Don Guardian migrated from North Jersey to Atlantic City 25 years ago expecting, as he puts it, on “blowing through in three years — in and out.”
His new job at the time, as head of the regional Boys Scouts of America organization, he thought, would be a resume builder, “and then on to the next stop.”
But the next thing he knew, casino executives were recruiting him to develop - and in turn - run what would eventually become the multi-million dollar Atlantic City Special Improvement District surrounding the casinos.
Two decades went by. Guardian had become part of the city’s culture. Local leaders even told him he’d make a great mayoral candidate. He didn't see it that way.
“I said, ‘You should find someone who's 55 years old, that’s content with his life, the kids are grown up, who wants to do good for my community, build a better place: all these lofty goals,” he said in a recent interview with Philly.com. The problem was, he added, no one who fit that mold ever came forward.
So when local Republicans came calling once again last February, Guardian was finally talked into running. Little did he realize that nine months later he’d pull off an upset as a major underdog against an incumbent Democrat in a liberal city.
‘A real dark tunnel’
Now, more than two months into a job he didn’t want or ever envisioned holding, Guardian, 60, faces the toughest job of his life. The tall, bow tie-wearing Republican in a town overwhelmingly Democratic needs to be part-turnaround artist, part-real estate salesman, part-marketing guru, part-Superman if he stands a chance of helping save a small city on the precipice of disaster.
Consider: Atlantic City’s total property value has plummeted from $20 billion to $11 billion since the height of the housing bubble, according to Guardian. He wants the city to begin giving away free land and vacant houses just to attract new residents, as well as offer thousands in cash assistance for development of those properties. And the city’s portfolio of flashy casinos has shrunk in the last few years.
“It’s going to be a real dark tunnel for a couple years,” Guardian says bluntly.
But he believes his improbable election win proved an immediate kick in the rear for the fledgling city. Between the November election and his inauguration in January, leaders from across New Jersey pledged bi-partisan support: Republican Gov. Chris Christie and high-ranking New Jersey Democrats like state Senate President Steve Sweeney and both U.S. senators.
“Everyone reached out and said, ‘What can we do? We’ve been waiting,” he said. “The city had been the problem. Everyone was looking to move ahead. The city [leadership] was the problem.”
Suddenly, a city predominantly black and Latino — those groups make up roughly 70 percent of Atlantic City — had taken a big leap of faith: They elected a white, middle-aged gay man who his whole life believed in small government.
One big problem appeared solved.
Many much bigger problems still lay ahead.
Behind a surprise mayoral win
Guardian’s major upset last year sprung forth from a mix of old-fashioned politics — canvassing every neighborhood and shaking every voter’s hand — and new-age analysis. Then add in a conspiracy theory for skeptics.
His campaign began by crunching the numbers: Democratic candidates routinely got 4,000 votes versus 1,500 for Republicans in election cycles of the past 20 to 25 years.
The plan Guardian’s team devised was simple: Get 500 of those 4,000 Democrats to vote for Guardian and then somehow secure another 2,500 votes.
“I said, maybe if we campaigned in all six wards and figure out how to get into these communities and convince them that now is the time,” Guardian said.
Getting out the additional voters meant reaching a large segment of the city’s population that, Guardian said, historically didn’t vote: Asians.
A final, lesser-known ingredient to the upset proved to be one of the oldest tactics in the world: the element of surprise.
While Guardian and his campaign developed a strategy throughout the first half of 2013, Democrats were busy waging a costly primary battle. The winner and Democratic nominee in the general election later in the year would, everyone presumed, be the favorite as next mayor.
By October 2013, Guardian’s campaign war chest held $60,000 for the final push to the general election. The Democrat’s candidate, incumbent Lorenzo Langford, had only $200 left.
“The primary was the real election for them,” Guardian said. “Now, we’ve been tapping this newfound energy and we’re in great position.”
On the line: a political operative asks to help
He was also lucky enough to have an experienced political operative right under his nose: Chris Filiciello, a former political director for the Ocean County Republican Party. A worker in George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, Filiciello had taken a job with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) in New Jersey in the year prior to Guardian’s decision to run.
The CRDA is the state agency created in the late 1980s and tasked to take a larger role in citywide development under a law passed in 2011. It has wide-ranging authority to use casino revenue as redevelopment funding both in Atlantic City and across New Jersey. In 2011, the CRDA took over the more narrowly-focused, non-profit Atlantic City Special Improvement District (SID). It was the SID that Guardian created two decades earlier at the behest of the casino executives. He remained as director of the SID under the state agency’s control. That’s how he met Filiciello.
“Half an hour after I told my boss [at the SRDA that I’d run for mayor], Chris called and said, 'I used to be involved in politics, I could help with your campaign,' ” Guardian said.
Guardian admits that his quick friendship politically to Filiciello, who now serves as Guardian’s chief of staff, might seem too good to be true, but he insisted there was no conspiracy sprung by Christie or anyone else to defeat Langford. In previous years, Christie and Langford shared publicly their disdain for one another.
“We spent more time being concerned that people would think this was some ploy of the governor because the governor and mayor did not get along,” Guardian said of the well-publicized feud.
But Guardian adamantly noted his first dealings with Filiciello came after he announced his candidacy: “I’d never met the guy. He never talked to me. But somehow they would think this is some secret plot of the state to take over and then not only me, but I’m bringing in some other guy who is a real politico.”
Filiciello also insisted there was no conspiracy. It was indeed a coincidence, he told Philly.com.
Conspiracy theories aside, the Guardian campaign pulled off a major upset. And their vote goals were incredibly close: Guardian received 3,929 votes while Langford got 3,568.
Free houses: ‘Not nearly enough’
Guardian wants to give away land and vacant houses and he wants to give new property owners thousands of dollars to redevelop the free land. And he wants to give some tax breaks to those new residents.
The only catch: New construction, whether it was completely new homes or redevelopment of existing vacant homes, would have to happen within two years and the new residents would have to live in Atlantic City for 10 years.
“I think that’ll create 400 new homes,” Guardian said.
But Stockton College professor Michael Busler, a longtime observer of Atlantic City’s economics and finances, believes free land and free money isn’t enough to attract new homeowners.
He believes anything short of a 10-year property tax abatement, just like Philadelphia has on new construction, will fail to translate into a growing population and widespread development.
“His five year abatement isn’t 100 percent over five years,” Busler said of an incremental tax break that begins at 100 percent the first year then decreases by 20 percent in each of the next four years. “It’s not nearly enough to bring people back to Atlantic City. You have to give them a deal too good to turn down.”
A much greater tax abatement like Philadelphia’s is very unpopular with the city’s longtime residents, Busler acknowledged, but that is only one very controversial decision facing the mayor.
He also needs to drastically decrease the size of city government, Busler said.
“The problem is the revenue stream is dropping,” he said. “The sooner you recognize this is happening, the easier it’s going to be. This is not an easy problem to solve. Many, and maybe even most, cities are facing this same issue.”
Hope in the form of a giant wheel
Property taxes for residents and small businesses across Atlantic City skyrocketed 22 percent last year on the heels of declining property value of casinos. Langford’s administration borrowed millions through a municipal bond to close a deficit that still remained after the massive tax hike.
Now, Guardian says he’ll cut $10 million in each of the next three years from the city’s roughly $250 million municipal budget. That’ll include 100 city jobs, he said.
Still, deeper spending cuts, continued state support and more private investments will be needed.
“We can’t do it in two years,” Guardian said. He added that he wanted to see tangible signs of a steadied ship by the end of his first term or he’d give someone else a chance.
He touts three developers he hopes will build at least 450 new homes in the next year and plans for a giant observation wheel on a pier along the Boardwalk. It would be 220 feet tall, one of the largest in the country.
What he envisions someone will eventually see from the top of that wheel is something completely different from today.
“We’re definitely going to reshape the city,” Guardian said. “You’re not going to recognize this city in 10 years.”