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Exit interview with Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian: 'I was the adult in the room'

After four tumultous years, the bow-tied, cerebral, gay Republican Don Guardian, perhaps the unlikeliest of Atlantic City mayors, will leave office Jan. 1, to be replaced by Democratic Councilman Frank Gilliam.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, photographed in his office on Dec. 14, 2017.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, photographed in his office on Dec. 14, 2017.Read moreAMY ROSENBERG / Staff

ATLANTIC CITY — After four tumultuous years, the bow-tied, cerebral, gay Republican Don Guardian, perhaps the unlikeliest of Atlantic City mayors, will leave office Jan. 1, to be replaced by Democratic Councilman Frank Gilliam, who defeated him in a close election. During his one term, five casinos closed, the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and a hostile Gov. Christie executed a takeover.

Still, Guardian never stopped smiling, except maybe when he was talking about Christie. He accused his mayoral  opponent of exploiting improperly obtained absentee ballots, but was unable to get traction, even after hiring a private investigator. He voted for Hillary Clinton. He's contemplating running for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Frank LoBiondo and also is looking to work in the new Murphy administration — on municipal issues.

Despite being turned out after one term, Guardian says he still feels the love of his adopted city — even from residents who he says tell him they were paid $30 to vote for his opponent.

"We're giving out turkeys in front of the [Police Athletic League] on a cold day. and people were saying they loved me," Guardian recalled in an impromptu sit-down in his office. "And I said, `You took the 30 dollars and voted for the other guy. And now I'm here to give you a turkey. You love me, but that didn't turn into a vote. It did turn into $30, which I know you needed, and here's a turkey, which I know you need too.' It was just ironic, and that's just Atlantic City.

Guardian: [Ten-minute explanation of the intricacies of the state's PILOT law involving casinos and other issues involving taxes in Atlantic City.]

How are you going to turn all this stuff off when you’re not mayor anymore?

[Laughs] I will, I will. Because no one's going to ask me these things.

Do you believe you left the city better off?

Oh yes, absolutely. I'm not trying to be boastful, but I saved the city from bankruptcy. And was able to trim what everyone thought couldn't be done and at the same time while all of that was going on, still was able to get some confidence from the market to come back and reinvest.

What were your strengths in the job?

I want to say that I was the adult in the room. And sorry to see that there weren't more when crises occurred. I had a crisis almost every day and just dealt with it. I was able to stay calm and focused.

I was doing everything at the same time. I was being a cheerleader for Atlantic City. I was doing my best to recruit new businesses and find state and federal tax incentives for them to come and do something here. I was reducing the staff here, working with the unions. I was trying to work with the state.

I have a great relationship with everyone other than the governor.

Does it bother you that he takes the credit for any progress in Atlantic City?

No. I just think it's not true. He's not being truthful about it. He gets credit for allowing us to have the bonds backed by the state. That absolutely would not have happened without him. So he gets credit for that.

Any advice for Mayor-elect Gilliam?

I think he has to look at the big picture with the state because that's very critical. He's got to be able to keep costs down here. He's got to do whatever he can with Washington, D.C., to get the S.A.F.E.R. grant or risk losing 50 firefighters or have a 20 percent tax increase. He's got to work with the state on what we owe them from 2015. Everything else now is the Boraie project [a 250-unit apartment complex], Stockton [University's new Atlantic City campus], the Boardwalk. I started all that in December [2013], before I was mayor.

The state really didn’t execute any of the worst-case scenarios. They didn’t sell off the water authority, they didn’t regionalize the police department.

When we had 15 weeks to come up with an emergency plan, we used two agencies that were well-respected by the state of New Jersey, by Democrats and Republicans. And as we were doing this plan, they were grateful the city was willing to make all these cuts and privatize, all these things that [Christie] wants us to do. Jokingly, in the last six weeks we were saying, 'If they reject the plan, they're [still] going to follow it. There's no other hope.'

So you feel that’s what they’ve done? Rejected the plan, executed a takeover, but still basically followed the city’s plan?

And they really did. If anything, for this year, everything got delayed. I said you really should be privatizing trash, recycling. We really should be going over to the county for Meals on Wheels. They're saying we have to study it. Why? Because they came in new, or because they wanted billable hours. You can figure that one out.

Are you surprised they didn’t make any more of those moves people feared?

Yes. Absolutely.  There's three things I thought the governor wanted and certainly the Camden guy [South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross]. They wanted to sell the [city's municipal water authority] to New Jersey American Water. They wanted to sell Bader Field. They wanted to give the development rights to the Southeast Inlet from Revel going up to the inlet.

Why do you think they didn’t do it? And what does that say about George Norcross?

I don't know. They certainly have the authority to do it. I think with the water company, the residents were up in arms going door to door,  It was just remarkable.

Maybe New Jersey American Water didn’t want the fight?

I think they thought we'll just try again in two years or four years or five years. So they will try to buy up all the other water companies in Jersey first. This will be one of the later ones that they get.

» READ MORE: calling Christie a fascist

No, not at all. That's what it was and still is. I didn't call him Mussolini. He didn't go around killing people. But when you take the right of governing away from people, it's fascism. And it didn't work. That's even worse. At least the trains ran in Germany and Italy. Our trains don't even work. He didn't solve any problems.

You don’t think the city’s been stabilized?

It has, but not because of the governor.

Did you enjoy the job?

I did, very much. Loved it. And I'm very happy to have all the weight off my shoulders. Louis [Fatato, the mayor's husband] is thrilled.

Is there anything you learned about Christie and New Jersey’s power structure?

It's a little more corrupt than I anticipated.