As the state takeover of Atlantic City goes to an Assembly vote, where it is expected to pass, three of New Jersey’s most prominent Republicans couldn’t be further from one another on the issue. Governor Chris Christie and Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian have been at war in the press over the effort to reshape the city’s finances, while Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2) has come out not only against the takeover, but its comparatively uncontroversial companion bill.
With 2017 looming, the Republican Party in need of an heir apparent and Atlantic City weeks from insolvency, how did it come to this?
Christie said this week that he would not negotiate with two opposed Democrats as Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) reiterated his opposition to the takeover bill, which Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) sponsored. Christie compared that feud between the two a “game of chicken,” with Prieto responding in kind.
But Prieto’s sore-thumb recalcitrance in the overwhelmingly Democratic, pro-takeover legislature raises an awkward question of why a Republican governor, a Republican mayor and a Republican assemblyman can all diverge so wildly and so publicly.
“We will run out of money April 8 because the governor has withheld $33.5 million,” Guardian said at a city hall meeting Thursday. “There’s no one else to blame here. The money is coming from the casinos. Yet the governor has decided he’s not going to help us.”
That sentiment echoes Guardian’s earlier characterization of the Christie-backed takeover as a “fascist dictatorship.” Christie vetoed that aid package, along with a payment in lieu of taxes agreement between the city and its remaining casinos to mitigate the damage propoerty tax appeals have done to its ratable base. That agreement is now tied to the takeover in an altered form.
But with the revelation this week that a Senate amendment to the PILOT bill would allow those casinos to opt out and return to paying standard property taxes if voters approve a measure to expand gaming into North Jersey, Brown is doubling down on his opposition to the program.
“If the whole point of the PILOT was to stop casinos from appealing their tax assessment, then why would you amend it to allow casinos appeal their tax assessments?” Brown said by email. “It makes no sense unless you are trying to provide a corporate giveback.”
Seton Hall University Public Policy Professor Matthew Hale said that the thruway standoff could be a reflection of both Christie’s waning influence over a scattered delegation. Christie, Guardian and Brown have all had to make their way in their own time and with their own unique constituencies and coalitions.
“When you had Chris Christie being immensely popular, there wasn’t a Republican Party. There was just Chris Christie. Now that that’s changing and people are looking past him, I think hat lots of Republicans are trying to make sure that they’re next,” Hale said, adding that Guardian’s position as the socially liberal mayor of a Democratic city leaves him ill-equipped to cut a deal. “Christie has never really built a big bench.”
“He’s not a normal party apparatchik,” he continued. “You have the combination of a mayor who’s not a traditional Republican, a governor who’s weaker than he might otherwise have been, and then it’s a tough issue. It’s not an easy one to solve.
Brown, a longtime opponent of North Jersey casinos who has made the proposed constitutional amendment a staple of both his reelection campaign and the early days of an expected Senate run in 2017, has more to gain from opposing the takeover and PILOT than from seeking party support anywhere but his own back yard.
Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), who sponsored the original PILOT bill, reluctantly voted for the takeover when it saw final passage in the Senate earlier this month. Though the state Republican party may be weak, Christie has been able to take the lead in brokering a deal with Sweeney to create the current plan because of his robust executive powers. That surprise veto could be one of Christie’s last resounding power plays as his term winds down.
“There are no good options here,” Whelan said of the standoff over the takeover. “I think there was a responsible position. The governor blew it up. Under the New Jersey constitution, he gets to say ‘My way or the highway.’”
Guardian and Brown will seek reelection in 2017, and Brown may challenge Whelan for his seat that same cycle. With Christie’s term up and a volatile Democratic primary widely expected to decide his successor, the intra-party contretemps could be nothing less than a bid on the part of Atlantic City’s Republicans to keep standing alone.
“Everyone is seeing it as a way of saying ‘I’m the one who saved Atlantic City,’” Hale said. “Everybody is seeing it as a way to raise their profile.”