ATLANTIC CITY - Out on the Boardwalk, across from the Donald Trump-branded-but-no-longer-owned Taj Mahal, regulars have a unique view on the 2016 Republican presidential race.

"They're fake," Tony Johnson, on a familiar family jaunt from North Carolina, said as he sat face-to-face with a big TRUMP sign. He was talking about the candidates, not the faux-Taj spires.

"I came here because I hate Chris Christie," said Cinnaminson teacher Jackie Wilson, explaining her choice of the Taj, in effect voting with room nights.

In Atlantic City, the presidential race can feel rather personal. The town's been intimately dependent on both Donald Trump and Gov. Christie, not to mention Trump's cabinet choice, Carl Icahn, owner of Tropicana and soon, Taj and closed Plaza.

Trump still looms large here, even as his equity in the company that operated three Trump-branded casinos has been clawed away by lenders - yacht, airplane, and all - over four corporate bankruptcies between 1991 and 2009. His current stake in Icahn-controlled Trump Entertainment Resorts is less than 1 percent. He was literally whitewashed from Trump Plaza after he sued to "de-Trump" the casino.

While the GOP race can sometimes play like another weird Atlantic City punch line, the familiarity has bred its share of contempt.

Trump's "words may sound appealing," cautioned Michelle Douglas, attorney for a fired Taj plumber who, like many, ended up with pennies on the dollar in his claim in a Trump bankruptcy.

"But in this neck of the woods, his actions speak volumes in terms of numerous bankruptcies and nonpayment to hardworking individuals."

As Trump - who got called out on his A.C. history during the recent Fox News debate - dominates polls and airtime, old Atlantic City wounds have resurfaced. His boasting "I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City" and calling those who lost out "not the nice, sweet little people that you think, OK?" felt to some like rubbing it in.

In many cases, it was, in fact, the little people left unpaid.

"When it came time to pay for the pianos, we weren't getting paid," said Michael Diehl, 88, owner of Freehold Music Co., which sold Trump eight Yamaha grand pianos for about $100,000. "I'm not going to vote for him, that's for sure. That's a crude way of doing business."

Diehl did better than most: 70 cents on the dollar, an offer that came with a warning of much less if it came to bankruptcy.

Prominent bankruptcy attorney Michael Viscount represented three big unsecured creditors, including A.C. Coin & Slot. His clients were paid in full after forming an "unsecured creditors committee," a potentially powerful party to a bankruptcy. Other creditors collected just pennies on the dollar.

"Anybody who did any business with any of his casinos got beat one way or another," Viscount said. "Plumbing or heating, roofers, window people."

He declined to comment on the presidential race. He also represented the Revel - built only after Christie promised state tax incentives - in its bankruptcy. He now does work for new Revel owner Glenn Straub, not running for president.

When Trump spoke of building a wall on the Mexican border, locals tweeted a video of a wall of the Trump Taj Mahal breaking in pieces. "THIS is the wall built by Donald Trump!" someone shouts.

State Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic), mayor during Trump's A.C. reign, watches as the country does what he long ago learned not to do: Take the Donald at face value.

"You go back to the '90s, he was going to bring in the biggest boat, a casino on the boat, Walt Disney to the Steel Pier," he said. "I would privately laugh. He's been known to overpromise and underdeliver."

Still, for some, the Trump era was golden. On the Plaza's last day, workers recalled his charisma, boxing matches, Michael Jackson on his arm.

"I thought he was a great guy to work for," said Connie Bello, a 30-year Plaza server. "He left way before everything fell apart. I don't know, I might give him a chance."

Rick Santoro, Trump Hotel's senior vice president of security for two decades, said America should take his old boss seriously, but he wondered about temperament.

"He's very rigid and direct, and needs gratification," Santoro said. "If something needs to be fixed, there's a short window to get that done. If it isn't, there's hell to pay. I don't know how that relates to foreign policy."

No worries, as Trump has said he'd use Icahn, now at war with the Taj casino workers union after unilaterally cutting their benefits, to negotiate with the likes of China and Iran. (Tensions on the home front are high: Icahn likens the union head to Stalin; he's been vilified as Dracula.)

When confronted with Atlantic City's woes during the debate, Trump tried to bait Christie: "Chris can tell you, every company virtually in Atlantic City went bankrupt." But Christie stayed mum.

Republican Mayor Don Guardian demurred on an endorsement but said he was not surprised to hear his town mentioned in the debate. "I thought it might be from the governor, not Trump."

Whelan said: "I wish Christie had taken him to task" on the bankruptcies, 1,100 lost jobs, billions unpaid, "not just the big bankers."

From jitney drivers to casino executives, eyes roll as Christie checks in from New Hampshire while his attempts to save Atlantic City sputter along. Reuters reported that Christie's A.C. emergency manager's accountants billed $1.7 million. Five A.C. rescue bills have sat on his desk since June, unsigned.

"Chris Christie is derelict on the job," activist Kevin Boston posted on social media, hashtagged AtlanticCityMatters. He said A.C. could enlighten voters about both men.

Whelan recalls Trump as ruthless, bankrolling a nasty, prolonged campaign in the late '90s against him and others to fight a tunnel to Steve Wynn's marina project. "I don't think he has any ethics. Is that who you want for president?"

Having duked it out with both candidates, Whelan notes the irony. "Christie was going to be the straight talker," he said. "He's being outshouted by Donald Trump."

Santoro, who as security chief was with Trump constantly when he was in town, praised his business record. He wonders whether Trump will tire of the campaign.

"It's a lot for someone like Trump to devote that energy and time to when he has things that he does for pure enjoyment: owning golf courses, resorts, playing with the elite."

Now head of the city's state-run Special Improvement District, Santoro said he wasn't ready to endorse either Trump or Christie.

"I'm not sure that either one is really the right fit," he said.



Inquirer staff writer Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.