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High Stakes: Atlantic City mayor stares 'em down

ATLANTIC CITY - What has happened to Mayor Don Guardian, 62, the big-bow-tied, bicycle-riding, Boy Scout booster of America's favorite broke resort, not counting Puerto Rico?

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian is about to shut down his own government.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian is about to shut down his own government.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

ATLANTIC CITY - What has happened to Mayor Don Guardian, 62, the big-bow-tied, bicycle-riding, Boy Scout booster of America's favorite broke resort, not counting Puerto Rico?

By some measures, not much at all. His blood pressure - which he says every doctor he visits insists on checking, even the allergist - is still excellent. He still can stop midway through an impassioned stem-winder in defense of his city to crack a joke, give an aside, pull back on the lens, own the room.

His two years of unlikely mayoralty have been filled with a breakneck cascade of seaside calamity that will make the Boardwalk's upcoming Polar Coaster (a vertical roller coaster set for a lot near the failed casino-funded Art Park) look like a jitney ride down paved Pacific Avenue.

Turned down for promised aid by Gov. Christie, his deeply indebted city government is set to shut down for three weeks April 8 until it can limp past Go and collect its next-quarter property taxes.

As Trenton bickers in a standoff that has left Atlantic City gasping, Guardian is fighting off what he and others call a heist of their town by state officials and others who may be more interested in the city's waterworks and real estate.

Guardian, meanwhile, who ran the city's state-run Special Improvement District in obscurity for 20 years, has morphed into the impassioned defender of the civil rights of his citizens, able to stare down Christie, schmooze North Jersey politicians, and summon international media. But he says the most surprising change is that during the last three months, he's become something he never thought he'd be: "a politician."

"I love it," he said.

If they haven't figured it out by now in Trenton, it's easy to underestimate Don Guardian.

The mayor says he's always had an edge of sarcasm. But it's much more on display these days as he ping-pongs from Atlantic City to Trenton, trying to head off a takeover bill he deeply objects to and feels will hurt his city, while supporting a long-promised aid bill to stabilize the casino taxes.

Tax appeals by casinos have cost the city mightily; it owes more than $150 million to Borgata Hotel & Casino, which in February withheld a $7.2 million tax payment to the city, and is carrying $240 million in bond debt.

After a particularly bruising day in Trenton this month, when the takeover bill and a bill for expanding casinos to North Jersey were passed by the Senate over his objections, he said: "Do I get an ice cream cone when I leave here, too?"

Guardian had gone from being the optimistic new mayor bounding around, telling people to come to his beautiful city, to a rabble-rousing civil rights leading calling out state leaders for attempts at a "fascist dictatorship," and warning North Jersey of the ills of a sin economy.

"I really thought I'd be more of an administrator," said Guardian, who is paid a $103,000 salary. "I didn't see all of this coming. I thought, I'll get in there, even people who didn't vote for me, they'll see me as serious, that I'm going to be able to deliver services, city's cleaner, parks rebuilt, beaches looking good, taxes aren't increasing. They'll realize this is bringing business common sense to municipalities. Having said that, that didn't quite work the way I had hoped."

So far, with a big assist from Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Hudson County Democrat who has become an ally in resisting the takeover bill pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Christie because it gives the state the power to rip up union agreements, Guardian, a Republican, has played them to a draw.

"In general, people underestimate me," he said in a recent interview in his office, an hour after he told a full house of reporters that Christie was solely to blame for the looming shutdown, for twice vetoing bills that would have redirected casino money to the city - $33.5 million of which was approved by the state in the city budget. (Police, fire, and public works will work for IOUs through the shutdown.)

"Because I have a pleasant disposition. I joke and have a sense of humor. People mistake that for being stupid."

He's not stupid. He's a Russian history major and psychology minor from Upsala College, and easily applies lessons from both in his dealings with modern-day New Jersey. He's always viewed himself as a believer in various equalities - for the disabled, the LGBT community (he married longtime partner Louis Fatato, a spa manager at Borgata, in 2014) - but did not anticipate he'd be standing up giving fiery civil rights speeches in a windy City Hall courtyard.

"I'm trying to defend the residents here," Guardian said of his city of 39,000. "I go to sleep every night because I've been on the right side of civil rights and always will be."

Money gets thrown around a lot in a town that won't be able to pay its workers on April 8, and not just in the form of chips piled up on craps tables. The state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) re-upped with Miss America for $12 million over three years and sent Live Nation $9 million for six beach concerts and other events over three years. The eight surviving casinos, down from 12, took in $204.7 million from gamblers during February, up 14.7 percent from 2015.

The state-vs.-city power dynamic has played out within Atlantic City since the beginning of casino gaming in 1978. Atlantic City has sent $21 billion in various casino taxes to Trenton, which has had oversight of city finances since 2010, and controls the "Tourism District." The CRDA has land-banked hundreds of lots that, tax exempt, took millions off the city's rolls. Cities like Newark and Camden get six times the state aid of Atlantic City.

Now, with annual gaming revenue cut in half to $2.2 billion since the spread of casinos in neighboring states, voters in November will make a Solomonic choice on adding two more in North Jersey.

Guardian, like most in the area, already with the nation's highest foreclosure rate, is opposed.

He grew up in West New York and can speak North Jersey. At a recent forum in Jersey City, he fluently recited potential bottleneck scenarios on the Pulaski Skyway and Route 3, and spoke of the crime that comes along for the casino ride.

"Make no mistake, casinos are a sin industry," he told the North Jersey panel. "We had the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for 35 years, and come to Atlantic City - it doesn't look vibrant."

It doesn't look vibrant - not exactly your next great civic marketing campaign. It was a bracing change of message from a guy who not that long ago grabbed a skateboard, kept his bow tie on, and led a little parade down a newly paved Pacific Avenue.

"I've got to pull out all the stops," he said.

Being a realist - looking unflinchingly at issues off the Boardwalk: homelessness, addiction, poverty, the continued viability of a pretty decent school system - is something Guardian says he will not abandon. He thinks the state will surely neglect this part of the city and its residents if it seizes power from locally elected officials and department heads, particularly ones like his planning director, Elizabeth Terenik, who is juggling paradigm-shifting housing, flood management, bike lanes, parks, and the holy grail: luring millennials (and their rum distilleries).

"If at any time I thought the state could do a better job in anything, I'd agree with that," Guardian says. "But these are tough decisions. I'm talking about mental disorders, substance abuse, traumatized people, veterans, not veterans. If we now just walk two blocks to Browns Park, here's the state with all their resources that can't take care of one park and the Boardwalk.

"Show me something the state's doing well," he said. "In New Jersey, that's hard to find."

He knows the paradox that is Atlantic City - the party amid the fatalism, progress drowned out by existential crises, ocean breezes amid economic pain, piles of money floated in casinos in a city that can't make payroll.

The counter narrative is drowned out, but exists: a new 325-unit upscale youth-oriented apartment complex, investment from Philadelphia developers, a new Stockton University campus, three new casino nightclubs - WAV, Premier, and Kiss Kiss a Go Go - opening this spring, and old stalwart Dock's Oyster House doubling its size. He tells the story of two friends who took the train back from Philadelphia the morning of the St. Patrick's Day parade on the Boardwalk and were surprised to see hundreds pile on at every stop.

"Here was someone who lives in the city who just forgets - we really do draw a huge crowd of people that are coming here to party," he said. "We're going to outlive any of the pain that's inflicted on us."