I’m not a Republican so I rarely vote for anyone with an “R” next to their name. But every so often, a Republican candidate comes along who’s obviously and demonstrably the better candidate than their Democratic challenger. In this case, that’s Don Guardian, the former Mayor of Atlantic City who’s running for the NJ General Assembly in NJ’s 2nd legislative district. (LD2 is comprised of 17 Atlantic County towns including AC, Egg Harbor Township, and Hamilton Township.)
I got to know Mr. Guardian for a 2014 profile about the man I called “one of the most intriguing figures in the New Jersey political constellation.”
In Atlantic City, Mayor Guardian inherited a fiscal catastrophe from his democratic predecessors, including Lorenzo Langford, Guardian’s vanquished foe. For four years, Don Guardian toiled relentlessly to put Atlantic City back on track, gamely battling both Chris Christie (at the peak of his powers) and the machine democrats whose freewheeling mismanagement helped drive Atlantic City into a ditch.
The South Jersey Democratic machine pulled out the stops to thwart Mr. Guardian’s re-election chances, instead propelling the campaign of Frank Gilliam, whose 10-month tenure as Mayor seemed doomed from the jump. Mr. Gilliam is currently headed to jail for defrauding a charity sports league he founded.
When the only requirement for office is Democratic machine loyalty, you end up with convicted criminals like Frank Gilliam at the top of the ticket. Which is doubly tragic because Don Guardian’s basic human-level decency was such a refreshing departure from the parasitic impulses that plagued the mayors who came before and after.
For whatever it’s worth, Don Guardian happens to be gay.
This matters because Democratic gatekeepers talk diversity all the time. But for all their weaponized blather about representation and diversity, the South Jersey democratic machine has never once (to my knowledge) anointed an LGBTQ candidate for elected office. Which might be a big reason there’s not a single LGBTQ person in the NJ General Assembly.
But don’t vote for Don Guardian because he’s gay! Vote for him because the people of NJ deserve better than current officeholders Vince Mazzeo and John Armato. The incumbents are nice guys but Mazzeo and Armato are both machine-aligned back-benchers who owe their political career to George Norcross, a Cherry Hill-based political boss. How is that good for taxpayers in Atlantic County?
Democrats rightfully queasy about voting GOP can take comfort knowing that the dems retain a huge majority in Trenton even if a moderate like Don Guardian flips this seat. And not for nothing, Don Guardian battled Chris Christie harder than all the South Jersey democrats ever did.
Don Guardian wrote his own script back in 2013. By working hard and actually connecting with voters, Guardian convinced (mostly) minority voters in an overwhelmingly Democratic town to pick a gay, white republican to be their mayor.
Thanks to his indefatigable work ethic and a relentless sense of optimism, Don Guardian actually managed to stop the bleeding, so to speak, at a dire point in Atlantic City’s history. It always bummed me out that Mayor Guardian didn’t get the credit he deserved for steady and competent leadership through the choppiest of waters.
The Democratic incumbents are looking to ride to victory on a wave of campaign cash from their machine and the usual dark-money Super PACs. They’re not used to battling someone who’s so good out on the trail and especially someone with such broad-based appeal like Don Guardian.
But before November’s main event, there’s the non-insignificant matter of a GOP primary in June. And before that, there’s March’s GOP nominating convention.
Micah Rasmussen runs the Rebovich Institute for NJ Politics at Rider University.
“I’m a big believer that half of the battle is recruitment; getting your best candidates to run.” Mr. Rasmussen told InsiderNJ. “So what you’re seeing is a lot of interest from some very solid names from the mainstream side of the Republican party. In other words, exactly what you want to see for a competitive race.”
“The open question becomes how much of a challenge do they get from the Trump wing of the party? If the Atlantic GOP can hold it together, LD2 looks like it is shaping up to be one of the most competitive races of 2021,” Rasmussen predicts.
Buckle up and stay tuned.
Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and podcaster.