WILDWOOD, N.J. — Pull up your pants. No kneeling protests on the boardwalk. We’ll play Kate Smith forever. That woman police punched on the Wildwood beach? The police were right.
For years, Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. made headlines — and got reelected — with his own Jersey Shore version of brash Trumpiness. But, politically incorrect boardwalk T-shirt shops notwithstanding, Wildwood was changing around him.
And when President Donald Trump himself comes to Wildwood on Jan. 28, stumping for newly minted Republican and Trump acolyte Rep. Jeff Van Drew, this iconic Shore town will be repping an inconvenient truth: The very Trumpy Troiano has been sidelined.
In November, the voters of Wildwood said they’d had enough, electing (by what passes for a wide margin in a town of 5,300 year-round residents, 152 votes) the low-key Democratic Councilman Pete Byron, a Northeast Philly native, plus his two running mates, one a Republican, the other an independent. The trio campaigned in churches and housing developments, knocking on the doors of the city’s black and Hispanic residents who felt overlooked and even disrespected by Troiano’s rants.
“I think people just got tired and wanted change,” Byron, 64, said. “Ernie had his opportunity. There were times when I cringed at some of the things I heard. They were not a true representation of what the people thought.”
His big Trump moment?
That Troiano, who kept a MAGA hat and bottle of Trump wine in his office, missed his big Trump moment is not a turn of events anybody could have predicted. Even some detractors feel empathetic about his predicament, though not Byron.
“I feel bad for him that after he loses the election, the president comes out to the city,” said a magnanimous Alexander Bland, president of the newly invigorated Cape May County NAACP.
But the forces that sidelined Troiano could be viewed as a cautionary tale for a very Trump-like brand.
Troiano was a star of Philly talk radio. In yet another appearance earlier this month on 1210 WPHT, host Dom Giordano was openly mournful — and somewhat disbelieving — that his go-to source of Shore outrageousness had been dethroned. Troiano consoled Giordano with the promise that he’d run again for the job, which pays $20,000 annually.
Troiano says he just told things as he saw them, from protest-kneeling to Kate Smith. He speaks nostalgically of the Wildwood of his youth, one he is keenly aware no longer exists. He notes the Glenwood Elementary School in town is now 67 percent Hispanic. (The town’s Hispanic population jumped from 17% in the 2000 census to 31% a decade later.)
“I defend Wildwood,” Troiano said in a recent telephone interview. “I bleed Wildwood. The people look down on us for some unknown reason.”
Troiano says he has received a VIP ticket to Trump’s rally from Van Drew (Byron says he hasn’t yet heard from anyone in the Trump orbit, but doesn’t think he’ll have any trouble getting access). But Troiano knows if he were still mayor, his role would have been different.
“If they had offered, I would have been there to say, ‘Welcome to Wildwood, Mr. President, the greatest little city in the world,’ ” Troiano said.
He noted that Don Jr. was friends with a friend of his son’s and was at his house a couple of times. But he wants people to know the MAGA hat and Trump wine he kept in his office were simply there as gifts he’d received. And he thinks Trump should probably stop tweeting so much.
The transition — after a Troiano era that dates to 2003, interrupted only by two years when he was recalled from office before winning again — has been a little tough.
“I don’t like to be sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “After being in government for almost 20 years, I find myself meandering around, not knowing what’s going on.”
He said the Trump visit has “its good points and its bad points.”
“You’ll have all kinds of people causing trouble,” he said.
‘We knocked on every door of Wildwood’
In November, Troiano was decidedly ousted. He acknowledges his opponents campaigned more than he did, but noted that as mayor, he had less time.
Bland, of the NAACP, said he personally accompanied Byron, Troiano’s longtime frenemy, on campaign trips that broadened his reach into the city’s growing and well-established Mexican community and its long-standing but often-ignored black residents. Byron took along a translator to Hispanic churches and knocked on doors in Wildwood’s federal housing project.
“He wanted to reach out to the minority groups, black people, Hispanic,” said Bland. “I think that’s what actually got him over.”
“We knocked on every door in the city of Wildwood,” Byron said. “We reached out to every segment of the community. We were invited into Baptist churches, Hispanic churches. We went to traditionally minority neighborhoods where nobody had bothered to listen. A lot of people felt they didn’t have anybody in City Hall they could go to.”
Byron, as a commissioner, always took the more measured approach when controversy arose. Inevitably, he said, it was Troiano’s incendiary quotes that made headlines.
For the record: Byron’s not planning on enacting “no sagging pants" dress codes on the boardwalk, as Troiano advocated. He believes people have a right to kneel in protest during the national anthem or Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”
Smith’s voice will still be played daily on the boardwalk at 11 a.m. during the summer season, Byron said, as the controversy over early recordings of her singing racist songs dissipated, but he engaged in meaningful discussion about the issue with Bland and others. He’s not in favor of visitors to Wildwood’s beaches being punched by police. (Troiano said after it happened that the police “did what they had to do.”)
He’s looking to include the voices of people of color in Wildwood’s government and various boards, and wants to encourage investment in the city’s sagging downtown.
Bland said Byron and his running mates, Steve Mikulski, an independent, and Krista Fitzsimmons, a Republican, earned their victory. The three have vowed to run City Hall “like a proper business, rather than making emotional, shortsighted decisions.”
“Pete Byron and his crew, they worked hard,” Bland said. “ I’m so proud of all three of them. Pete’s a member of the NAACP. He comes to [nearly] every meeting, since that Kate Smith situation."
As for the Trump visit, Byron is taking the high road. He suggests people “leave your party affiliation at the door.” (His police department is expecting to issue permits for multiple protests.)
“I think it’s fantastic for the town," he said. Both Byron and Troiano remember going to Asbury Park to see President Barack Obama speak (in the rain).
"Let’s just bask in this monumental moment, having a sitting president coming to town,” he said.
This newly elected Wildwood mayor thinks the timing of the Trump visit is just perfect.
“You could not have choreographed it better than this,” he said.
Byron said some stores closed for the season will be opening just for the Trump rally, even ones without heat.
As for the T-shirt shops — best known for their Confederate flags, their “If this flag offends you, I’ll help you pack” brand of patriotism, their ample Trump and Trump-adjacent T-shirts, and the leftover but still not-suitable-for-work Hillary slogans — their inventory will not need to be updated.