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Atlantic City gets a new mayor after another one is disgraced. Will it matter?

Marty Small Sr., an Atlantic City native and voracious Eagles fan, is another product of A.C. High basketball and the city's incestuous political scene. But who will ex-Mayor Frank Gilliam's power brokers and donors flock to now?

Marty Small, Sr., speaks after he is sworn in as acting mayor of Atlantic City, in City Hall, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.  At left is his daughter Jada, 11. Small was sworn in after former Mayor Frank Gilliam pleaded guilty to wire fraud.
Marty Small, Sr., speaks after he is sworn in as acting mayor of Atlantic City, in City Hall, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. At left is his daughter Jada, 11. Small was sworn in after former Mayor Frank Gilliam pleaded guilty to wire fraud.Read moreVERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer

ATLANTIC CITY — A day after Atlantic City lost another mayor to the criminal justice system, it placed a new bet on a familiar player: City Council President Marty Small Sr., who was sworn in as acting mayor to replace Frank M. Gilliam.

With the seventh-floor mayor’s office already cleared out, the “Frank Gilliam” sign nowhere in sight, Small, 45, fulfilled a lifelong ambition and was officially sworn in out of the public eye shortly after noon Friday — with noted criminal defense attorney Ed Jacobs doing the honors.

Jacobs successfully defended Small against campaign fraud charges, most recently in 2011.

“No crying,” someone called out as a packed City Council chamber applauded Small’s first public appearance as mayor, which had been billed as his swearing-in. It began with him asking people to keep Gilliam, who pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to embezzling $87,000 from a youth football club, and his family in their prayers.

“Things haven’t come easy,” Small said, his voice breaking slightly as he continued, “Just know one thing — my heart is for this city. My heart is for the people. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. And I’m going to give you my all.”

Small, an Atlantic City native and voracious Eagles fan, has sought the top elected job in Atlantic City for years. He lost to Gilliam in the 2017 Democratic primary race by a slim margin in a race that saw some of the state’s top power brokers and unions bankrolling Gilliam. Small’s wife, La’Quetta, an educator, was recently named principal of Atlantic City High School. They have two children, Jada, 11, and Marty Jr., 9.

The city remains under a legislative takeover that gives the state absolute power over operations, personnel, and assets. But under the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, the state has wielded that power less heavily than was done under Gov. Chris Christie.

In some ways, Small has a lot in common with Gilliam. Both are products of the Atlantic City High School basketball network and the intense local political scene that has dominated elected office, especially at the council level.

And Small is no stranger to the attention of prosecutors and Atlantic City politicians. He was charged twice — and acquitted twice — with election-related fraud. He has maintained those cases were politically motivated.

But Small has built a supply of goodwill around town and is generally thought to have become a dedicated and effective public servant. Kelsey Jackson, chef and owner of the Pacific Avenue restaurant, Kelsey’s, which coincidentally hosted a fund-raiser Thursday even as Gilliam was resigning, praised Small.

“Couldn’t be a better man,” Jackson said. “He’s for the people. He’s been in politics for quite some time. He started out as young, and now he’s well-groomed and seasoned. I think he’s ready to take the helm and run with it.”

Small said his first priority would be to advocate for “a new tax structure” for the city, which had an unexpected tax increase this year, and to try to increase the tax base with new homeowners.

Small will remain City Council president while he is acting mayor, and said he would let the city solicitor decide if he should get both salaries. (The council role is part-time, paying about $29,000; the mayor’s salary, boosted under Gilliam, is $137,000.)

But the dual role could be short-lived. The Democratic City Committee is expected to submit three names to the council next week, and it will vote in a mayor who will serve until a special election in November, 2020.

Gilliam pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Camden to embezzling $87,000 from a youth basketball club he cofounded.

Gilliam apologized “with a heavy heart” in his resignation letter, submitted after the close of business Thursday and posted Friday morning on Facebook: “Good morning I want to thank you all for the opportunity to serve as your Mayor. I apologize for letting you down. God Bless!”

Small was appointed last year to a $90,000 job as athletic director and government liaison at the Principle Charter School, which offered him the job even as it was laying off nine staff members.

His signature event, the Marty Small Ball, brings hundreds to Atlantic City, but was mired in a bit of controversy after he initially explored holding it at the city’s Boardwalk Hall and negotiated a discounted rate. The ball was canceled, then rescheduled at a casino.

Small first was elected 2nd Ward councilman in 2003, running on the slogan, “Big Plans Come With a Small Vote.”

He later ran under the slogan “Stand Tall, Vote Small.”

Small joined forces with former Mayor Don Guardian, the bow-tied, openly gay Republican who unexpectedly defeated former Mayor Lorenzo Langford, to fight the Christie administration’s takeover, making numerous trips to Trenton.

That effort has made him a welcome ally of local city unions, like Firefighters Local 198, which recently settled with the state after years of negotiations and court battles.

“Any time there’s a change in government, it has an impact on public safety, especially the fire department,” said union president John Varallo. “We have a long and positive relationship with Marty Small. I don’t foresee any issues.”

Local Democratic power broker Craig Callaway, whose much-scrutinized vote-by-mail operation has been a kingmaker to politicians and who had a falling-out with Gilliam over campaign finances, said he was optimistic about Small.

“I would hope that Marty is the one who’s going to succeed,” Callaway said. “If that’s going to be the marriage, I hope it’s a happy one.”

Callaway, a former City Council president who served federal prison time for a bribery conviction, said the state’s influence in Atlantic City has lately just been “window dressing,” and that accountability extends beyond the mayor’s office.

“The State of New Jersey watched the mismanagement of the finances for years,” he said.

Callaway also wondered what all the donors to Gilliam’s basketball club really had in mind. “They could care less" about basketball, he said. “These people aren’t naive.”

Callaway said he had warned Gilliam about the pitfalls of public office. “I had Frank in my home. I sat and talked to him. I advised him not to be in the situation he’s in right now. He didn’t listen. And unfortunately, the city has to deal with the consequences of that.”

Jackson, the restaurateur, remained bullish on Atlantic City, and said the events in City Hall don’t always matter that much to businesses like his. “Every city has some kind of negative press,” he said. “To me, we fell on some hard times. But I don’t see Atlantic City going under. Atlantic City is going to be thriving again, especially if you have the right people in office.”