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?

CONVINCING THE OUT-OF-TOWN political class that Guardian ought to be mayor was one thing. Convincing a city that’s overwhelmingly Democratic and just 25 percent white of the same is a far more shocking accomplishment. The way Guardian tells it, his victory began with a clear-eyed calculation of the changing reality of Atlantic City.

Between 1990 and 2010, the white and African-American populations in the city both declined by 22 percent, while the Latino and Asian communities exploded by more than 100 and 300 percent, respectively. This is obvious on the streets of Atlantic City, where the mix of cultures in communities like Chelsea has created some really compelling neighborhoods. But the political dynamic had failed to reflect these changes; power was still split between the city’s black and white communities, and the immigrant populations were badly marginalized.

Despite his Republican affiliation, Guardian saw an opening. He began reaching out to the city’s myriad ethnic communities: Bangladeshi and Vietnamese, Indian and Pakistani. At first blush, Guardian seems a highly unlikely champion for these communities. A devout Catholic, he was raised in suburban North Jersey. He attended the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange, and after graduating spent most of his early career working in executive positions for the Boy Scouts of America. And Guardian is gay, a fact that would seem to make him an unusual choice for immigrants from countries where intolerance of homosexuality is widespread.

But Guardian’s platform of stabilizing the tax rate and improving services outside the tourism district struck a chord, as did his past performance at the Special Improvement District. It mattered, too, that Guardian even bothered to reach out as extensively as he did, says Khalid Butt, founder of the Pakistani-American Muslim Organization of South Jersey. It mattered still more, Butt says, that Guardian wasn’t Langford.

Quietly, Guardian began adding committed volunteers and knocking on doors: “We had a plan. If we went out every night, every weekend, we’d reach 3,000 homes.” The campaign registered 800 new voters, huge in an election where only 6,000 votes were cast. Around July, the Guardian campaign caught the attention of the big building trades unions, particularly the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who donated $36,800.

Even so, Langford proceeded as though his victory was assured. He raised virtually no money after a competitive and draining primary, giving Guardian the cash advantage in the general election. And as the bad news kept coming for Atlantic City—a court in October ordered the city to refund Borgata $50 million in tax overpayments—Langford started to lose support in his African-American base. Not a lot, but enough to tip the balance.

On Election Day, more than two dozen Pakistani and Bangladeshi cabdrivers ferried Guardian voters to the polls, Butt says. That alone could have carried the day for Guardian. His 433-vote margin over Langford was narrow enough that the incumbent retracted his initial concession. But the count held up, and on January 1st, Guardian took the oath of office, wearing a sage green bow tie and a rose boutonniere, as his partner held the Bible.

IN THE WEEKS SINCE, not much has changed in Atlantic City. A 13-year-old boy was the second homicide victim of the year. The projected budget deficit is growing. The final casino figures for 2013 revealed $2.86 billion in winnings, the lowest total in 22 years.

Even so, there are stirrings of optimism, and Guardian is a big part of the reason why. “The change isn’t in the streets yet. It’s in the minds,” says Butt, the Pakistani leader.

But is it hope, or delusion? To be sure, Guardian seems a more capable manager and far more diplomatic than Langford. When I ask Paul Levy how his line of work would prepare a person for Guardian’s job, he tells me it’s a solid background for the operational side of the business. “He probably won’t feel he has to follow old rules and do it the way it’s always been done,” says Levy, who knows and likes Guardian. The ties to business and the casinos help, too: “He has the ability to call on people with really deep pockets outside the framework of local government.”

And yet it’s very difficult, after all this time and all this decline, to feel optimistic that Atlantic City’s recovery is in the offing.

What Guardian can do, and what he plans to do, is pull a lot of the basic municipal levers that haven’t been pulled in Atlantic City, which was lulled into complacency by decades of casino-fattened property tax receipts. Guardian can also take the hand that the state is extending the city. And he can serve as a more effective ambassador.

That would all be a huge improvement. Is it enough to save a city that has yoked its identity and fiscal foundation to an industry that now faces fierce competition? “We’re in a tunnel,” Guardian says. “A dark tunnel. It’s the same darkness that Atlantic City faced in 1974, before the casinos. Back then, gaming was the light at the end of the tunnel. We need some new light.”

First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.