Mayor's daily, early-morning check of A.C.'s pulse

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian (left) takes an early-morning bike ride on the Boardwalk in front of the Trump Taj Mahal with spouse Louis Fatato during his daily tour of the city. His surprise election seemed a moment when Atlantic City paused in free fall to see if it might save itself. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian (left) takes an early-morning bike ride on the Boardwalk in front of the Trump Taj Mahal with spouse Louis Fatato during his daily tour of the city. His surprise election seemed a moment when Atlantic City paused in free fall to see if it might save itself. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - Every mayor of this vexing town deals with its ghosts at some point and maybe that is why they are drawn to very physically take in the entire place every day.

Jim Whelan rowed or swam around the city's back bay and ocean. Lorenzo Langford walked the Boardwalk in a track suit.

Now, it is Don Guardian's turn. And sure enough, this Atlantic City mayor's days begin with a 6:30 a.m. bicycle ride the length of the Boardwalk and back to his home near Gardner's Basin.

It is a day that, like most since taking office in January, carries him along like a stormy sea, throwing him rip currents (city's in junk-bond status!), some organized waves to surf (big-time developer settles into mayoral armchair to play medium hardball over a key piece of land the city wants), against a horizon of casinos in the intensive-care unit, but for once includes some meals.

As usual, it ends back on his narrow porch with longtime partner and new husband (they wed July 11) Louis Fatato, sharing cigars and fancy beer, watching, as Fatato says, "the drunks leave Back Bay Ale house" for amusement.

Last week, Whelan stood rattled by his own equivocation on a casino for North Jersey, and Langford, now in a jogging routine as ex-mayor, ran right past the mayor's bicycle brigade one humid morning with a chilly non-hello.

Guardian, the man now charged with the impossible but endlessly beguiling task of steering Atlantic City toward its next incarnation, or at least hanging on as the Frankenstein-esque place lurches around, seemed the least stressed of anyone on the island.

"Sorry about your tax bill!" the 61-year-old Puma-sneakered mayor calls from his bicycle to a man he knows on the Boardwalk. It is barely 7 a.m.

"I didn't open it yet!" the man calls back.

That man might be the only one in town. The day before, the phone rang on executive assistant Jazmyn Rivera's desk with unhappy taxpayers looking at their first bills with the city's 32 percent hike.

Guardian is not a solitary man, and his bike entourage consists of Fatato, 48, a Borgata spa manager; neighbor Patti McDonnell; and police officer Richard Hood, who will also man the 110,000-miled sedan. Solicitor Jason Holt (from East Orange, now also business administrator) and his son at times ride.

Guardian's route takes him along Maine Avenue in the inlet, where a small, crumbling section of the Boardwalk ripped apart during Sandy. It is being rebuilt.

He enters the Boardwalk near Revel, rides to the Ventnor border. He will do a check of the beach - cleaning crews rake all night long - and under the Boardwalk. Fatato will check restrooms. There are fewer homeless on the benches; a new intake system sends many back to home counties. The routine dates to Guardian's two decades as head of Atlantic City's Special Improvement District. News is not all bleak. Panasonic is sponsoring an LED and screenscape; streetlights will move to neighborhoods. He wants gays and second homes back, midrises, parks addict-free. Overall crime is down 40 percent.

His house was built 20 years ago in a forgotten example of casino redevelopment funds creating a thriving middle-class neighborhood. "This should have happened all over the city," he says.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney says Guardian reminds him of Ed Rendell in gregariousness; on this day, after lunch with Sweeney and dinner with the Rotarians, maybe the food, too.

His open-door policy allots the same 30 minutes to poet laureate Mahdi Samaad (he's got a city proclamation, wants a stipend) as to high-powered attorneys Gordon Gemma and Lloyd Levinson, double-teaming Guardian for Kushner Development Group, which owns back-bay land the city needs for an Inner Harbor redo.

Guardian chats with Guy Petinga, a second-generation city employee who oversees the electric division, tries to untangle flow charts. He appears on New York radio, meets with Sweeney. He humors a mobile parking-meter salesman, brought by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In the late afternoon, he brings up casino workers union leader Bob McDevitt to sit and talk, dishing scenarios involving Dubai, China, Stockton College, implosion, preservation, slots, no slots, bowling, whales (high rollers), corporate bluffs, grim truths. Caesars chief Kevin Ortzman rings on cell, is told to talk to McDevitt as Showboat's closing date nears.

There are possible buyers for Revel, Showboat, and Atlantic Club, the faintest of one for Trump Plaza. They circle the spoils of a lost casino monopoly. The $2 billion Revel will go to auction at a $50 million starting bid. "It's a fire sale," Guardian says, playing huckster.

With 7,000 jobs in the balance, he knows buyers can fade as quickly as the black clouds that appeared one dusk over Revel, the metaphor staring at him through big seventh-floor mayoral windows.

Guardian says he wants to change the city's culture, like ordering graffiti removed by the employee who spots it; no more convoluted work orders. He's not counting the famously tagged washed up whale.

"The seagulls plucked out the eyes, there was blood boiling out of the sockets," the ever loquacious Guardian remembers, never one to resist the retelling of a classic story. His arsenal careens from beer-brewing monks to his invite to a White House LGBT bill-signing ("I thought at first it was the sub shop," he said, of the A.C. landmark) to cocaine-ingesting old lady Croatians (don't ask).

"I thought, 'Jersey's tough for everyone.' "

Asked when he has time for his big thinking, Guardian pauses: "I don't know."

He knows this city, for its 40,000 population, assumes supersize tasks. He estimates 10,000 undocumented workers. The night of the annual lifeguard races, two casino workers died in a fire two blocks away, relatives collapsing on him in grief.

Beach Patrol Chief Rod Aluise reported "369 rescues, 257 medical cases, 180 kids lost," then told him, "It's a good summer."

"That's Atlantic City," Guardian says.

The absurdities are ever present: a plan to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club with a text-a-dollar contest to win a Blake Shelton-signed guitar was nixed as "Internet gaming."

But he is a big-thinking guy, a Russian history major of Croatian descent, a former executive with the Boy Scouts of America, a gay Roman Catholic newlywed Eagle Scout mayor whose husband makes him a huge breakfast every morning while he is relegated to the "toys" - grinding the coffee, making the pasta. He's a faithful Rotarian, improbably winding up a day where the city's bond status collapsed by paying a couple of dollars to offer good news in Rotary ritual. ("I ended up next to the chief of staff for Michelle Obama.")

Raised in West New York, N.J., marooned in South Jersey for 25 years, he's got the hip cultural references of a transplant, from talk about the transformation of Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood to the Navy Yard renaissance in Philly (he envisions something similar for A.C.'s Bader Field, with just one cool company to jump-start the thing). He and Fatato went to Nigeria on a Rotary service trip, and amused themselves by snapping pictures of a bobblehead of local icon Pinky Kravitz, which they took with them.

He still wears the bow tie every day because it seems expected. His suits are selected by Fatato; their wedding attire was khaki suits, blue-checked ties, red flip flops and matching fedoras. It was presided over by A.C.'s original gay pol, John Schultz.

Is there a smaller town that ensnares so many in its dramas? Is there a lovelier place for a mayor to start the day, only to hear bad things about the same place all day long?

Guardian likes to evoke the city's "forefathers - who built this town for people to come and play." And oh what forefathers! Nucky Johnson, Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, Frank Sinatra, Skinny D'Amato, all the families of the island whose names still grace mastheads and city payrolls, lifeguard stands and law firms, where nearly everyone is an echo of someone before, where old hotels exist in memories and film. Guardian's surprise election seemed a moment when the legendary City of Atlantic City paused in free fall to see if it might save itself.

He'll leave the tossing and turning to others, let the casino bosses worry about their next whale, the hedge funds their bottom line, the lawmakers their loyalties. He will move his piece around the board, try to build on properties. Inside the little home with its Monopoly card house number, across from a part of Atlantic City that, really, people ought to visit before they write the place off, what with its clamming boats, epic breakfast, reggae bands, Morris Day and the Time concerts, divey surfer bar, Miss America at the aquarium, food trucks, and killer sunsets over the happy island of Borgata, this mayor will sleep peacefully.

He will go over the day with his husband with beer and cigars, leaving out only the part about junk-bond status. (Why dwell?) Then Atlantic City's first couple and maybe its last chance will fall fast asleep, Fatato says, "like two babies."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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