Atlantic City still haunted by Nucky

Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, a Prohibition-era power in Atlantic City, is the central figure in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, a Prohibition-era power in Atlantic City, is the central figure in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

A corruption trial and a failed tribute echo his impact.

Posted: October 10, 2010

ATLANTIC CITY - The City Council last week rejected a plan to rename a street after Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, one of the most corrupt political figures ever to stroll this city's famous Boardwalk.

Johnson, whose life and times are being recounted - with lots of literary license - in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, would have been memorialized with the renaming of Belmont Avenue as Nucky's Way.

But only three of the nine council members voted in favor of the idea, the rest deciding that the move would not be good for the city's image.

The name change was being considered as:

Jury selection was getting under way in yet another Atlantic City political corruption case, this one involving allegations of voter fraud in the last mayoral election.

A former councilman was pursuing a lawsuit against the city and several former council mates after he was set up and secretly videotaped having sex with a hooker in a seedy motel.

The state was completing a plan to take control of the city's casino zones after years of local governmental incompetence and corruption.

(In the last three years, a mayor and three councilmen have been convicted and forced to leave office. Since the dawn of the casino era in 1978, three mayors have been indicted and one has been sentenced to prison for conspiring to sell his office to the mob.)

There are those who believe that corruption is part of the city's political DNA and trace the source to the Nucky Johnson era.

Johnson, whose colorful career spanned Prohibition and the age of Atlantic City as a premier resort, epitomized the fast-and-loose mentality that allowed corruption - and, some would argue, the city - to flourish.

He was a friend of power brokers, deal-makers, and gangsters, part of an Atlantic City that didn't play by the rules.

Councilman Dennis Mason said he had proposed renaming the street not to celebrate Johnson's corruption, but to acknowledge his accomplishments. He also admitted that he hoped to cash in on the popularity of the HBO series.

"It's not so much about honoring the man," Mason told the Press of Atlantic City when he proposed the idea. "It's taking advantage of all the hype and publicity."

Mason was just as philosophical when the motion was voted down Wednesday and is talking about other promotions linked to the Boardwalk Empire buzz.

That series both glamorizes and distorts the Johnson era, according to those familiar with the city back in the day. There is considerably more violence in the series than there was in reality, but the corruption and the Johnson character - Nucky Thompson, portrayed by Steve Buscemi - are accurate depictions.

"He was a great organizer," said former State Sen. William Gormley, a local lawyer whose family roots in the city stretch back to that era.

Even before the council vote, Gormley said he was ambivalent about the street proposal.

No one wants to celebrate the corruption, he said, but the idea had "Damon Runyon-type marketability . . . tipping your hat to the positive parts of another era."

Johnson is credited with getting Convention Hall built on the Boardwalk and turning the resort into a major tourist attraction.

And while there were booze and prostitution and gambling - all illegal at the time - the streets were safe, and the government functioned.

Two of those three vices are now legal in the city, and the third is still flourishing. But safe streets and government efficiency are problematic.

The ongoing corruption trial and the sex-tape civil suit are examples of the kind of local politics that led Gov. Christie to seek a state takeover.

Gormley, a Christie supporter, had nothing but praise for the move, which, he said, harked back to the Johnson era.

In the 1920s nothing could happen without Johnson's approval. But if you had it, nothing could stop you.

In the new era, a state authority would be able to make the decisions, streamlining development and making the city more attractive to Wall Street investors now sitting on piles of money in the stalled economy.

That, Gormley said, would get both the casino industry and the city back on track.

"Who would have ever thought that the person who has consolidated power in this city the way Nucky had would be a former federal prosecutor?" Gormley said, referring to Christie. "Nucky would be rolling over in his grave."

Actually, he is buried in a mausoleum in a cemetery just outside the city, which may soon become part of a Nucky Johnson tour, but that's another story.

Meanwhile, a jury is being picked to hear testimony about ballot manipulation in the 2009 Democratic mayoral primary.

The lead defendant is Councilman Martin Small. Other defendants include several political allies of Craig Callaway, the disgraced former council president, who recently returned to Atlantic City after serving nearly five years in prison on corruption and extortion charges.

The case includes allegations that absentee ballots were altered to favor Small or, in other instances, shredded if they were for another candidate. A "secret army" of Callaway supporters, according to the state, helped carry out the scheme.

One of Callaway's brothers and another top associate, both convicted last year in the sex-tape case, are among the codefendants.

Small, who finished third in a three-man primary, said he'd had nothing to do with any ballot shenanigans.

"I can't wait to tell my side of the story," the young councilman said during a break in a pretrial hearing last week.

This is the second time he has been charged in a fraud case involving absentee ballots. The last case ended with a jury deliberating for about 30 minutes before finding him not guilty.

All of this has left Thomas Quirk, another Small codefendant, perplexed and disillusioned.

Quirk, 58, grew up in Atlantic City with a passion for sports and politics. He has a sports collectibles business and has helped run nearly two dozen political campaigns, local to congressional.

He joined the Small campaign a month before Election Day, brought in to try to bring some order to what he described in his grand-jury testimony as a "rudderless ship."

Quirk has denied any wrongdoing, but on the advice of his lawyer declined to comment on the case.

Several individuals who know him say Quirk has more political savvy than any of his codefendants and would not have gotten involved in ballot manipulation. Quirk, those sources said, plays politics, but he plays by the rules.

When asked about his political upbringing last week after a pretrial hearing, Quirk smiled and told a story about Johnson.

Quirk said his grandmother had moved to Atlantic City in the 1930s, a single mother trying to raise four young children, one of them his father.

That first winter in the city, he said, the ward leader knocked on her door.

"He told her there would be a load of coal delivered to the house," Quirk said. "Enough to get through the winter. And he told her there was a basket of groceries waiting for her at the corner store. All compliments of Nucky Johnson. And, if she needed anything else, she should just let Mr. Johnson know.

"Needless to say," Quirk said, "Nucky could always count on my grandmother's vote."

That was Nucky's way, he said, and it is part of the city's legacy, whether or not a street is named to acknowledge it.


Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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