Off the Cuff

I would find all of this amusing if it didn’t hurt so much. You can readily see how Atlantic City could become a great seaside resort once again—how it’s been poised to become that city, ever since the Borgata opened and energized the nightlife and shopping by bringing in a younger crowd. For another perspective, however, all you have to do is take a drive up Pacific Avenue, where prostitutes and drug dealers and other lowlifes openly strut around, reminding you of the city’s rotten inner core. Atlantic City will never become Las Vegas East, because it is run by … well, no one, at least lately. As I write this, mayor Bob Levy just resigned after going AWOL for two weeks, replaced by the city council president; Levy spent his sabbatical in a mental hospital. Maybe a non-functioning government is for the best, though, given how Levy and the council had been doing their jobs. The combination of stupidity and corruption is a corrosive thing, and the mayor’s recent disappearance has made it a national story: Atlantic City is a joke.
I’ve lived in nearby Margate for 30 years, and as a boy I vacationed in Atlantic City, so I even predate Senator Estes Kefauver showing up in the early ’50s to hold hearings on A.C.’s mob. In fact, the mob would run things better than the cast of fools currently in power. The city’s mayors and council members are constantly getting into trouble. Levy claimed for decades that he had been in the Green Berets. The Atlantic City Press shot that down last year: Not only was Levy lying about his service, he was apparently getting a pension based on it.
There’s much more: Three members of last year’s City Council are in prison or under house arrest; former council president Craig Callaway took bribes and is now serving a 40-month sentence. Speedy Marsh, the momentary mayor, seems to fit right in; he’s firing government staffers who were close to Bob Levy, even though Marsh’s tenure might, as you read this, already be over. (Atlantic City Democrats are convening to decide on a Levy replacement.)
There’s another problem that could be worse. Casino executives tell me that Atlantic City’s government gets in the way of everything they try to do, rather than actually helping the local industry that pulls in $16 million a day. For example, Harrah’s started to supply transportation to its casinos along Pacific Avenue, instead of relying on the city’s outdated jitney system. Of course, the fact that powerful city business administrator Domenic Cappella was once president of the jitney association has absolutely nothing to do with council nixing that idea. Casino sources have told me that when the new Pier at Caesars was way behind schedule last year, the state had to come in to oversee construction because local officials were demanding payoffs that hamstrung the project. As one casino official recently said to me, summing up the way local government operates, “Every day something I never thought possible happens.”
The only solution is for the state to find a way to come in and clean things up. Levy’s disappearance did get Governor Corzine’s attention, but a recent conversation I had with Sonny McCullough, Atlantic County’s state senator, doesn’t fill me with optimism. I told Senator McCullough that something has to be done about the prostitutes and drug dealers and general blight on Pacific Avenue.
“That’s not my job,” he said. “It’s the city’s job.” McCullough then complained that the press conference State Representative Jim Whelan and Governor Corzine held about the crisis in city leadership would drive tourists from the city. He seems to think the problem is really just a matter of bad PR, and that Wall Street should be oh so happy to continue sinking money into a city the whole country now knows is in chaos.
“Senator,” I said to him, “you are delusional.”
Sonny McCullough hung up on me.