Vince Mazzeo (D) and Chris Brown (R) will be vying to keep their seats and or be overtaken by newcomers Atlantic County Freeholder Will Pauls (R) and Democratic Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell (D).
Atlantic City and Atlantic County’s mutual economic free-fall is guaranteed to be foremost in voters’ minds, and the turbulence of recovery efforts could alter the field between now and November. Insiders say that Brown is leading the race, with Bell trailing far behind the rest.
Although the referendum to build new casinos in North Jersey has dominated the conversation so far, it will be absent from the ballot this year. In a blighted economic climate thick with diverging or conflicting schemes for revitalization, the edge will go to whomever can stake a claim to moving even one of legislators’ and developers’ strategies forward for growing the property tax base as more and more casinos disappear or successfully appeal their tax bills.
From its conflicted Republican delegation to the bizarre proportions of its new and unexpected backers, here are the ten issues and personalities that may throw a wrench into the works for LD2.
1) PILOT for casinos
Senator Jim Whelan (D-2) and Mazzeo’s proposed payment in lieu of taxes program for Atlantic City casinos has passed the legislature and remains on Governor Christie’s desk. Passage into law would be a major victory for the Democrats after the bill’s fractured reception so far, and would leave Brown with one less mainstay campaign issue. If it goes down, Mazzeo will have to muddle through under the shadow of an extremely high-profile failure.
2) Casino strikes and Carl Icahn
With the Trump Taj Mahal still negotiating the terms of its resuscitation in bankruptcy court, casino workers there and at the Tropicana are urging a strike following Trump Entertainment Resorts owner Carl Icahn’s decision to revoke their health benefits. If workers strike or regain their benefits and Icahn follows through on threats to shutter the Taj, it would be a major upset to the city’s economy and to the race.
3) County Republicans
Republican governors in Atlantic County have been agitating against the PILOT program and breaking with Mayor Don Guardian, claiming that it would serve the city over the county and leave them with no guaranteed share of the funds collected from the city’s remaining casinos. Brown has aligned himself with the anti-PILOT county officials, and could stand to gain in LD2’s residential and rural areas if they succeed in persuading Christie to veto the bill.
4) Demographic change
The district’s hard times since out-of-state competition began decimating gaming revenues have led to many former casino workers leaving the region entirely. Between the loss of middle and working-class voters and the increase in Latino voters in the district, there is a chance that 2011 and 2012’s redistricting won’t be an inevitable predictor of party lines among the electorate.
5) Labor support
Brown and Pauls’ campaign has an unusual degree of labor, with Pauls even drawing contributions from some of the same local unions who have given to Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) reelection campaign. A scuffle broke out last month at an AFL-CIO event when ironworkers from the Iron Workers Local 350 threatened Mazzeo and allegedly punched former Democratic Atlantic City Mayor Scott Evans. Pauls serves as the 350’s business manager.
6) Stockton University
As Stockton attempts to find a new site for its potential campus in Atlantic City’s tourism district, Mazzeo and Bell could make hay from their affiliation with Whelan and his bill to override the casino deed restrictions that scuttled the university’s original plan to renovate the former Showboat Casino and turn it into classrooms and office space. So far, Stockton has not found a buyer for the Showboat property.
7) Developer Glenn Straub
The Florida developer is one of the few outside influences bringing capital into the city and doing his part to reshuffle the deck vis-a-vis Atlantic City’s bankrupt casinos. Having swept in to claim the Revel Casino at a cut-rate price, and at one time a prospective buyer for the Showboat after Stockton, Straub has the ability to alter the field considerably between now and November.
8) Emergency Manager Kevin Lavin
Lavin has unprecedented authority over Atlantic City as the Christie-appointed Emergency Manager. He has recently been hashing out potential changes to the terms of the PILOT program, recommending a 3-5 year term rather than the current draft’s 15. Lavin will be instrumental to the PILOT’s success, failure or further delay.
9) Redevelopment and tourism
Efforts to create new convention spaces out of gutted casino properties continue to amble along with projects like the Resorts Casino Hotel, which opened in late August. The Waterfront Conference Center at Harrah’s Resort will follow this month, and solid early returns from the new corporate convention sites could spur voter turnout on election day.
10) Chris Christie
Atlantic City is no exception when it comes to Christie’s perennial unpopularity in South Jersey. After the governor came out in favor of North Jersey casino construction, Brown went so far as to break with party ranks and decline to endorse Christie’s presidential campaign. The Revel, the city’s emergency management team and even the boundaries of the tourism district itself all bear Christie’s imprimatur, making his name an obstacle for both sides.