Sweeney, Guardian flaunt detente in Atlantic City

N.J. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (left) laughs with Atlantic City Mayor-elect Don Guardian during lunch Wednesday at the White House Sub Shop, where they worked on renewing city-state ties.
N.J. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (left) laughs with Atlantic City Mayor-elect Don Guardian during lunch Wednesday at the White House Sub Shop, where they worked on renewing city-state ties. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 22, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY - They met on hallowed ground, the White House Sub Shop, squeezed into an orange booth beneath photographs of two of the city's esteemed elder statesmen: Jerry Lewis and Johnny Mathis.

But this was no mere lunch date between friends at the iconic meeting place at Arctic and Mississippi. This was the literal thawing of the icy relationship between the State of New Jersey and the City of Atlantic City under outgoing Mayor Lorenzo Langford.

Bringing State Senate President Stephen Sweeney together with Mayor-elect Don Guardian - Wednesday's lunch was their third meeting since Guardian's surprise victory - was a booking bigger than the stuffed Italian sub special Sweeney ordered. (Guardian ordered a cheesesteak.)

Sweeney, a Democrat, said he'd had zero meetings with fellow Democrat Langford as Senate president. Guardian is a Republican.

The two revealed that their second meeting had been in Trenton and included Gov. Christie, whose relationship with Langford was so contemptuous it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live.

Both men hailed their cordiality and willingness to stage the iconic photo op at the White House - to Atlantic City what the Famous 4th Street Deli in Philadelphia is for politicians - as a new era of cooperation between the struggling casino town and the state that means to rescue it if it's the last thing it does.

Guardian, a Republican who stunned the entrenched Democrats with a successful coalition that drew on the city's vast ethnic minorities, from Bangladeshi to Colombian, said he was "thrilled to death" with the attention from the powerful Sweeney, who was tailed by a large press corps in town for the League of Municipalities Convention.

"He's a South Jersey boy," said Guardian, looking dapper in a black overcoat, black fedora and wool Versace scarf, as people called out to him from passing cars. "He wants the best for Atlantic City."

For his part, Sweeney said: "I'm thrilled to have someone who's caring and focused. The city was always resistant. We had a local government that didn't want to participate in the solution. We can't afford to have this community fail."

Langford could not be reached for comment. His sister, Cheryl Banks, who works as his aide in his office, said of the negative comments about Langford from Sweeney: "It's to be expected."

Guardian said he would work to get "cranes in the sky, new development projects, ratables, permanent decent jobs for residents."

He said he would sit down with casino executives to work out how to handle recent and future tax appeals that have left the city with a monstrous tax debt, including $50 million owed to Borgata. He said he thought a settlement could be reached that would allow the city to avoid taking out loans to repay the taxes.

"I don't think they want to shut down the city," he said.

Both men said they were hopeful that Internet gaming - set to begin a trial period at 6 p.m. Thursday - would create revenue for casinos, among other strategies, including bringing in more midweek conventions.

"I want them to make a boatload of money," Guardian said. "And I need them to share some of that money."

Sweeney said he was still hoping the state would be able to bring sports betting to Atlantic City - a court fight that is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he pointed to new United Airlines service to Atlantic City International Airport as having the potential to draw from markets beyond the casino-saturated East Coast.

As for Christie's five-year plan to turn around Atlantic City, now halfway through with the city still in dire straits, a challenged casino economy and a newly downgraded bond rating from a pessimistic Moody's - Sweeney asked for time.

"Give us the rest of the time," he said. "It's not going to be Detroit. We're making it better. Everyone will tell you the Boardwalk is cleaner, brighter. We have to show progress."

Guardian, whose job as director of the Special Improvement District meant he was already working for the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, controlled by Christie's Tourism District, said he was already appreciative of what Christie had brought to town - a presence that Langford had dismissed as "apartheid" that neglected residential neighborhoods.

"I was impressed with the governor reaching out to Atlantic City," Guardian said. "Any mayor in the state of New Jersey would love to have that participation."

Except, perhaps, for the mayor Guardian replaces on New Year's Day.


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

www.inquirer.com/downashore

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