Two hundred cops, firefighters, and union leaders packed into the Atlantic City’s council chambers in opposition to the latest round of proposed cutbacks by the state at a press conference that included AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech, State PBA President Pat Colligan, Dom Marino of the International Firefighters, Bill DiLorenzo, President of the AC Firefighters Local 24. Mayor Guardian and Council members Tibbit, Small, and Gilliam were on hand as well in solidarity with the unions. A few hours earlier, on Harry Hurley’s radio show, state emergency manager Jeff Chiesa had said lawsuits filed by the unions were nothing more than “simple money grabs” and that no one would show up to the press conference.
“What the hell is wrong with this Governor and Chiesa? To hell with both of them!” The words of a retired career firefighter. And so the mood was set.
Matt Rogers, head of PBA Local #24, said “Jeff Chiesa said no one would show up. If you look at the overflow crowd, it’s clear he knows nothing about Atlantic City. The last thing we want are lawsuits. We offered concessions immediately. We cut our numbers and the police department is the smallest its ever been. We can’t shoulder the entire brunt. We’re in this together.” Wowkanech said, “these cuts have pushed Atlantic City to the lowest levels since the 1970s. A coalition has gathered with us. Billboards, direct mail, local grassroots organizing, door-to-door, leaflets on the boardwalk. We’ll go as long as it takes to protect the public,” as he announced the public relations campaign, Don’t Gamble on Safety AC.
He introduced police officer Josh Vadell, who was shot in the line of duty last year. Vadell said, “I can’t say it was too easy to come here today. Not many things are too easy for me nowadays. But here I am. The state promises to run our finances properly, but they can’t even run a traffic study. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.” Alluding to Chiesa, he said “we hear people talk about police and fire compensation. Many people would rather earn $400 an hour sitting in a heated and cooled office pushing papers instead of rushing into a burning inferno or a street battle. All of us don’t make in a year what the ‘tin men’ from the state make in a month. The tin men sit in an office and fight with pens, while the courageous lions fight on the field. We all take an oath to protect our state’s citizens, who would have thought we’d have to protect our citizens from the state.”
When Guardian took to the podium, he wasted no time in lining up his target – Governor Christie. “It’s fitting that its St. Patrick’s Day, when they drove the snakes out of Ireland. And we need to rid us from the venom in Trenton. This is a fight against the Governor and the state. In 2014, he had a summit with business leaders here on Atlantic City. We sat and listened for two hours. His response was spitting out his hatred for Atlantic City’s police and fire. Look it up and you will see the hatred spewing out of that man. He claims this is a city of 40,000 people. He should come to the Borgata one weekend. There are 160,000 people in Atlantic City at any given time.” He took note of the upcoming gubernatorial election (he shared with Insider NJ who he supports): “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Come January this Governor is gone,” as the crowd erupted in approval.
Pivoting towards the unions, Guardian said “I’m glad you’re here now, you guys have been quiet for too long.” As he gears up for re-election, the union sentiment towards Guardian is of the good guy trying his best to fix his city, the guy they’d like to see stay in the Mayor’s seat, a partner in solidarity as they join forces against the cutbacks. One insider noted that Guardian took on Governor Christie before anyone else ever dared to, and that he inherited decades of problems and issues when he was elected in 2013. Wowkanech called Guardian a “real champion for the city” whose “been with us since day one.” Pat Colligan, state PBA president, told Insider NJ after the press conference that, Guardian has “partnered with the unions and he’s trying to fix Atlantic City. Politics is politics, but there’s always another election four years from now. Focus on the politics later.” Another union local source told Insider that while they haven’t made any formal decisions just yet, it’s likely most – if not all – will be supportive of Guardian’s re-election. To what extent remains to be seen. But, today, they’re all with him.
After the press conference, union members hit the boardwalk with leaflets promoting the ‘Don’t Gamble On Safety AC’ campaign. There’s multiple dynamics in play right now in Atlantic City. The unions and local government fighting back against what they see as draconian cutbacks, with lawsuits and a public relations campaign. The municipal election in November, with Guardian having kicked off his campaign yesterday afternoon. The LD2 Senate race, featuring Bell v. Brown. The strained relationship of Mayor Guardian and Governor Christie, on full display at this afternoon’s press conference. A gubernatorial race where the takeover will be a dominant issue. And a volatile atmosphere escalating quickly. Today, the judge hearing the case between the state and the firefighter’s union, Judge Mendez, temporarily ruled that Chiesa can’t layoff any firefighters because it would impact public safety, but could proceed with salary and benefit cutbacks. A mixed result for each side. The judge noted the mounting tensions, writing that the “tenor of this case has so far been hostile at best.”
In other words, its volatile.