A.C. mayor-elect vows better relationships with state, casinos

Mayor-elect Don Guardian (left) with city businessman Joshua Levin outside his campaign headquarters.
Mayor-elect Don Guardian (left) with city businessman Joshua Levin outside his campaign headquarters. (GREGG KOHL)
Posted: November 08, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY - Talk about shuffling the deck.

In an unexpected outcome, voters replaced two-term incumbent and Gov. Christie foe Mayor Lorenzo Langford with an openly gay Republican who rides a bicycle to work and whose current job is with the state board that oversees the governor's Tourism District.

"Atlantic City is amazing at how it reinvents itself," Mayor-elect Don Guardian said Wednesday in a bit of understatement to supporters and media at his Atlantic Avenue headquarters.

The 60-year-old Guardian, an Eagle Scout who came to Atlantic City from Bergen County to be an executive with the local Boy Scouts, has spent 20 years as head of the city's Special Improvement District, a division of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees the state Tourism District.

Langford, who referred to the establishment of that district as "apartheid," and who feuded with Christie to such an extent it was mocked on Saturday Night Live, has been a longtime fixture in city politics. He saw himself as a defender of neighborhoods in a town dominated by casinos.

Langford did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, and Guardian said he had not spoken with him. Langford conceded to supporters Tuesday night.

As for Christie, he said Wednesday: "I'm grateful that Lorenzo Langford is gone, and that should be no shock to anyone. I think he's been a negative force for Atlantic City."

The supporters who celebrated Guardian's win Tuesday night at the Tun Tavern were a diverse cross section of the current makeup of Atlantic City, including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Vietnamese shop owners, Latino teachers and casino workers, young entrepreneurs like Mike Hauke of Tony Baloney's, and African Americans who broke ranks with Langford to work for Guardian. Many boasted of working until all hours of the night, knocking on doors day after day. The campaign registered 800 new voters.

"We worked for months," said Saleh Ahmed, a Bangledeshi owner of the Body Oil & Variety store on Atlantic Avenue. "I know Mr. Guardian is the best man for the job."

Guardian said he would add "10 or 12 languages" to city websites in deference to the city's immigrant population and would streamline permitting to encourage development.

He vowed better relations with the state, and with casinos, including the Borgata, which recently won a major tax-appeal case and is now owed a potentially devastating refund of more than $50 million from the city.

Guardian said the Borgata and seven other casinos had reached out to him Wednesday in a spirit of detente. "We need to be back at the table," he said. Guardian said the Borgata had initially proposed a less costly settlement that the city rejected.

Guardian's other ideas include a revival of Kentucky Avenue, the historic center of African American culture in the city, to become like Beale Street in Memphis, and transforming another part into an international street bazaar.

He acknowledged more sobering problems, including a bottoming-out casino industry; the continuing impact from Hurricane Sandy, which he called devastating; and a recovery complicated by undocumented residents, illegal apartments, and poverty. "I visited homes that have no floors and no ceilings, and all the people asked me was not to report them," he said.

Despite electing a Republican mayor, voters nonetheless returned three Democrats to City Council at-large seats, all of whom received more votes than Langford. Unofficial results had Guardian with 3,066 votes, or 50.14 percent, to Langford's 2,904, or 47.49 percent. The last time the city had a Republican mayor was in 1990, with James Usry.

"I think it was the perfect storm of incidents that hurt the mayor," said Kaleem Shabazz, a public relations officer in Atlantic City who voted for Langford. He cited the Borgata ruling and a verdict against the city in a lawsuit by its ex-police chief.

"Once you get to a third term, people get wary," Shabazz said. "Everybody can see the [Special Improvement District] is well-run. Now people will look to see if he can expand that to neighborhoods."

Some longtime Langford supporters worried about people's jobs in the city, and that Guardian would leave them out of his plans. Some even worried he would end or change popular concerts at Gardiner's Basin.

"That's just the state taking over our city," said Jamil Abdullah, 25, of the city's Westside section.

But Guardian said he had no plans for layoffs, and would try to reduce the number of city employees through attrition. He said he would seek sponsors for the concerts, held in his inlet neighborhood.

Guardian said that despite his employment, he was not a secret candidate of Christie's, and had never met the governor, which Christie confirmed.

He vowed to bring his attention to detail and improvement to the rest of Atlantic City. "I see my job as mayor as being outside, walking seven days a week at night, walking your neighborhoods," he said.

The bow-tied Guaradian arrived at headquarters Wednesday in a jitney. He plans no fancy inaugural ball on New Year's Day after being sworn in. His campaign said he would attend Mass at St. Michael's, then take a cavalcade of jitneys to the Ducktown Tavern, where the party will be held in heated tents.

He will end his employment with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority before taking office.

Judah Dorrington, daughter of Atlantic City African American pro-hockey pioneer Art Dorrington, who took Guardian door to door in her mostly black Westside neighborhood, said the gathering at the tavern showed a new Atlantic City: "a multicultural town working together."

Said another business owner: "This is a stay of execution for the city."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

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