They say it will be the most brutal contest down here of all time – or at least since the last election down here.
Every contest is brutal in Atlantic City.
But this one does contain dynamics that suggest deep impact local politics.
This isn’t just street fighters on the dock front. This election contains umbilical implications that run straight into the halls of Trenton, and those allies of Governor Chris Christie and South Jersey Democratic Power Broker George Norcross III who backed a state takeover of the embattled seaside gambling mecca. This was a community once, with bakeries, movie theaters and dry cleaners, and the people who depended on them, more than on the extravagances associated with 12 casinos crammed into 48 city blocks.
It’s supposed to act as that forum to defray those baser human impulses that could morph into real trouble – into playful backstabbing irritability disguised as public dignity. But in the case of Council President Marty Small of the 2nd Ward and At-Large Councilman Frank Gilliam, two athletes who came up in Atlantic City, politics became the very domain that divided them.
“We were cool until then [Gilliam’s election to the council eight years ago],” said Small, a 14-year veteran of the city council.
They recently had words on the sidewalk outside City Hall.
By way of background, for years Small counted himself a proud member of the Democratic Party establishment at the local level. He was the state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2) acolyte who had the guts to take a run at incumbent Mayor Lorenzo Langford. But when Whelan and company backed the state Senate President Steve Sweeney-approved (D-3) state takeover of Atlantic City, Small stepped out.
One source noted that many of the political players in AC thought Sweeney would be the next governor, and they planned accordingly. Don ‘t tick off Sweens became a key piece to their political strategy. Small, however, went in another direction, preferring to buck the establishment rather than siding with a policy he reviles. If Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop – Sweeney’s chief statewide rival – had materialized as a gubernatorial candidate, Small would have stood with him.
But Sweeney and Fulop both cracked up as guv candidates, leaving former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil
Murphy as the establishment candidate of 21 out of 21 counties statewide. Still smarting from Small’s cut out from the Sweeney-ratified takeover of his home town, the local party organization tomahawked him when he sought the line for mayor.
They instead went with At-Large Councilman Frank Gilliam – in a crippling 27-3-1 landslide.
“I think it absolutely puts me in a good position to win,” Gilliam said. “Phil Murphy is phenomenal. He brings a level of aptitude – and when you think of Chris Christie, someone who as governor was more like a tyrant than someone there to serve the people – it’s very exciting. We will have someone in Trenton with a level of respect for the city instead of a governor trying to destroy Atlantic City.”
For his part, “I was punished,” said Small. “The county Democratic Party told me ‘you said certain things during the takeover.'”
Small at one point made a comment about how Assemblyman Chris Brown, a Republican, at times better expressed the anti-state takeover argument in Trenton than the Democrats. Brown was the only person fighting for AC – that’s a paraphrase. But Small would trade the endorsement for his right to dig in against takeover, he said.
“That endorsement gave Frank Gilliam superficial credibility,” Small told InsiderNJ. “He’s been on the council eight years and he is still a relative stranger to our community.”
Banished from the line, Small took up with progressive gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson, and Freeholder Ernest Coursey, an independent Democratic candidate for Assembly. A former star basketball player for Stockton who has citywide name ID going back to his unsuccessful run for mayor eight years ago, Small and his allies feel buoyed by his fierce opposition to the state takeover of Atlantic City. They know they have a challenge ahead, but Coursey told InsiderNJ that Small is running a relentless door-pounding campaign. The combination of what they see as Gilliam’s less than animated opposition to state takeover, Murphy’s 24% approval rating with Democrats in a statewide primary, and the perceived weakness of a district-wide ticket lacking perennial Atlantic City rock star Whelan also boost their argument. So does the support of Local 54.
But the line is the line in Democratic Party politics in this state, and most sources agree that the line gives Gilliam an advantage.
“I never said it’s going to be a cakewalk,” Gilliam told InsiderNJ.
But small, in his view, still isn’t up to the task of being mayor.
“Most are running on a 19th century analog platform in a digital wireless world,” the at-large councilman said. “After a time, folks loss their identify and become career politicians. That happens when you’ve been at this for 14 years. If Marty Small loses, he’ll fall right back into second ward seat. Whereas for me, this could be the end of the rainbow.”
Sure, Small opposed the state takeover.
“But here is such a thing as fighting smart,” Gilliam said. “Certain people took a position of name calling. No one in their right mind would want a state takeover. ..We all know that Christie had a personal vendetta against Atlantic City. But Mayor Don Guardian and Council President offered no diplomacy. We still have a chance of bringing a wholesome position to the table. You just can’t call people names. You can’t just go out there and throw temper tantrums.”
Small sees a way to critically differentiate himself from Guardian with his pro unions record. But Gilliam sees Small
as Guardian’s double.
“A vote for Marty Small is a vote for Don Guardian, because the two of them have been inseparable,” the at-large councilman said. “They both caused the city to be in the crosshairs because of their inability to communicate. Neither one of those guys has loyalty or integrity.”
Small stuck to his POV.
“I’m not going to comment on Mr. Gilliams’ analogy of sophistication when all he’s done is attack me with bogus ads,” the council president said. “He was for the state takeover. He said we should accept the offer by Senate President Steve Sweeney. When someone was coming in here to bully Atlantic City, I protected the city. The only thing Frank Gilliam has done is vote no on everything and offer no solutions.
“I’m the most accomplished candidate,” he added. “All the former and current councilmen endorse me, as does local 54. The local Democratic endorsement is bogus because a majority of those committee-people were backed by [the disgraced] Craig Calloway. The people know who I am. The bottom line is no one knows him. He’s never taken a position on anything and he voted against every proposal. He flip flopped on the MUA. He’s someone who’s going to sell the city out.”
But here’s the other rub.
Unlike other urban primaries, this contest represents only the precursor of what figures to be just as competitive a general election.
No Democrat in the state has been as antagonistic to Christie and Christie’s Norcross-backed designs in Atlantic City than incumbent Republican Mayor Guardian.
Guardian has been the most visible face of the anti-state takeover forces from the start.
Gilliam, Small, or the other men in the Democratic Primary for mayor – Jimmy Whitehead or Fared Abdullah – will find himself with little time to celebrate if he makes it to the next round of what is likely to be the most bruising contest of all time – or at least since the 2017 Democratic Primary.