In Atlantic City, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nine to one, voters signaled a desire for change when they elected Republican Don Guardian mayor in 2013. Guardian had stated candidly and correctly that the city needed to fashion a new economy because the old one, based on casinos, was waning.
Even as a third of the city's 12 casinos closed during his first year in office, Guardian seemed to be making the right moves. He has cut the budget, embraced heightened state fiscal supervision, and, unlike his insular predecessor, reached out to experts and Gov. Christie.
In spite of this progress, Christie last week made the grand gesture of appointing a pair of outside overseers for the city: an emergency manager, Kevin Lavin, and a special consultant, Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy expert who just finished wrapping up Detroit's fiscal disaster. Credit-rating agencies reacted swiftly, downgrading the city's debt as analysts wondered whether it was preparing to default.
Guardian initially resisted the idea of an emergency manager but has since expressed more openness to it. While the appointment falls short of a Camden-style state takeover, its implications could be significant. Some expect the manager to help the city lay off workers and renegotiate contracts and debt. State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said last week that Christie's move suggests the city is headed toward bankruptcy.
Others wonder whether the appointments herald an infusion of state funds, not a penny of which should be used to subsidize the casinos. Analysts figure the city can sustain only half a dozen casinos. The market should sort that out, not politicians.
Of course, Christie's "aggressive action," as he called it, could also serve to help him look like he's doing something about Atlantic City while he skips down the presidential campaign trail.
Regardless, while the appointment of an emergency team embellishes works already in progress at the behest of the mayor and state officials, it does not begin to cut a path toward what Atlantic City needs most, which is a sustainable economy. A revival would require a new economic model, a plan for building it, and the political will to act on it. In a study last year, "The Metropolitan Revolution," experts at the Brookings Institution considered some of the ways cities and regions have boosted their economies.