Can New Jersey's Unlikeliest Mayor Win Again?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if this guy can hang onto city hall, then anyone has a shot.
By James Watkins
The day after winter storm Stella battered the Northeast, Don Guardian is surveying his city from his spacious top-floor office. He rattles off the 20 or so streets with severe flooding. Wearing his signature bow tie, speaking rapidly with a strong Jersey accent, Guardian, the 63-year-old mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is a charming raconteur who manages to make even the minutiae of roadway elevation sound interesting.
“Storms are storms,” he says (“storm” is a two-syllable word to him). “Atlantic City’s resilient. We’ve been here for 160 years, and we’ll get through this.” It’s a grandiosity befitting a guy named Guardian, whose task demands almost superhero urban-revitalization powers.
The city’s called on that resilience heavily over the past four years, since Guardian was elected. Gaming revenues from the city’s flagship casinos have plummeted by half since 2006; property values have fallen by around two-thirds. The city’s tax base has collapsed. Half a billion in debt. Tax hikes, casino-job losses, the highest foreclosure rate of any metro area in the country in 2015. “I don’t think there are many mayors who have received the bloodbath that I have,” says Guardian. He’s up for re-election in November — a challenge. But he’s already prevailed against the odds once: In a city that’s 70 percent Black or Latino, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-to-1, this white, gay, Catholic Republican ousted the Democratic incumbent by 162 votes in 2013. Despite the city’s struggles, “I don’t hear a lot of criticism of the mayor,” says Daniel Mallinson, professor of politics at south Jersey’s Stockton University. “People are generally favorable toward him.”
I’m a diplomat, but at some point the olive branch isn’t working and you need to defend your turf.
Don Guardian, mayor, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Guardian spent most of his early years in office fighting to keep control of his city’s finances as Gov. Chris Christie threatened a state takeover. In November 2016, he lost that fight. The tussle led Guardian to forge unlikely alliances, working with Democratic city councilman Marty Small to oppose the takeover. (Small may be Guardian’s 2017 mayoral challenger.) Together, they crafted the city’s five-year recovery plan that was eventually rejected by Christie’s administration. “We’ve become political enemies,” says Guardian of the governor. (Neither Christie nor Small replied to requests for comment.)
The state takeover came after years of conflict between the city and the Christie administration. In signing the bill that paved the way for the takeover, Christie told journalists that reform was needed of the city’s “overblown municipal government,” and to protect “taxpayers from being perpetually abused” by public servants. A spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which manages the takeover, tells OZY that “considerable progress” has been made in stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances since they were taken out of Guardian’s hands — the first city budget passed since the takeover included a $35 million spending cut, allowing for the first tax cut in almost a decade.
That sort of language from the takeover proponents has been enough to quell much partisan quarreling in the city. It’s less Democrat versus Republican than Atlantic City versus Trenton, says Mallinson. “The city council and the mayor have done more to deal with the problem than the state,” says William Dilorenzo, president of the Atlantic City Professional Firefighters union, whose department is facing deep job losses, pay cuts and extended hours under the state plan (the DCA spokesperson says the review of police and fire contracts has been “fair and consistent,” and will “ensure public safety with leaner, more efficient fire and police staffing levels”). It would be “misguided” to blame the mayor for the city’s problems, says Dilorenzo. This rally-around-the-flag effect could boost Guardian’s popularity.
Born and raised in north Jersey, Guardian says priests and scout leaders shaped his character as a young man. An Eagle Scout himself and a former camp counselor, he served as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America, a post that would send him to the south of the state in 1989. We later asked Guardian for a comment on the longstanding controversy surrounding the Scouts and their admission of gay youth and leaders, but he didn’t reply before press time. Through the years, Guardian’s charity work with the Scouts, the Rotary and the local AIDS alliance gave him a prominent city presence. After leading a Special Improvement District for local businesses for two decades, he resisted calls to run for mayor for several years, saying that the mayor should be a 60-year-old who was happy with their life, with no other personal motives but the city’s success. “All of a sudden, I became that guy,” he says.
He describes himself as “a New Jersey Republican”: He can chat affably about pathways to citizenship, affordable housing, health care and state-sponsored early-education programs for low-income residents. “I’m concerned about bringing down the cost of government,” he says, “but you can’t live in a city without having a heart.” He says he’s successfully “begged — and that’s a good word,” he says — for tens of millions of dollars in grants from private, federal, state and county-level pots of money for redevelopment projects.
But there’s something funny about Guardian and his foe in Trenton: Both are rare Republicans in a deep blue state that went to Clinton by 14 points last year. The last four years have been rough for both. (Christie’s approval ratings languish around an embarrassing 17 percent.) And though Guardian sees himself on the opposite side as the governor, the fate of his city is more likely to be decided by the gubernatorial election this November than the mayoral one the same month. Christie’s likely (Democratic) successor, Phil Murphy, has promised to end the state takeover.
Until then, the staredown continues.