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Race for an office with a corrupt past

A.C. mayors have tended to have ethical lapses. Three Democrats seek to show they're different.

ATLANTIC CITY - The history of mayors in Atlantic City has not been proud: Five of the last nine were charged with corruption, and graft in City Hall dates to the 1930s.

This year, there is another election. On Tuesday, in a Democratic Party primary, voters will in all likelihood choose the next mayor of America's second-largest gambling resort at a crucial time in its history. Casino revenue is down for the first time in 30 years, yet $10 billion worth of new casinos is on the drawing board.

It is in this environment that each of the three Democratic candidates - Mayor Scott Evans, former Mayor Lorenzo Langford, and Domenic Cappella, a former acting mayor - have been trying to convince voters that they are trustworthy and their opponents ethically challenged.

A dominant issue is an $850,000 payment that Langford and Council President William "Speedy" Marsh received - one that the state Supreme Court said should not have been approved because of conflicts of interest.

Both men had sued the city before they were elected to municipal office, saying their jobs with the city Board of Education had been eliminated as political retaliation. The settlement was approved by the council while Langford was mayor, but he did not vote on it.

The Supreme Court ordered Marsh and him to repay the money, but they said they had already spent it.

"They say, 'Pay the money back,' so I'll pay the money back," Langford said. "Even though Speedy and I have been dealt from the bottom of the deck, in life you have to play the hand you're dealt."

A judge is expected to lay out a repayment schedule this month.

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans, 11-1, winning the Democratic primary is usually tantamount to election. John McQueen, former director of operations for the Atlantic City Special Improvement District and a former mayoral candidate, is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

Independents Joseph Polillo and Willie Norwood will run in November as well.

The winner will serve only a year; another election will be held in 2009 for a full four-year term in the $100,000-a-year job.

This year's elections became necessary when Robert Levy resigned in the fall, admitting he had embellished his Vietnam War record to fatten his veterans' benefits check. Levy, who dropped out of sight for two weeks to check into a rehab clinic for drug and mental-health problems, will be sentenced this month.

Evans, who took office several weeks after Levy resigned, said his priority was to restore stability to City Hall and let the $5 billion-a-year casino industry know city government was still working. One of his first actions was to advertise for a "chief integrity officer."

Evans demoted Cappella from his business administrator job this year, then suspended him for allegedly violating medical privacy rules involving a job seeker. Cappella says a hearing after the election will clear his name.

Opponents say Evans has offered them jobs at City Hall in return for their support in the election, an allegation he denies.

Langford and Cappella have criticized Evans for his refusal to cut ties with family and friends of imprisoned former Council President Craig Callaway. Callaway is serving a 40-month prison term for bribery and awaiting trial for allegedly luring a city councilman into a sexual encounter with a prostitute, recording it, and trying to blackmail him with the tape.

While willing to give the candidates the benefit of the doubt, Tony Marino, a Richard Stockton College professor and an expert on Atlantic City politics, acknowledged that temptation often had gotten the better of elected officials here.

"Atlantic City doesn't seem to be able to produce great moral and ethical leaders," he said. "I'm not particularly optimistic."