ATLANTIC CITY — Inside the cafeteria of the Uptown School Complex, it was sweltering and claustrophobic. Every chair was filled, and latecomers took more from a cart brought in by a school custodian.
Five City Council candidates and five mayoral hopefuls looking to unseat the popular incumbent, Republican Don Guardian, were on hand to give speeches and answer written questions. Almost nobody left early.
Yes, despite a state takeover that has effectively disenfranchised Atlantic City's residents, stripping away civil service and putting decisions about valuable assets in the hands of state-appointed $400 an hour North Jersey lawyers, the quirky and unpredictable Shore town's electorate remains very engaged.
Why would so many people want to be part of a municipal government that has been essentially sidelined by a state takeover orchestrated by Gov. Christie?
"We got to make it to Jan. 16," said At-Large Councilman George Tibbett, articulating what many say both publicly and privately. "We hope and pray Mr. Murphy keeps his word and gets the state the hell out of Atlantic City."
Murphy is Phil Murphy, Democratic candidate for governor, who has said he would end the state takeover if elected. On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has also said she is inclined to end the state's unilateral powers.
Jan. 16, 2018, is viewed in town as nothing short of a liberation day, Janteenth if you will, the day when Chris Christie is no longer governor and Atlantic City expects to have its sovereignty restored.
In the meantime, Mayor Guardian, whose bow-tied cheerleader persona at his term's start evolved into a sharp-tongued civil rights advocate and Christie antagonist by the end, also wants his job back.
But why? Under his watch, five casinos closed and ratables plummeted. The city teetered on the brink of insolvency, drowning in debt, yet its detailed recovery plan was rejected by the state, which last November moved in for the takeover kill.
Taxes were hiked by Guardian twice, then by the state, before falling five percent in the last budget, a feat for which Christie took credit.
Guardian argues that he has still been able to do his job, with most of his team intact. The power usurped by the state has in actuality been the functions of City Council, he says. And it's his former business administrator and ally, Jason Holt, who now does the job on the state's payroll.
Unlike in takeovers in Michigan, the state has not fired Guardian's five other City Hall department heads though the administration has been overall downsized; in fact, the state's designee, Jeffrey S. Chiesa, praised their professionalism.
Guardian says the state is following his playbook: decreasing the payroll, cutting the budget, nurturing new development like Stockton University's campus, now rising in the Chelsea neighborhood. Long derelict Brown's Park, will reopen Memorial Day transformed.
Looming is a May 27 expiration of a moratorium on the state's ability to sell or lease the coveted Municipal Utility Authority. Residents have signed petitions that their civil rights attorneys believe can force a referendum on the water authority.
While Christie has recently suggested a waning interest in an MUA sale, most in town expect a battle. The state has also moved to cut salaries, benefits, and change work rules among police, fire, and beach patrol.
"I’ve never regretted coming in at one of the toughest times you could for this city or any city," said Guardian, whose novelty as a white, gay Republican in a mostly Democratic, African American city brought national attention, if not a better relationship with the Republican governor. "The decisions we’re making are turning around the city."
In November, Guardian will face one of four Democrats running in the June 6 primary, the top two on the state-neutered City Council: President Marty Small Sr., who was Guardian's partner in resisting the takeover, and Frank Gilliam, who kept his distance and advocated a more cooperative stance.
As usual in Atlantic City lately, outsider influences loom large.
Gilliam is supported by a super PAC, Our Atlantic City, which has attempted to undermine Small with leaks of various sorts. Small has called the campaign the "silly season" of rumors and smear tactics.
He, in turn, has accused Gilliam of doing the bidding of South Jersey power broker George Norcross, with whom Gilliam was spotted shaking hands during what he says was a coincidental meet up last July at a popular lunch spot. (Bartenders photographed them separately.)
"My platform has been on the issues," Small said at the recent debate. "Unlike my opponent, Mr. Gilliam and his super PAC and his supporters, and don’t forget, Chris Christie, George Norcross. ... They’re all backing Gilliam."
"I met Norcross one time, 50 seconds," Gilliam responded.
Christie, in town for the Stockton groundbreaking (held when the mayor was out of town), joked that he should endorse the candidate he doesn't support, given his popularity in town.
Norcross spokesman Daniel Fee, asked about any role in the election, said no one in Norcross' insurance firm, Conner Strong & Buckelew, makes contributions to candidates, and "he has no role with Our Atlantic City PAC and isn't a voter in Atlantic City."
Besides Small and Gilliam, two other Democrats are running: Jimmy Whitehead, a 60-year-old Navy veteran who grew up in Washington, D.C., who wants to turn the city into a cybersecurity hub, and Fareed Abdullah, a substitute teacher who previously has run for council.
So familiar are candidates and voters to each other in this town, most having grown up together, that Whitehead's appearances prompted Small to ask, "Who are you?" and Gilliam a similar, "Where did he come from?"
Running as an independent is a familiar white-bearded figure around town, Joseph Polillo, former host of the Postcard Show.
This is Joe Polillo, former host of the Postcard Show, once again running to be mayor of Atlantic City. pic.twitter.com/0SSb3rvz10
— Amy S. Rosenberg (@amysrosenberg) May 18, 2017
In truth, citizens are only now coming to grips with the effects of the state takeover, which has netted more than $1 million for the politically connected law firm, Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, appointed by Christie to run Atlantic City.
The state shocked residents when it skipped over a hesitant City Council to privatize trash collection, with Guardian's support. (The 29 trash workers would retain other jobs with the city, the mayor said.)
It's been a bumpy road to A.C., A.C. -- Atlantic City After Christie. But lots of people want a piece of that. "I'm in the middle of rebuilding Atlantic City," Guardian said. "I have concrete examples to show people what I'm going to do in 2018, 19, 20, 21."