Atlantic City voters appear to reject a change of government

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — The “Boardwalk Empire” may have struck back.

It could be next week before all the votes are counted, but Atlantic City’s mayor declared victory Tuesday night in a special election in which early returns showed voters strongly rejecting a proposal to eliminate a mayor in favor of an appointed manager.

And the leader of the drive conceded defeat.

“The people have rejected change,” said Bob McDevitt, president of the main Atlantic City casino workers union. “We accept without qualification their decision.”

The election on a proposal to change Atlantic City’s form of government was conducted via mail because of the coronavirus outbreak, and additional votes will still be arriving at election headquarters through Thursday.

But the 4,260 votes counted on Tuesday were running more than 3-to-1 against the proposal, meaning voters were showing strong support for keeping the current system.

“We sent a loud and clear message that you can’t come into Atlantic City from out of town and tell us what form of government to choose,” Mayor Marty Small said Tuesday night. “This was about money-power versus people-power. We had no money at all. And we smoked them!”

The legacy of political corruption and ineptitude in this seaside resort is so long and colorful that HBO based a long-running hit series on it. And that history was part of a drive to wrest control from an elected mayor, a job title that has been met with mixed success at best in recent decades.

Small, a Democrat, took office in October after his predecessor, Frank Gilliam Jr., pleaded guilty to stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball team he founded. Gilliam, also a Democrat, became the fifth Atlantic City mayor to be busted on corruption charges since the 1970s. (On Tuesday, Gilliam’s sentencing date was postponed due to the virus outbreak yet again, until July. He was first due to appear in court in early January.)

A group calling itself Atlantic City Residents for Good Government collected petition signatures seeking a special election to force the changes. It was led by McDevitt; Morris Bailey, owner of Resorts Casino, and a retired state Senator, Raymond Lesniak.

The proposed change also would have shrunk the nine-member City Council to five, and voters would have lost the right to seek changes through initiative and referendum campaigns.

Backers of the change said a city manager would bring much-needed professionalism to City Hall. Opponents viewed it as yet another attempt by out-of-towners to seize power and money from a city led by minority officials.

McDevitt has called the long line of city administrations “a cartel of ignoramuses” that needs to be ousted before the city can grow and prosper.

Tuesday night, he predicted Small’s victory would be short-lived because he faces a July 7 Democratic primary in which party leadership endorsed one of Small’s challengers, Pamela Thomas-Fields.

The stakes are considerably higher than they were when the petition drive began last fall: the coronavirus outbreak has shuttered all nine of Atlantic City’s casinos, devastating the local economy and blowing a huge hole in the city’s financial projections, as is the case with local and state governments around the country.

On Wednesday, state gambling regulators will release April revenue figures for the casinos, whose in-person premises were shut down for the entire month. The numbers are sure to be the worst in the 42-year history of legalized gambling here.


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