Atlantic City Weighs Its Ragged Self Against the Prospect of an Unknown City Manager

Callaway, left, and McDevitt.
Atlantic City Hall
Atlantic City Hall

 

The ocean offloads what it doesn’t have an appetite for anymore: the leached carcases of trawlers, gnawed-on shark bait, and driftwood ragged with the tides. Presumably, none of it will get picked over this summer on COVID-19-emptied or depleted beaches.

It’s just so much no man’s land drift no one wants.

Still, even in its dilapidated condition, Atlantic City remains a conversation piece, to out-of-town gamblers at least, and the maintenance of its government a point of contention in a coranavirus-rescheduled special referendum election on May 12th. On that day, voters in this poverty-pockmarked city of 37,804 people living at the edge of an epicurean Xanadu that even Samuel Coleridge couldn’t envision, home to multiple mayors who either left in handcuffs, or humiliated, or both; will learn if they collectively think things have gotten so bad that they need to deep six city hall as they know it – with nine councilpeople and a mayor – in favor of a five-person commission, and a tenured city manager – someone who will live as far from the city as possible – no joke.

Spearhead of Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, Bob McDevitt, leader of Unite Here! Local 54, says people in his hometown are sufficiently fed up to

McDevitt

throw the bums out – this time for keeps.

It wasn’t so much that the last mayor, eventually hauled off on corruption charges – got into a fist fight on camera outside the Golden Nugget.

“Embarrassing,” McDevitt acknowledged.

It was the day the feds raided the mayor’s home.

But maybe it went back even farther than that bitter December day in 2018, years earlier, in fact, when McDevitt lived a block from the beach in an apartment house across the street from the Irish Pub. He became aware of the junkie degradation around him at nine in the morning when the methadone clinic opened, and a parade of people with cigarettes and coffee lined up on Pacific Avenue like Night of the Living Dead.

Ten years later, it’s markedly worse.

Now the junkies and drug dealers are even more in evidence – “But they’re wearing masks,” McDevitt added, as if somehow their COVID-19 consciousness is good for atonement points in this belly-up mecca.

The accumulation of it all led McDevitt to succcessfully undertake a drive to change the city’s government, which, after a coronavirus pushback from an initially scheduled March 31st election, voters will finally resolve next month.

“How do you feel about the cleanliness of your street?” he said, summoning the words he uses when making his referendum case to a typical voter. “How about safety? How effective is policing? Is there anything to do with your family?

“We were having those conversations during the petition drive, and no one thinks the city’s clean,” he added. “In fact, the city’s filthy. It’s got the worst crime record in almost every category. There’s no movie theater, no bowling alley, no recreation center, no supermarket. People have to go out of town to shop for groceries. And a lot of people don’t have cars. They can’t drive. There’s only so much  you can carry on a public bus.”

Head of a union with 10K members, 2,500 who work in Atlantic City, 500 who can vote, he’s too tied to a hotel and gaming livelihood to get the heart of the city (witnessed by the fact that their referendum rival wants the city manager to reside at least 30 miles outside the city, supposedly as evidence of local uncorruptability), say his critics, but McDevitt says no way. “There’s a feeling underground here that transcends all people,” he said.  “People… people are just pissed off and feel the city has completely let them down. We didnt go into the white neighborhoods for this referendum change. We went into the black neighborhoods and Latino neighborhoods, the Chinese and Vietnamese neighborhoods, and we got over 3,000 signatures. Maybe 200 of those were white people. There’s an underground current – and they’re going to vote yes.”

Callaway

Craig Callaway hears his rival’s argument now as the city accelerates toward judgement day, and the on-the-ground power center behind the local Democratic Party says McDevitt’s referendum is doomed.

“It’s an extremely horrible idea,” Callaway told InsiderNJ. “Overwhelmingly, the people I’ve come into contact with – this is before COVID-19 – hundreds of people, not only say no, but hell no.  It’s a very draconian and dictatorial form of government they want here, and people, learning about it, realize that not only does their vote becomes irrelevant, but on top of that they will lose their right as citizens to remonstrate. The manager they want to run the government would be tenured, which means it would be very, very difficult to get rid of that person.”

McDevitt’s big money effort to get rid of the mayor and city council will backfire on the strength of local recognition of an out-of-town raid on democracy, Callaway insists.

“People are getting robocalls from Linden to support the referendum, and my thought is ‘keep doing that, I love it,'” said the local party boss. “The mailers? People aren’t buying ’em. Junk mail is not going to move the needle, so my thought is keep spending the money . This is not about money. It’s about people. You can’t buy relationships. They’ve got mail pieces with [former Mayor] Don Guardian’s face on them. The voters overwhelmingly rejected him in the minority community of Atlantic City. So keep his face out there. I like the way they’re running their campaign.”

Residential Atlantic City: In the shadow of the casinos.
Residential Atlantic City: In the shadow of the casinos.

 

ELECTION NUTS AND BOLTS

Thirty to 40 years of neglect and incompetence, one long drawn out shit show, one decrepit administration after another, maybe the only good mayor allegedly doped up on his hospital bed and jammed into having to confess to misappropriated campaign funds, and little reverse engine energy in the aftermath, except nine council people with their hands out and a $200 million budget, by the reckoning of McDevitt’s allies.

The labor leader thinks his side wins this one.

Too many people know the score, he insists.

The all-vote by mail (VBM) election created as a consequence of COVID-19 gives him a leg up, as Atlantic City voters now have just six days to go postal, that is to say – vote. A respected VBM strategist in a conventional election, Callaway harvested 1,150 VBMs prior to the pandemic, which underwhelmed the pro-referendum question forces. Process questions bogged Callaway and company down in court, when they fought a judge – ultimately unsuccessfully – to count those already submitted ballots instead of the newly sent-out VBMs taking precedence in the case of duplicated submissions. Callaway has a ward by ward ceiling – low at this point, forged from years of voter hopelessness, says the McDevitt Team; which thinks the privacy of one’s own home, away from goon squad intimidators on street corners, will force voters assessing those 23K ballots, to simply check “yes” out of sheer honest desperation for change.

Pushing back against the disenfranchisement argument, McDevitt said once they win on May 12th, voters themselves will have a chance to pick their own commisioners.  “There will be another election to fill the five seats, not just five Charie McCarthies rising out of the muck and mire,” the labor leader said.

Callaway, for his part, says his rival is essentially delusional, noting the coming together in the cause of rejecting the referendum question Democrats from two rival camps, the Republican Civic Association, the United Atlantic City Taxpayers Association, and churches.

Still, he admits newfound challenges as a consequence of the date change and all-VBM rules.

“Bob and I are all right, it’s nothing personal,” said Callaway. “The only reason it was 1,200 vote by mail ballots submitted at that point was because of COVID. If not, we would have been over 3K or close to 4K. We will surpass that 1,200 mark, no problem. That was just phase one. We’re about to go to phase three and four. The way I see it, they’re down by 1,201 votes plus right now. I would like to be driving my car, not his.”

He backs a rival to Mayor Marty Small in the July Democratic Primary.

But both Small and challenger Pamela Thomas-Fields oppose McDevitt’s designs on a manager form of government for the city.

“We’re all on the same page; that’s the one thing we agree on,” Callaway said. “We’ll fight side by side to May 12th, and on May 13th we’ll put our boxing gloves on and start fighting again.”

But there won’t be a primary if the referendum question passes.

The scene of the Jone v. Currie fight in Atlantic City.
Atlantic City

 

CALLAWAY CRITICIZES MURPHY, SAYS MAZZEO AND ARMATO WILL PAY

On July 28, 1989, Mayor James Usry found himself in a dragnet with 13 other political leaders. He subsequently ate charges of bribery, conspiracy, official misconduct and accepting unlawful gifts – all dropped when he apologized for improperly reporting campaign contributions.

A mayor eluding a jail sentence might have been one of the moments of real gravitas in the annals of local government in Atlantic City, by those who have paid attention to the last four decades; others say the mate Mayor Jim Whelan did better than that, and there are those who swear by Guardian’s unconventional four years, which included his aggressive opposition to a state takeover of the city’s finances backed by Governor Chris Christie.

Pushing back against the argument that local elected officials form the core of the problem, sitting Mayor Small said Atlantic City’s continuing biggest problem is lack of revenue.

“In 2008, $154.5 million Atlantic City dollars left Atlantic City,” Small told InsiderNJ in February. “If

Mayor Small of Atlantic City.
Mayor Small of Atlantic City.

you came here yesterday, and you stayed at the Tropicana, you paid a parking tax. You paid a hotel tax. If you went to an event and bought an alcoholic beverage, you paid a luxury tax. You bet, that’s sports betting. You leave. The residents of Atlantic City didn’t get a dime. We need more revenue streams.” He supports doubling the 75 cent city limits toll and holding the money in a trust fund account dedicated to local property tax relief. “We are working hard on that,” said the mayor.

McDevitt doesn’t deny the troubles go beyond that white, Aldous Huxley hatchery-like structure on Bacharach Boulevard downtown, but he also doesn’t remember too much in the way of a functioning government in AC.

“When I moved from Pleasantville, I bought a rowhouse not far from the water, and I went to pay taxes, and two ladies sat there letting me wait with $400 in my hand, one of them reading a magazine, completely disconnected from the job and I was astounded by that,” he told InsiderNJ. “We have this window of opportunity in Atlantic City to bring back the business we need, to secure the loyalty of the tourists who come to Atlantic City. You can’t do that if people are scared and intimidated. The fact is, those clowns in City Hall were with Gilliam [before he went to jail]. The only attitude is ‘get what you can, while you can, for as long as you can.'”

Now especially, as his own Unite Here! members try to stretch out $1,200 unemployment checks from the feds, on the heels of having already exhausted their unemployment, people with no paychecks in six weeks, and residents of the heavily Latino and South Asian Ducktown neighborhood trying to pay rent in wood frame buildings with little to no maintenance, government needs to function, McDevitt said.

“The people,” he said.

Nobody’s talking about them.

Callaway says he is.

Businesses and the business interests of the casinos aren’t the ground-down, down-on-the-ground inhabitants of the city.

They’re the ones getting muscled by power and state governments with bad intentions, from one to the next, he insists.

Murphy
Murphy

“The administration of Phil Murphy played it terrible with this VBM election,” said the local Democratic Party leader.

“You take those 1,200 votes,” he added. “They wanted those removed. We had to fight Democrats about Democratic votes being thrown out. We’re going to send anther round of ballots, but we do so now secure in the knowledge that Governor Murphy is with the change of government. We got the memo. You can disenfranchise people if you confuse and disenfranchise one voter.”

He wanted more time on the clock once Murphy made his decision about the election.

But they didn’t get it.

Some people haven’t even received their ballots, or just got them today, said Callaway.

“We have today, tomorrow, Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, to get those ballots in, becasue the statute says the last day for mail is the Tuesday seven days before Election Day,” he said.

Actually, ballots can be post-marked on the 12th.

So there’s time- or more of it, anyway.

Is Callaway signalling fears about the outcome?

“Hell no,” he said. “All I’m saying is we know whose side the Murphy Administration is on. He’s with the

LD2 Dems Mazzeo and Armato
LD2 Dems Mazzeo and Armato

dictatorial draconian form of government. Whose side are you on? Murphy is on Bob McDevitt’s side. This election is a slamdunk, but we’re going to going remember that come 2021. We may not get you, Murphy, but we’ll get your allies.”

Having initially warned local leadership and residents to be wary “of such grand scale changes… changing our form of government now would be throwing a wrench into the takeover process,” Assemblymen John Armato and Vince Mazzeo (D-2) this year, on the safe side of an election, “stood on the sidelines” of the referendum in deference to “Boss George,” [George Norcross III], Callaway said.

“They opposed it when they were running for reelection, but now they’ve taken a new position, which is that it’s in the hands of the voters,” he added. “Well, 2021 is in our hands as well, Mazzeo and Armato, and George won’t be able to save you, as we in Atlantic City did last year.”

But there are a few elections between now and then.

Many times the tide drags in and disgorges, withdraws and gnaws on the next trough of beach drift.

And the deadline stands at May 12th to get those ballots in, with a city of suffering people doubling as a hurting gambling mecca, suspended in the balance.

 

 

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