ATLANTIC CITY — Few candidates in next week's midterm election are as full-throated in their support of President Trump as Seth Grossman of South Jersey's Second Congressional District.
"I don't want to be a check on Trump," he told an audience at a recent candidate forum in Atlantic City, at which he faced off against Democrat Jeff Van Drew. "I want to be the offensive line to help President Trump move his agenda forward."
But in the 1980s and '90s, Grossman acknowledged recently, he was more of a linebacker, going after Trump as an Atlantic City attorney working on behalf of a half-dozen clients, which included limousine and security firms, trying to get the money owed them for work done for Trump's casinos.
"All the casinos were tough to deal with in those days," Grossman said in an interview. "Donald Trump was in my opinion no better or no worse than the rest of the industry. I represented a security guard company. I represented a limousine company. I represented various, maybe half a dozen, vendors."
Trump's casino company was notorious for stiffing its vendors, from florists and piano suppliers to the people who made the marble elephants outside the Trump Taj Mahal, which shut down in 2016 under the ownership of billionaire Carl Icahn before being reopened as the Hard Rock Atlantic City. That pattern became a campaign issue for Hillary Clinton, who held a Boardwalk rally outside the former Trump Plaza, which closed in 2014 and remains vacant.
Grossman has made his all-MAGA stance the centerpiece of his campaign against Van Drew, a state senator heavily favored to win the seat being vacated by retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo. National Republicans abandoned Grossman not long after video surfaced of him saying diversity is a "bunch of crap and un-American."
But when Grossman praised Trump for an improved economy in Atlantic City and linked the demise of two of Trump's Atlantic City casinos to President Obama, he was met with disbelief and laughter from the audience gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. School auditorium for the forum, sponsored by the local NAACP.
"Ask yourself, is Atlantic City better off now after a year and a half, almost two years, of Trump, or was it better off with all the casinos closing during the Obama days?" he asked.
"Oh, my God," said Cliff McWhorter of Atlantic City, who was in the audience. He then turned toward the timekeeper at the debate and said: "Hit the bell."
Grossman said that all but one of his cases against Trump ended in negotiated settlements, and that he had to file a lawsuit in only one. He said he was not involved in any of the bankruptcy proceedings for Trump Entertainment Resorts, which resulted in long lists of vendors who say they were left unpaid.
He said Trump was "very strict on his paperwork" and used technicalities to deny payment to vendors.
"In Atlantic City, we're very informal," he said. "You do work, you submit a bill. With him, every purchase order had to be perfect. He was hard, in my opinion. Many times, if somebody did work and they didn't document it right, he would not pay them."
Trump and other casino owners were generally so difficult to get payments from, Grossman said, that the sentiment in town in a booming economy would be simple: "Force every casino to pay its bills within 30 days."
Grossman said his cases involved sending letters back and forth, and filing one lawsuit for a sum of less than $15,000.
"Our view was, most of the Nevada people were very difficult to deal with," Grossman said. "You had a casino culture. We were always informal, laid back. They were trying to get every penny. The worst you could say about Donald Trump was that he became Nevada very quickly."
While he said his history with Trump does not give him pause in his current support of the president — and what Atlantic City lawyer at that time didn't have a case against Trump — not everyone who experienced the Boardwalk-era Trump feels the same way, he said.
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Grossman's loyalty to the president has gone mostly unrequited, but he says he doubts it's because of their legal wrangling.
Grossman, who has yet to get a public nod of any sort from LoBiondo, says he doesn't take Trump's lack of interest in the Second District personally.
"He has a lot on his plate," he said of Trump. "I can't even imagine."