Voters in Atlantic City appear to have resoundingly rejected efforts, spearheaded by one casino owner, the casino workers’ union, and a former North Jersey legislator to change the way they govern their seaside city.

Because Tuesday’s election was entirely vote-by-mail due to the coronavirus shutdown, ballots postmarked by Tuesday and received by Atlantic County officials within 48 hours of the election must still be counted.

But results released Tuesday night showed a commanding lead for the “Vote No” side, led by Mayor Marty Small Sr. and other elected officials as well as a coalition of neighborhood groups.

The preliminary tally showed 3,275 “no” votes and 985 “yes” votes.

“Listen, it was never in doubt,” said Small, who will now face a primary challenge from Pamela Thomas-Fields in July. Small became mayor in October after Mayor Frank Gilliam pleaded guilty in federal court to defrauding a youth basketball league and resigned.

Small campaigned vigorously to defeat the referendum, branding it as another effort by outsiders to take power away from residents. The city is still under a state takeover, opposed by many of the same people who fought against this referendum question.

The effort to change the government was funded primarily by Morris Bailey, owner of Resorts Casino, who contributed nearly $280,000, and was run by Bob McDevitt, head of Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers union. Their PAC, Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, spent more than $400,000 on the effort.

Under their plan, Atlantic City’s nine-member council, six members of which represent individual wards, and full-time mayor would have been replaced by five at-large council members, who would appoint a manager to run the city.

“It’s been hanging over our heads for over a year,” said Small. “It was a distraction, but important not to be distracted. A lot of people drank the yes-vote Kool-Aid.”

McDevitt, who marshaled his 10,000-member union to file petitions and then campaign for the change in government, issued a statement Tuesday night conceding that the early returns appeared to be determinative.

He, along with former State Sen. Ray Lesniak and former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, had argued that the current government system has led to longstanding corruption and has been incapable of bringing lasting improvement to the city.

Bob McDevitt, left, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union, speaks to reporters outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City N.J. in 2016. McDevitt is one of the leaders of an effort to change Atlantic City's form of government by eliminating an elected mayor in favor of an appointed city manager.
Wayne Parry / AP
Bob McDevitt, left, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union, speaks to reporters outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City N.J. in 2016. McDevitt is one of the leaders of an effort to change Atlantic City's form of government by eliminating an elected mayor in favor of an appointed city manager.

“After the first night of counting the ballots, it is clear that the referendum to change the government structure in Atlantic City will be defeated by a wide margin even though counting continues,” he said.

“The citizens of Atlantic City have spoken,” he said. “There are many challenges ahead for Atlantic City as we begin to reopen businesses on the heels of the devastating pandemic. We wish the elected officials well in their struggles ahead.… The people have rejected change and we accept without qualification their decision.”

Lesniak said via text on Wednesday that he had overestimated the reach of the casino workers’ union, underestimated the local political organization, and “overestimated our ability to engage voters to participate in a reform movement.”

Asked where the money went, Lesniak said, “Field and mailers,” and also “legal fees.”

Atlantic City Clerk Paula Geletei said the results would be certified after final results are tallied. Tuesday’s results showed the question failing in every precinct.