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Why Atlantic City-area elections this year would make Nucky Johnson proud

Campaign sting operations, political intermarriages, mac and cheese. In 2017, Atlantic County has supplied some plot lines that would make Nucky proud.

Meeting of the Atlantic County Board of Elections
Meeting of the Atlantic County Board of ElectionsRead moreAmy Rosenberg

ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic County has a history of political intrigue proudly dating back to Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the original party boss from the Prohibition era, whose legendary rule over the county was the inspiration for HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

In 2017, Atlantic County — which has races for state and county seats and the always-contentious Atlantic City mayor's post — has supplied some plot lines that would make Nucky proud.

Red is blue and blue is red.   In the race for Atlantic City mayor, intermarriages are rampant, especially after a year when the Republican mayor aligned with Democrats and civil rights activists to fight Gov. Christie's city government takeover. One night leaving City Hall, Mayor Don Guardian was asked about Christie's grabbing at the reins of his government: "We're not the fascists here," he replied. Local politics was never the same.

The next thing you know, the white-bow-tied Republican from North Jersey was locking arms with the black ministers and Democratic politicians of Atlantic City. He was endorsed by City Council President Marty Small Sr., who lost to Councilman Frank Gilliam in the primary, as well as the Rev. Collins A. Days of Second Baptist Church.  Latino groups endorsed Guardian, but the Bangladeshi community, which supported Guardian in 2013, appears to be split.

The race between Guardian and Gilliam may turn on mail-in ballots, a hornet's nest that had the Guardian campaign wiring up a homeless Rikers Island alum turned minister-in-training named Rodney Cotton, who recorded getting paid $30 to sign for a messenger ballot he then turned over to a Democratic operative.

HBO, you didn't see that coming, did you?

In the race for the Second District's state Senate seat, a similar political reversal is at play.

Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown of Ventnor is the maverick who fought the Republican governor, and, unlike the Democratic legislators, opposed the Atlantic City takeover and plans for North Jersey casinos from the start.

Brown is also fending off the political machine of Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, whose PAC has spent just under $2 million in the district,  a far cry from two years ago, when the PAC spent $4 million trying to defeat Brown in the Assembly race.

In recent weeks, his opponent, Democrat Colin Bell, sworn in as a state senator after the August death of State Sen. Jim Whelan, has sought to recast the race along traditional party lines, reminding voters of issues like minimum wage, gun control, and legalized marijuana.

Mac and cheese. Naturally, it's been the most obscure race of them all — a District Three race for an Atlantic County freeholder seat — that has garnered the most national attention.

Atlantic County Freeholder John Carman, a Republican, got himself unwanted publicity — and a challenger — when he shared a Facebook meme that asked if women at the post-Trump-inauguration protest march "would be home in time to cook dinner."

Ashley Bennett, 32, who showed up at a freeholders meeting to protest, then became the Democratic candidate for the position, which represents Egg Harbor Township and parts of Hamilton Township.

Carman later got into more hot water when a photo of him showed a patch on a jeans vest of New Jersey featuring the Confederate flag over the South Jersey part. He was ridiculed for the Facebook meme on a national podcast featuring U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.).

Bennett, a psychiatric screener at a Cape May County hospital, says the story of how she decided to run resonates.

"It is never wrong to ask your elected official to hold themselves to a higher standard," she said. "It's embarrassing. This is not what Atlantic County should be known for."

Carman said that Bennett was a "political opportunist" and that voters know he's not the person being portrayed. "I think people can see through it," he said. "People know I'm not the person I'm portrayed to be: a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot, a racist. Can you get any more in there?"

In other women's news, one is trying to get elected to the all-male, famously argumentative Atlantic City Council: Stacey Kammerman, a Republican businesswoman running with Guardian. When she called in to a radio program to ask questions of Gilliam, he responded: "I would have more respect for Don Guardian if he would have gone on the radio and asked these questions. Why would he send a woman?"

Bogeymen. Every election debate in Atlantic County seems to come around to Camden County or political operative Craig Callaway. Both Callaway and Camden County's Norcross have been referred to as the bogeymen, and both are seen, and in some circles feared, as wielding undue influence in Atlantic County.

Norcross' PAC has been preoccupied with helping State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) fight off attacks by the state teachers' union, as anyone with a television receiving Philadelphia stations is well aware. But that hasn't stopped his name from being invoked repeatedly by Brown and Guardian.

As for Callaway, his influence in Atlantic City has been interrupted only by the 42 months he spent in prison on, first, a federal bribery charge, then a state charge of organizing a blackmail scheme to oust a city councilman.

"In Atlantic County, Craig Callaway may control who will be the next state senator, Assembly members, sheriff, freeholders at large, mayor of Atlantic City and three Council members at large," said radio host Harry Hurley, whose program has been at the epicenter of campaign crosswinds, via Facebook message. "Unprecedented potential influence with his boldest-ever mail-in ballot program."

Trust the process?  It's not every election that features a sting operation organized by an incumbent mayor a week before the election, using retired state troopers and a wired-up homeless minister-in-training, but Guardian is convinced that widespread ballot fraud has occurred.

In a literal back room Thursday night, the Board of Elections began deciding whether thousands of votes by mail and messenger ballots will be counted. Things got heated when Guardian attorney John Carbone accused the board of not properly advertising the meeting. Commissioner John Mooney accused Carbone of targeting minority voters.

Guardian wants to challenge the ballots — 2,500 sent to Atlantic City, 950 via messenger — before they are counted, but the board plans to turn the task over to two staff members, one Democrat, one Republican, and do it in private. The campaign has pressed its case to the prosecutor, the media, the state. Being paid to be a messenger for up to three voters is allowed; however, the ballots must be delivered directly to the voters, not turned over to a Democratic operative.

For his part, Callaway acknowledged taking a ballot from the messenger but says he brought it to the voter, which he called a "technicality," He accused Guardian of trying to suppress minority voters, and said he was proud to have "mastered" the state's Vote by Mail law. He noted his efforts had helped Guardian in 2013, amid no complaints.

Walking into the old County Courthouse on Friday as Guardian readied a news conference out front, Callaway called the whole matter "the biggest sideshow in the history of Atlantic County." Now that's saying something.