Atlantic City’s New Don

What does a poor, hard-luck, minority-driven city do when its back is against the wall? Would you believe, elect gay white Republican mayor, Don Guardian?

In person, Atlantic City’s new mayor has a statesmanlike bearing, and not just because he’s almost always sharply dressed. From a distance, there’s a slightly reserved air about him. He looks every bit the patrician deigning to involve himself in the muck of politics for the good of the people. But then he opens his mouth, and the impression melts away. When he talks, Guardian is anything but haughty. He’s effusive and warm, and can come across as a bit goofy. His fans talk about his infectious enthusiasm and his self-evident and uncomplicated love of Atlantic City, which is indeed plain as day.

But Guardian’s strength is his expertise in delivering quality services at relatively little cost. He’s a realist about Atlantic City’s challenges, and pragmatic in his proposed solutions. Ask him how the city can dial down its overreliance on the casinos, and Guardian will talk a mile a minute about tax abatements, state recovery programs and developer inducements. Ask about public safety, and he talks about bringing the police department into the modern technological age and brightening dark sidewalks. “We have to face 60, 70 issues all at once, and time is not on our side,” he says. Guardian is, above all, a capable technocrat. And that may be what Atlantic City needs most.

FOR A LONG TIME, Atlantic City’s City Hall doubled as the town jail. This seems fitting, given the prodigious criminality of so many of Guardian’s predecessors. Indeed, few cities have been more miserably served by their elected officials than Atlantic City, and few have a greater need for enlightened, capable leadership. Half of Guardian’s 10 most recent predecessors elected to the mayor’s office were charged with crimes.

And City Council’s recent history reads like a weird-news blotter. Truly. Former Council president Craig Callaway teamed up in 2006 with another Council member to lure a political rival into having sex with a prostitute. They filmed the encounter and sent the tape to the press, hoping to force their colleague (a Baptist minister, naturally) to resign. He declined, telling the media he had paid the woman for soda, and that the sex was consensual.

That’s just one of many available examples. But the bigger problem in recent years has arguably been not corruption or obvious bad behavior, but rather incompetence and intransigence. Former mayor Langford was never linked to any scandal, but his relations with the casino industry and elected officials from Governor Christie down were so toxic that it was probably impossible for Atlantic City to move ahead as long as he remained mayor.

Langford, who declined to talk to me, was a walking, shouting manifestation of Atlantic City’s long list of grievances against those parties who have done it harm. He cried “apartheid”—not once, but many times—when the state took over the city’s huge tourism district in 2011. He likened the relationship between Trenton and Atlantic City to the dynamic “between a pimp and his hooker.” In Langford’s view, the casinos are to blame for Atlantic City’s woes, not municipal government.

“How many black millionaires have been created by the casino industry?” he said to the Star Ledger in 2011. “I don’t know any. There was a day in Atlantic City when the black community owned its own establishments, but that was all wiped away. And not by mistake.”

The thing is, Langford’s views have some merit. The casinos clearly have failed to much improve the lot of average Atlantic City residents, and they have been slow to adapt to the incredibly obvious development that they were losing their gambling monopoly. The state takeover district actually did—especially in its earliest proposed form—allocate extra resources for largely white and well-off sections of the city, excluding poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods.

But if Langford succeeded in amplifying the outrage of Atlantic City’s most marginalized neighborhoods, he failed at converting that anger into wins for his constituents. Langford spooked casino executives and enraged politicos past the city’s borders. “He had an edge to him—‘This is our city and we’re not going to talk to anybody,’” says Sweeney. Like Christie, Sweeney feels the state bent over backward for Atlantic City, only to have Langford spit in its face.

Guardian represents a huge break with all of that. The casino executives have welcomed him with open arms, seeing him as a far better partner and, indeed, nearly one of their own, given his senior position at the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The 180 on city relations with senior politicos elsewhere is even more pronounced. Guardian met with Sweeney immediately after his election in November, and sat down with Christie a few weeks later. Ditto for Senator Cory Booker, Congressman Frank LoBiondo and Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson. “These guys call me every week, asking how I’m doing, how they can help,” Guardian says. “That’s all they want to know.”