ATLANTIC CITY — This election is exclusively vote-by-mail, but that did not stop Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. and allies from donning masks and going door-to-door in the final days of Tuesday’s referendum on changing the form of government.
“Even on Mother’s Day ... we were in these Atlantic City streets ... We do what they won’t ... WE WORK,” Small said on Instagram, where he posted photos from the 15th floor of a residential high rise and promoted a Monday evening “Vote No” car rally for the length of the city’s 48 blocks.
Tuesday’s election will decide if the current system of government — a nine-person council (six wards and three at-large) and full-time mayor — should be replaced by a five-member at-large council that appoints a professional city manager who would be tenured after three years.
On the ballots, voters are presented with a yes/no question on changing Atlantic City’s form of government. (Actually, the question is presented as a “no/yes” question, a bit of home field advantage for the people currently in office, who are against the change.)
Both sides were predicting victory on Monday.
It seemed as strange as any Atlantic City election, a periodic municipal ritual historically full of drama, even under non-pandemic circumstances.
This is a city, after all, where the last transfer of power was the result of a guilty plea in federal court by then-Mayor Frank Gilliam. (His sentencing on the wire fraud charge has been postponed until July.)
“Absolutely going door to door,” said City Council President George Tibbitt, who is campaigning to defeat the referendum question.
“You wear your mask,” he said. “We practice social distancing. Knock on the door, step back four or five feet so the people feel comfortable. People talk to you.”
“It’s life or death for Atlantic City,” he said. “They’re trying to take away your government, take your right of referendum away.”
It is that penchant for mayors winding up in U.S. District Court in Camden that is fueling the case for a change of government, said former State Sen. Ray Lesniak, a North Jersey resident who is overseeing the “Vote Yes” effort under an Atlantic City Residents for Good Government umbrella.
The effort is being spearheaded by Resorts Casino owner Morris Bailey, who has contributed about $280,000; Unite Here Local 54 and Bob McDevitt, president of the casino workers union; and other building trade unions.
Out of coronavirus caution, Gov. Phil Murphy ruled that Tuesday’s municipal elections throughout the state should be entirely vote by mail, a type of balloting that has often been the topic of controversy in prior Atlantic City elections.
New Jersey law allows voting by mail for any reason, and all voters received a ballot in the mail for this election. Atlantic City is no stranger to elections decided by vote-by-mail ballot, as numerous machine vote results have been reversed after vote-by-mail ballots were tallied.
As of Monday, 5,045 ballots had been received from Atlantic City at the county Board of Elections, an election supervisor said. That ensures that the election will meet the threshold of 1,869 needed to approve the referendum question, a number equivalent to 30% of the number of people who voted in Atlantic City in the last general election.
Ballots may be postmarked by the end of Tuesday and will be counted if they are received within 48 hours, so results will not be known before Friday.
Small and his allies, including ward council members, civic associations, and Food & Water Watch, which fears the lack of a referendum ability in the proposed new form of government will leave the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority vulnerable to privatization, see the effort as yet another attempt to deprive Atlantic City residents of their power to govern themselves.
And they see a five-person at-large council as too easily vulnerable to being commandeered by narrow political interests.
The city is in the third year of a state takeover that has been more of a benign partnership of hired bureaucrat advisers under Murphy, in contrast to the hostile takeover of Gov. Chris Christie.
With the economy of the city upended, with all nine casinos continuing to be shut down and 27,000 casino workers unemployed, the form of government may be one of the least important factors determining the future civic health of Atlantic City.
Nonetheless, Small argues that he has shown effective leadership under the coronavirus crisis, and that now is not the time to experiment with new systems of government. In a commercial, Small touts his ability to secure the funding for two testing sites in Atlantic City, and a hot meal initiative for senior citizens. He stands in front of a bank vault to emphasize the deep pockets of the Vote Yes people.
“And we even kept the Boardwalk open during these unprecedented times,” Small says triumphantly.
Indeed, that decision not to close the city’s beach or Boardwalk was praised last week in an unexpected place: North Wildwood, where Mayor Patrick Rosenello said Small had made the right decision and avoided the confusion and unnecessary attention now being directed at the Wildwoods’ “reopening” of the beach and boardwalks.
Another ad, “Wake Up Atlantic City,” emphasizes the diverse coalition spanning neighborhoods, “from Maine to Jackson” Avenues, urging voters to reject the change in government, from Bangladeshi to Vietnamese to African American residents, bar owners and fishermen, to a barking boxer on a second-floor deck (subtitled “Vote No”).
Lesniak on Monday, said he believed the yes vote had widespread community support. Its group is not doing any door-to-door campaigning, he said, out of respect for social distancing precautions.
Instead, it has the casino workers phone-banking, and former Mayor Don Guardian on robocalls going out to residents urging the change.
He says the issue is not about whether Small has done a good job as mayor, either during the coronavirus crisis or before. Small became mayor in October after Gilliam resigned, and his term expires at the end of 2020. If the question is defeated, Small will face Pamela Thomas-Fields in a July Democratic mayoral primary.