ATLANTIC CITY - The ad came over the radio airwaves like an unseen volley from afar:
"You've got to wonder what Assemblyman Chris Brown is thinking . . . "
Actually, listeners of WOND 1400AM talk radio didn't have to wonder, because Brown is a frequent guest on the station.
And the origins of the ad did not remain a mystery for long: Its super PAC sponsor, the Turnout Project out of Washington, D.C., was quickly outed as tied to the influential web of South Jersey Democratic power-broker George Norcross, who backs a state takeover of Atlantic City that Brown is resisting.
It was an election campaign-style attack on Brown, a Republican from Ventnor who is not up for reelection for another 18 months. It reverberated through the already headache-inducing echo chamber of Atlantic City, named Friday in the Wall Street Journal as "America's worst-rated town."
The mayor will announce Monday whether the city will miss a a $1.8 million bond payment, which would be the state's first municipal default since the Great Depression.
For many, the super PAC ad crystallized the dynamic Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian has repeatedly warned about: the unseen "Geppettos" pulling the strings of power and development contracts from behind the proverbial curtain, or, in this case, from inside a radio, complete with ominous piano tinkling in the background.
The ad accused Brown of advocating for a bailout that allows for "reckless spending" by Atlantic City, to the detriment of taxpayers in other municipalities in Atlantic County.
Brown has actually advocated for a greater share of casino tax money for the county, but has also crossed parties to align with both Atlantic City and North Jersey elected officials opposed to the full state takeover advocated by Norcross' ally, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat.
Two Republican politicians who were exalted in the ad, portrayed in contrast to Brown as "standing up for taxpayers," - County Executive Dennis Levinson and Egg Harbor Township Mayor Sonny McCullough - said last week that they had no knowledge of the ad, and had not given permission for their names to be used.
Both said Brown had the county's interests at heart.
"I am befuddled as to how I got into the ad," Levinson said. "I support Chris Brown, let me make that clear."
Another frequent guest on WOND, Levinson called in immediately to debunk it, despite his favorable treatment, contributing to the ad's endless on-air meta-dissecting, interspersed with breaks that included the ad itself.
McCullough said he too was blind-sided. "Chris Brown is somebody that I support," he said. "This organization just decided to use my name, and Denny's name, for whatever purpose they were trying to get across. There's political power plays going on here. There's future gubernatorial interests."
At least the Turnout Project could not be accused of excessive spending on the ad, as the typical rate for a 60-second ad on WOND, owned by Longport Media, is $35.
The ad, which starts with "Paid for by the Turnout Project," ran numerous times a day for a week, ending Friday.
Even though the ad was continually debunked on the station it was airing on, Brown was incensed.
"I have a responsibility to the families of Atlantic County to stand up to bullies, bosses, and backroom deals," Brown said in an interview. "When you do that, you become a target for special interests who want to silence you."
The ad's super PAC trail to Norcross, first reported by PoliticoNJ, is like a game of hopscotch, with PACs funding one another, criss-crossing campaign finance reports.
Norcross, an insurance executive and chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital, declined to be interviewed.
The Turnout Project, whose website went suddenly dark Friday, did not respond to messages left at a phone number and email found earlier on the website. It is funded chiefly by $750,000 from the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress, another super PAC. The Carpenters Fund is already on record supporting the General Majority PAC, a Norcross-connected super PAC that spent millions trying to defeat Brown in the Assembly race.
Also funding the Turnout Project, as listed by the Philadelphia Comptroller's Office, are the law firms of Philip Norcross, brother of George, (Parker McCay, $25,000) and William Tambussi (Brown & Connery, $25,000).
Tambussi is an attorney of George Norcross', representing both Cooper Hospital and Norcross' insurance company. Philip Norcross is the lobbyist for the Casino Association of New Jersey, which authored the now-stalled bill establishing a Payment in Lieu of Taxes for the casinos. Norcross also lobbies for New Jersey American Water, one of two water companies interested in Atlantic City's $100 million water authority. Both water companies have strong political ties.
Dan Fee, spokesman for George Norcross, would not address whether there had been any direct involvement by Norcross in the ad or the Turnout Project, but suggested that the building trades unions, which are pushing for casinos in North Jersey, might have motives to oppose Brown.
Brigid Harrison, a professor at Montclair State, said locals were not likely to be swayed by ads such as this one.
"People look at them with a jaundiced eye," she said. "People know there are interests behind them."
City Councilman Frank Gilliam, who as council president helped usher in a South Inlet redevelopment deal with politically connected developers Joseph Jingoli and Jack Morris - an arrangement then undone by a new council - said outsiders are just the cost of fixing a town.
"In this world of getting things done, folks that are connected get things done a little quicker," Gilliam said.
As for the ad, Gilliam said: "We're all big guys. We signed up for this stuff. At no point does it make sense to fight with people that have a little more power than you. Sometimes it's better to basically be adults and be visionary and find out how people can help the town."
State Sen. Jim Whelan, who has had campaign support from the Norcross-tied General Majority PAC, supports the takeover. He discounts talk of "Geppettos," or boogeymen behind the scenes - with one exception.
"If there's a 'Geppetto,' it's Christie," Whelan said. "He vetoed perfectly good legislation."
Gov. Christie twice vetoed the Atlantic City rescue bills, including one amended to his specifications.
Whelan, like many in Atlantic City, says the uncharted financial waters Atlantic City is sailing into keeps him up at night. He said he tries not to listen to the radio.