The recent election of Mayor Don Guardian marks a new era in leadership for Atlantic City. His ambitious plans to stabilize taxes, jump-start residential development, and revitalize neighborhoods may take years to complete, but for this longtime Shore resident, he’s taking it one day at a time.
Mayor Don Guardian is committed to improving the future of Atlantic City.
Just before nine o’clock on the morning of his 59th day in office, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian strides into the crowded lobby of Harrah’s ballroom, takes off his overcoat and brown homburg, and immediately begins shaking hands. Guardian is attending a breakfast forum at an annual two-day legislative conference spearheaded by the Southern New Jersey Development Council, and he is the morning’s most highly anticipated speaker. As he walks through the crowd, the swirling eye of a benevolent hurricane begins to take shape.
At every turn Guardian’s attention is in high demand. Everyone from Comcast executives to local politicians vies for even the slightest sliver of his time, and Guardian, a man of frequent smiles and self-deprecating asides, seems more than happy to oblige. Even if no one says it outright, there is a savior’s air to the man impeccably dressed in a navy blue suit, brown wing tips, and one of his myriad signature bow ties.
Despite the magnificent unlikelihood of his newfound tenure as the city’s first Republican mayor in 23 years—and an openly gay one at that—it’s understandable that the 60-year-old Guardian would generate so much excitement from his admirers. Not only are his affability and zeal stark contrasts to the stern and often-dour character of his predecessor, Lorenzo Langford, but Guardian’s positively giddy enthusiasm for the future comes at a time when the city needs it more than ever. Because Atlantic City is changing.
Throughout the past five years, gaming revenues have plummeted as the city’s casinos now face intense competition from new gambling hubs in Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. In 2013, casino winnings totaled just $2.86 billion, the lowest in 22 years.
What’s more, the city’s tax base has shrunk by a third since 2008, and when Guardian stepped into office this past January, he faced a projected $40 million budget deficit along with a 25 percent poverty rate. Disgruntled residents were tasked with shouldering the burden of a 22 percent tax increase in 2013.
And so it is with this weight that Guardian makes his way through the adoring crowd and takes a seat on a raised platform at the front of the ballroom, where he is flanked by several prominent South Jersey politicians and business leaders. After breakfast is served, the room quiets. It’s time for the mayor to speak.
“It’s kind of funny. In February of last year, I realized that after 59 years of my life, I finally developed the courage to come out of the closet and admit—I was a Republican.” The opening line receives a resounding swell of laughter as Guardian walks through the room, microphone in hand. “Look, there’s no doubt that I understand we’re in troubled waters. These aren’t easy times. They are tough. But if the city didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have hired me as mayor.”
In many ways Guardian’s startling victory on November 5 had been two decades in the making. After just five years at the Special Improvement District chatter had already begun surfacing that he should run for mayor. But Guardian always demurred. He was more than content in his current position. Besides, how could he ever win?
Mayor Don Guardian celebrates the American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day to raise awareness for heart health issues.
Raised in the North Jersey suburbs, Guardian more or less shunned political ambition, while working as executive assistant to the president of the Claridge Casino Hotel before joining the Special Improvement District. When the District came under the umbrella of the state-run Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in 2011, Guardian was responsible for sprucing up the tourism sector, which comprises about half of the entire city, while improving the quality of life for residents in the process. As the prospects of the economic outlook continued to dim, Guardian’s frustrations grew. Finally, his increasingly vocal angst reached its zenith one afternoon while attending a local Republican committee meeting in early 2013, and once again his colleagues pressured him to run. “They really hounded me,” he recalls. “But I told them I would only run if I thought I could win.”
If he was going to succeed against a 12-year incumbent who had a 9-to-1 voter registration advantage, Guardian needed a strategy. So he hypothesized that if he could take 500 votes from Langford while also garnering 2,500 votes of his own, the seat would be his. To find those votes Guardian turned to the city’s various ethnic communities of Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Pakistani, and Indian decent, going door-to-door throughout the summer and early fall to spread his message of stabilizing the city’s tax rate, eliminating poverty, and cleaning up neglected neighborhoods.
“I think it was this commitment to the multicultural aspects of Atlantic City that brought him success,” says Liza Cartmell, president of the nonprofit Atlantic City Alliance. “He focused on these neighborhoods and put together an interesting coalition of people who felt like their voices weren’t being heard.”
As the summer marched on, Guardian’s campaign began generating a buzz. Meanwhile, Langford behaved like victory was in the bag, failing to raise substantial funds and never really taking Guardian’s campaign seriously—until it was too late. By then Guardian was well on his way to becoming Atlantic City’s 49th mayor by a margin of 433 votes.
What’s most remarkable about his narrative is its emphasis on practicality. He doesn’t waste time demonizing the previous administration, casinos, or the new gaming competition in nearby states. Guardian is less concerned with the causality of blame than he is with the day-to-day execution of running one of New Jersey’s most important and beleaguered cities.
“I’m an organization guy,” he says. “I’m the last one to sit around for two years drawing up a master plan and then spending another year figuring out how to execute it without any real hope of ever getting it done. That’s lost on me.”
In a telling story, Guardian recalls how, on his third day as mayor, he rode shotgun with the city’s director of public works to visit various firehouses and gauge their preparedness for an impending snowstorm. During their trip, Guardian discovered one of the firehouses had no heat, and at a municipal meeting the following day, he asked why this was the case. “I heard all about FEMA and insurance and bidding,” he says. “So I said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. If we don’t have heat in that firehouse, you find me the person who is responsible, take his desk, and move it into that firehouse. And once they get heat, he can move back into his office.’ Then, miraculously, there was heat within a few days. That’s the philosophy I have: Just get it done.” Bob Berg, part of Guardian’s security detail agrees: “He’s got a heck of a change to make, but he’s doing a heck of a job. I call him the Peyton Manning of politics—he makes everybody around him better.”
Mayor Don Guardian cuts the ribbon at a ballet event sponsored by the Casino Redevelopment Authority.
Guardian helped revitalize a maligned park on Texas Avenue in 2012, a onetime safe haven for the city’s children that had devolved into a hotbed of drug and gang activity littered with liquor bottles and ubiquitous graffiti. According to Jazmyn Rivera, a lifelong Atlantic City resident and Guardian’s assistant for more than a decade, the future mayor not only cleaned up the park but also insisted upon secure gated fencing around its borders. “He had a vision,” Rivera says. “And then he put it into action.”
Walking into Harrah’s, Guardian breathlessly transitions from the heuristic nuts and bolts of municipal efficiency to the juggernaut challenges of his first term in office. For instance, as gaming revenues have nose-dived in recent years, many of the city’s casinos have successfully appealed their property tax assessments. The most crushing blow came in October, when the Borgata—the city’s largest taxpayer and top-grossing casino—was awarded a nearly $49 million property-tax refund. As a result the city has spent the past three years borrowing money to refund more than $250 million in casino property taxes. If the trend continues, Atlantic City tax revenue could plummet by more than $100 million per year.
This is where one begins to see the fusion of Guardian’s day-to-day practicality with the larger issues facing his city. If change is going to be real and applicable, it’s going to involve the entirety of Atlantic City, not just its most historically celebrated institutions. “For 30 years we had a monopoly on gaming,” he says. “You didn’t care if the streets were clean or the city was safe; you buzzed into the casino and that was it. But all of that is changing.”
So, too, has the relationship between the city and its casinos. “The last administration didn’t talk to us about our tax appeals,” says Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa President Tom Ballance. “It’s always been a wait-and-see game rather than a proactive one. But Mayor Guardian has already reached out to the industry in ways that we didn’t see in the past. He’s made it very clear he’ll negotiate and find some resolution and a more stable method of doing business.”
Ballance isn’t the only one who’s hopeful about the renewed spirit Guardian brings to the tax kerfuffle: “Everyone in the casino industry knows Don as someone who is not only approachable but fair-minded, intelligent, and trusted,” says CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri, who worked closely with Guardian for years. “Casinos understand that they need to go beyond gaming to give Atlantic City greater destination appeal and create a more robust environment. Don, having worked with them in the past, had a leg up coming into office.”
Guardian’s ambitious goals for his first year in office include asking the state for transitional aid and reducing the city’s budget. He also plans to give away land to up to 400 individuals to build homes and spearhead a 10-year mortgage forgiveness program.
All the while, he knows casinos will continue to be a chief economic engine for Atlantic City, but only if there is an increased focus on nongaming attractions such as live entertainment and dining. “We want to keep what we have and make it a success,” says Guardian, gesturing to Harrah’s virtually empty casino floor as he ascends an escalator to the ballroom lobby. “Five years ago there wouldn’t be an empty seat. If we don’t find ways to make our venues exciting again, we’ll be out of business.”
Although Guardian’s past made him the candidate and official he’s become, it’s now his present that is key to Atlantic City’s future. “I want to do everything now, but you have to do it one day at a time,” he says. “Atlantic City is going to be in good shape six years down the road. We say we want to look ahead to 2020, which is also another way of saying we have good vision, right? But don’t tell me what you want to see in 2020. Tell me what we are doing this month, this week, this morning, to get there."
photography by jeffrey stockbridge; MASTERPIECE ADVERTISING (BALL)