Sometimes a mayor’s got to dress the part, even at the beach, and Ernie Troiano Jr.’s got all the starched collars and wingtips he needs for those special occasions.
When Wildwood voters booted him from office in a recall in 2009, Ernie had nice slacks on. Voted back in 17 months later, he looked real sharp at the swearing-in ceremony. But Ernie’s a lifelong fireman and “a concrete guy” — so more often than not, he’s tracking cement dust through Wildwood’s city hall and checking his emails in sweat-stained tees and work boots.
Ernie, 62, has limits, though. Pants in town have gotten too low, he believes, with the resulting assault of underwear too much to bear. His anti-saggy-pants ordinance passed in June, civil rights concerns and racial-profiling accusations be damned. Now, no drawers can hang lower than three inches below the small of the back on the Boardwalk, and Wildwood’s gone worldwide, with even the BBC asking Ernie about these “low-slung trousers.”
“I wasn’t trying to make an international statement,” insists Ernie, who’s served a total of eight years as mayor (the recall notwithstanding). “I don’t think asking someone to pick their pants up has anything to do with civil rights or their race or their ethnicity. Nobody wants to look at your underwear.”
Ernie’s good for at least one comment or proposal a year that rankles somebody. There was his RV-park-on-the-beach idea, as well as a suggestion that Wildwood’s high school, where he played center on the basketball team long ago, could fall victim to budget cuts. Just this spring, he called out the parents of the Philly teenagers — the majority of them from parochial schools, he noted — who drink themselves stupid in cheap Wildwood rentals every Senior Week.
Ernie even entered the island’s forbidden zone in 2011 with a proposal to sell beach tags and end Wildwood’s free beaches. Taxpayers would no longer pay for day-tripping slobs who drop cigarette butts and hoagie wrappers on the sand, he said at the time. Neighboring North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest weren’t on board, so the measure failed. (Ernie still says beach tags are “inevitable.”)
The mayors of those neighboring towns often disagree with Ernie but share a similar admiration for him. “Heart of gold,” Wildwood Crest mayor Carl Groon says. “Ernie’s heart is always in the right place,” adds North Wildwood’s Bill Henfey. Ernie claims his job is tougher than theirs — “We are an urban community. They are residential,” he says — and they agree.
Wildwood’s staggering poverty rates and crime issues continue long after summer tourists head home. The main drag, Pacific Avenue, can’t seem to recapture the mojo of its rock-and-roll heyday. “Everyone sees the colored lights and Boardwalk,” Ernie says. “They don’t see the other end of the town.”
Domenico Troiano, Ernie’s grandfather, dozed off on a Philadelphia train to Atlantic City almost a century ago and woke up in Wildwood. The family concrete business, after Ernie’s father took it over, probably helped build more than half the hotels and motels on the island. Ernie lives in his childhood home with his wife, Donna; their kids and grandkids live less than 150 feet away. No election’s going to change Ernie’s address, he says, so he’ll always throw out ideas to make Wildwood better: “I’m not trying to ruffle feathers or get in the media. I’m trying to help my town.”
And he’s always got another idea bouncing around the rim. “I realize it’s against the state’s constitution, but I’d really like to see a freestanding casino on Pacific Avenue,” he says. “It would really rejuvenate our town.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.