Off the Cuff: July 2006

Every morning before I drive from Margate to Philadelphia, I have a compulsion to glance through the Atlantic City Press, which chronicles almost daily the exciting — and I must say, inspiring — actions of Atlantic City’s politicians. It’s surprising, but there is a strong parallel with Philadelphia — we all know that the City of Brotherly Love’s stirring comeback is due to City Hall’s unwavering guidance. The political elite down on the Boardwalk is no less top-notch. Yes indeed, there’s no doubt the Las Vegas of the East is moving rapidly ahead. All you have to do is take a look at how Atlantic City is being run. It’s an object lesson in how to build a great city.

For starters, the head of city council, Craig Callaway, tells the new mayor, Bob Levy, what to do. But that’s okay. Callaway runs the Democratic Party in Atlantic City, so that’s his right, to install whom he wants. (It sort of reminds me of John Street saying “the brothers and sisters are in charge,” though I understand that he didn’t mean it literally. He meant Ron White. But I digress.) The thing is, Callaway really knows how to lead. He has led council to vote for an increase in all its members’ salaries — especially Callaway’s, which would more than double. He would make more than twice what cities like Trenton and Camden pay their council heads for the part-time job. Mayor Levy didn’t veto the raises, because council would overrule him, and as he pointed out to the Press, taking a stand would simply create bad feelings: “What, am I going to go down there just on principle and say no? And I’m just getting started [as mayor]?”

It’s not that Callaway doesn’t deserve more money; he is, after all, a busy guy, with many ideas. In March, he decided that it was time to stop giving the public advance copies of resolutions and ordinances that council would be considering at its meetings. Mayor Levy, ever supportive, noted that putting these packets together costs money; of course, if more is going to be spent on salaries of hardworking part-time councilmen, it must be saved somewhere else, and not letting the public know what council is up to seemed the right place to start. Callaway is also installing underlings he can trust: His wife, Ramona V. Stephens, became a community service aide in May, a $28,000 job. (Callaway has named another woman, Cheryl Callaway, as his wife on financial disclosure statements, so there’s some confusion about his family life, and there are some cynics who say Callaway doesn’t even live in the ward he represents, but are those personal details really any of our business? Once again, I digress.)

Leadership, after all, has many facets, and I admire Callaway’s flexibility — just last July, when outgoing mayor Lorenzo Langford hired his wife to a city job, Callaway wasn’t happy: “We can’t allow the mayor, or for that matter anybody, to just violate policies,” he told the Press. But now I understand. Violating policies when it’s your wife who needs a job — that requires a special kind of can-do spirit.

So does getting rid of the deadwood. A few overly sensitive residents filed a petition a couple of months ago to recall Callaway just because he and the Levy administration are suspending and firing employees for political reasons. Losers always come up with accusations like that. There are other inane grumblings about Callaway as well — for example, from the local Democratic Party treasurer, who said he didn’t file mandatory reports on contributions to the party because Callaway was withholding the information from him.

I mean, really — isn’t it obvious that Craig Callaway doesn’t have time for such trivial details? He’s got a city to run, a city on the move, a city going places. Atlantic City is reaching for the big time, and I think it really can become the Las Vegas of the East. Just what that turns out to mean, well, I for one am going to keep reading my Atlantic City Press every morning to find out.