As Atlantic City faces a final deadline this fall to avoid a state takeover of its finances, last spring’s war of words between Governor Chris Christie and the city’s Republican mayor Don Guardian has made for some strange political bedfellows. When he goes up for reelection in 2017, Guardian will likely face one of two Democratic city councilmen—one of whom was his righthand man during fire-breathing public appearances denouncing Christie.
Guardian has said that he intends to run for one more term. Council President Marty Small may have stood by the mayor’s side during his many trips to the State House in the thick of the tense committee hearings and press conferences that led up to the current takeover compromise, but he intends to challenge the Guardian next year and has already attempted to ensure that a rival Democrat loses out on the party’s mayoral nomination.
Though it failed to gain the necessary traction in the State Senate, Small successfully passed a city council bill that would have eliminated three at-large council seats. If successful, that bill would have taken his potential primary opponent Frank Gilliam out of the running. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), sponsor of the current takeover legislation and of an earlier, more aggressive bill, wasn’t interested.
Small said by phone that he was not surprised by the outcome. He had touted Sweeney’s support for the bill eliminating those seats.
“Of course Senator Sweeney blocked it,” he said. “Which was a complete reversal of his earlier commitment.”
Gilliam called the bill a political ploy at the time, despite Small’s insistence that the move was simply a cost-saving measure. The city needs to close a $100 million gap in its budget by October to avoid the takeover, which would allow the state to break public union contracts and sell off assets like the city’s water authority.
“If thousands of voters actually elected us to basically be at-large representatives for them, then why is he basically taking it upon himself to reduce those people?” Gilliam said in June. “I think that there’s a political play behind this.”
The mayoral race in the declining casino town is set to expose fault lines between the socially liberal Guardian and the rest of the New Jersey GOP, and Small’s alienation from Sweeney (he appeared alongside Sweeney’s presumed gubernatorial rival Steve Fulop when the Jersey City Mayor visited during the takeover standoff). Guardian could have trouble courting donations from statewide candidates, and Small would be entering a race without the support of the powerful South Jersey Democratic organization headed by George Norcross, Sweeney’s political ally. Guardian, on the other hand, had the support of influential Ocean County GOP chairman George Gilmore during his 2013 campaign.
Gilliam saw an opening soon after the takeover compromise passed, offering hedged support for a takeover plan and distancing himself from Guardian and Small’s aggressive tack when he said “each month that went on, the city’s financial situation and the image of the town had gotten worse.”
The Atlantic County Democratic Committee has not decided on a favorite for mayor yet. Asked about his strategy for courting donors and supporters through the , Small said it will remain the same whether Gilliam runs or not.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, who’s going to get the line or not. He’s on city council. I’m on city council. And what he does has no say and sway on any of my plans.”
He added that he doesn’t expect his working relationship with Guardian to suffer.
“There’s no hidden agenda. It’s not a secret to anyone what my plans are.”