ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — His city is a half-billion dollars in debt, its casino industry continues to shrink, and the state has seized most of his power.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian must walk an almost impossible tightrope this year: submitting to painful, deeply unpopular measures the state insists on to improve the city's finances, while answering to voters who are chafing under those same measures.
In seeking a second four-year term (to the puzzlement of many longtime friends), Guardian faces unique disadvantages his foes are not burdened with in an election that promises to be like few others. The deadline to file for the mayoral race isn't until April, but Guardian, a Republican in a heavily Democratic city, already has three declared opponents.
It might seem crazy for anyone to want to run this city, whose casino industry is crumbling, where unemployment is rampant, and which now has to get the approval of a state overseer for all but the smallest decisions. Since 2014, five casinos have closed, putting 11,000 workers out of jobs, and gambling revenue plunged for a decade before mounting a slight increase last year.
"This is the best job I ever had," Guardian said. "I love coming to work each day; I know you think I'm crazy for that."
Yet he realizes he has the unenviable task of serving two masters — the voters and fellow Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration — neither of which is very happy right now.
"You balance it," he said. "You fight for what you think is right. It's tough."
Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, said Guardian's efforts to improve his city's finances while fighting off a state takeover are well documented.
"The track record he has is that in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles, he made a very strong statewide case for a different path for Atlantic City," she said. "This is a man who inherited a really, really difficult set of circumstances. People in the city can plausibly say that Atlantic City is in a worse-off situation, but the more nuanced argument is: Is it Don Guardian's fault?"
David Muhammad, a lifelong Atlantic City resident, says no. He's not sure who he'll vote for, but he does not hold Guardian responsible for the state takeover.
"He did the best he could with what was on his plate," Muhammad said. "The state already wanted to takeover before he was even in office."
Bill Ford says he will not vote for Guardian due to local neighborhood concerns. But he, too, exonerates the mayor for the state takeover.
"I don't believe he could have done anything to stop the state from taking over," said Ford, another lifelong resident. "It's not him; this was Christie's deal all the way."
Christie's administration said the takeover was necessary because the city was unable or unwilling to make difficult decisions to tame its finances and reduce its debt of about a half-billion dollars. One of the state's first major moves on behalf of the city was negotiating a deal with its top casino, the Borgata, under which the city will pay $72 million, less than half of what it owed the casino from a series of successful tax appeals.
Two city councilmen, Marty Small and Frank Gilliam, have already announced their candidacy for the Democratic nomination, and Fareed Abdullah, a substitute teacher and frequent City Council candidate, is running as well. So far, Guardian has no declared challengers for the GOP nomination.
Guardian won election in 2013 over Democrat Lorenzo Langford as the first Republican mayor in a generation in Atlantic City, where Democrats comprise 55 percent of the city's nearly 21,000 registered voters, and Republicans account for just 9 percent.
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC