Atlantic City voters turn to new mayor after years of crises

Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam Jr. on election night, Nov. 7, 2017.

ATLANTIC CITY — After four years of constant economic cratering, a chaotic state takeover, and five casino closures, the voters of Atlantic City elected a new mayor Tuesday, turning out the Republican incumbent, Don Guardian, whose bow-tied enthusiasm became the face of Atlantic City as it battled Gov. Christie, in favor of Frank Gilliam Jr., a Democratic city councilman.

Unofficial results reported to both campaign headquarters showed Gilliam with a lead in the machine vote and an insurmountable 1,000-vote lead in vote-by-mail ballots. Guardian said he had called Gilliam to concede.

A victorious Gilliam addressed supporters shortly afterward and pledged to keep the people of Atlantic City foremost in his administration.

“We’re going to be a business-friendly-orientated community, an employment-orientated community, a family-friendly-orientated community and, more importantly, we’re going to take care of our community,” Gilliam said. “Now it’s time for us to take the front seat.”

At his headquarters, Guardian, minus the bow tie, said his four years “were a series of crises.”

“I’m glad I was the one to have been here. I think I made the right decisions for my city and my residents,” he said.

Camera icon Amy Rosenberg
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian on his way out of his headquarters after losing to Councilman Frank Gilliam.

The race pitted Gilliam, 47, an Atlantic City native completing his second four-year term on the council, against Guardian, 64, a gay Republican originally from North Jersey whose unlikely 2013 upset of Mayor Lorenzo Langford ushered in one of the more unusual eras in the seaside resort’s colorful history.

Guardian’s four years as mayor included five casino closings — Atlantic Club, Showboat, Trump Plaza, Revel, and the Taj Mahal — several close calls with bankruptcy, and a stinging loss of authority to a state takeover engineered by Gov. Christie, a fellow Republican with whom Guardian battled.

The election rhetoric intensified in the last week as the Guardian campaign hired private detectives to conduct a sting operation in an attempt to document what it contended was a campaign of widespread vote-by-mail ballot fraud on the part of Democrats.

Guardian accused Democratic operative Craig Callaway, a controversial figure in Atlantic City, of paying the city’s homeless, addicts, and others $30 to vote or to serve as messengers, turning over mail ballots to Callaway rather than to the voters in whose names the ballots were obtained. Gilliam called Guardian’s efforts an attempt to suppress the minority vote, and Callaway denied doing anything illegal.

Guardian’s attempts to challenge these ballots en masse were rejected first by a judge and then by the superintendent of elections. A group of 101 votes registered to a needle exchange in Atlantic City, where homeless people do set up mailboxes, was allowed.

Gilliam has stressed a return to Democratic Party rule in the city, partnerships with investors, and a return to a focus on the city’s neighborhoods and struggling population. He said Guardian had proven unable to block the state from taking over Atlantic City and noted that it was Guardian’s business manager, Jason Holt, who now runs the city for the state.

“You were the Trojan horse that allowed the state to come in and take advantage of our city,” Gilliam told Guardian during a debate.

Guardian, in turn, faulted Gilliam for the ineffectiveness of the city he once ran as president, which Guardian said put the city into dire straits. He said he had cut the city’s budget, helped attract new investment, including Stockton University’s coming campus and the Hard Rock Casino’s purchase of the Taj Mahal, and fought off the most damaging efforts of the state overseers.

But Guardian lost some key constituencies that had helped him get elected in 2013, including members of the South Asian community, said Muhammad Zia, 43,  a store owner who supported Guardian in 2013 and celebrated with Gilliam on Tuesday.

Both candidates expect Gov.-elect Phil Murphy to end the state takeover, overseen by a law firm that has billed nearly $3 million in the last year.

“Tonight we co-sign Christie’s exit out the door,” said Councilman Moisse Delgado, a Democrat, who won re-election to an at-large seat.

In a mayoral race where the outcome was never in doubt, Democrat Francisco “Frank” Moran was poised to succeed Dana L. Redd as mayor of Camden. Moran has been a longtime City Council president.