Here’s Why Donald Trump’s Opponents Keep Attacking Him Over This Tiny Atlantic City House

Trump battled in the courts with widow Vera Coking in the 1990s over her A.C. home because he wanted to expand his casino empire.

Vera Coking House - Atlantic City - 1990s

The Vera Coking House in Atlantic City, photographed by Jack E. Boucher in the early 1990s. (Photo via the Library of Congress)

Jeb Bush attacked Donald Trump about his treatment of a widow in the 1990s on Saturday night.

This isn’t the first time it’s come up. Bush was talking about the saga of Vera Coking, a woman in Atlantic City who refused to sell her home to developers building casinos in the 1980s and ’90s. It wasn’t the first time Trump has been hit with this attack. Ted Cruz, currently Trump’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination according to polls, even put out an ad attacking Trump for his battle with Coking.

So why is this battle from the early 1990s getting such attention in the Republican primary? It’s all about Trump’s attempt to use eminent domain on Coking’s Atlantic City house.

Coking and her husband Raymond bought the house in 1961 for $20,000; they used it to escape the summers in Philadelphia at first. The house first came to public attention when she turned down a $1 million offer from Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione in the 1980s. He ended up building his proposed Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino around Coking’s house. (That’s the photo at the top.) But Guccione wasn’t able to get a gaming license, and the casino deal fell through.

Trump was the next to attempt to remove her from her house. He acquired the failed Penthouse Casino, and later opened what was at first called Harrah’s at Trump Plaza (at the time, Harrah’s was owned by Holiday Inn). The casino later dropped the Harrah’s name, Trump eventually got full control of it and wanted to expand. He bought the failed Penthouse casino site for $56 million.

Coking later told the New York Daily News Trump attempted to woo her at first: “He’d come over to the house, probably thinking, ‘If I butter her up now, I’ll get her house for a good price.’ Once, he gave me Neil Diamond tickets. I didn’t even know who Neil Diamond was.”

Free concert tickets didn’t sway Coking, by then a widow. Trump couldn’t get her to budge; she really didn’t want to leave her property by the sea. The two waged court battles over the half-built steel structure that was supposed to be the Penthouse Casino. Despite calling it “a nightmare” before, Coking sued to keep the half-built, steel structure in place — she said a temporary barrier would block the sun. A judge disagreed, and the half-built Penthouse Casino was removed from around her house.

Coking sued Trump, saying she was injured falling on construction debris and that the removal of the failed casino structure damaged her house. She settled with Trump for $90,000, but the contractor’s insurance company paid it.

It continued. Coking called Trump “a maggot, a cockroach and a crumb.” Trump said he offered as much as $4 million for a house he called “ugly.” He wanted to build limousine parking (as well as a park) in the spot where Coking’s house stood, and he couldn’t get her to budge. So he tried a different tact: Eminent domain. Laws regarding the taking of private property say the new land must be used for “public use,” but courts have interpreted that term very loosely throughout the years.

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority condemned 127 Columbia Place, and offered her the assessed value of the property: $251,250. The Institute for Justice represented her pro bono, and a battle waged through the courts. Did a casino expansion count as “public use”?

In short, no. The courts sided with Coking and two other property owners, with Judge Richard Williams saying there was no reason to believe the Trump Organization would use the property for a park, a limo waiting spot and parking — as it planned at the time.

“You are not just talking about a lifetime of memories,” Coking’s daughter, Branwen Torpey, told The New York Times. “Not just a house but a home that you have spent your whole life in. To have someone, anyone, regardless of who they are come and tell you that it’s not yours and you can’t make your own decision, it’s tough to understand and even tougher to accept.”

That was in 1998. Coking remained in the house until 2010, when she moved to a retirement community in San Francisco. The house finally went up for sale — for $5 million, at first, and then down to about a million. “She’s lost all value because she didn’t play the game,” Trump said. “She could have been living happily ever after in Palm Beach, Florida. It’s very sad, and frankly very foolish.”

The house eventually sold at auction for $583,000. The buyer was a mystery at first, but eventually he was revealed: Trump rival Carl Icahn, owner of both the Tropicana and the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

The house was demolished in November 2014. It now sits empty. Trump defends himself against the attacks, saying he never got rich off Coking (true, as he lost the eminent domain case) and that he never demolished the house (also true). But he still did try to make a little old lady move from her house, which is surely a point of attack that will continue.

Trump is now gone from Atlantic City, with only the Trump Taj Mahal keeping his name. The Trump Plaza is vacant; it closed a few months before Coking’s house was demolished. Tentative plans for the area call for, of course, demolishing Trump Plaza.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.