Can astonishing acrimony over Atlantic City give way to deal?
Atlantic City’s financial crisis was years in the making — the dwindling values of casinos driving down property tax collections, opening a gaping deficit in municipal finances and ballooning the city’s debt.
Aggravating the situation is the political divide in Trenton, with Gov. Chris Christie negotiating a deal with Senate President Stephen Sweeney while the Assembly speaker remains on the outside looking in.
Speaker Vincent Prieto opted not to go along with the bipartisan deal. Whether union politics are at play, or 2017 gubernatorial politics, or plain old-fashioned personal dislike among the player, Prieto remains opposed — and the ugly fight hasn’t quite been resolved, though the temperature last week was lowered and signs of compromise began to peek out.
Of course, things started with an apparent compromise. Recall January, when Mayor Don Guardian stood with Christie to announce the deal. That fell apart in a hurry.
“It reached a level of acrimony and personal animosity that even by the standards we’ve been accustomed to in New Jersey politics was pretty astonishing," said analyst Carl Golden of Stockton University’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy.
"Some of the things that were being said – throwing around words like 'fascist' and 'liar' and all of that,” said Golden, who was press secretary for Gov. Tom Kean for eight years and communications director for Gov. Christie Whitman.
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Guardian was elected, surprisingly, on the same day Christie won his second term in 2013, sending a wave of excitement through Christie’s election-night party in Asbury Park, given not only that Guardian is a Republican but also the administration’s rocky relationship with then-Mayor Lorenzo Langford.
A little over two years later, Christie was calling Guardian a liar, although last week he mostly sought to defuse their war of words. Guardian says Christie changed the terms of their deal in January, which Christie says he hammered out by phone in hours of calls from New Hampshire with the mayor and Sweeney.
Absent from those calls was Prieto, who also wasn’t invited to the news conference where it was announced. He says that doesn’t bother him, but he does mention the slight. And he says his staff’s suggestions for the proposal during its development months ago were ignored.
“The Assembly has to be relevant,” Prieto told reporters April 4. “We have not had a discussion. We’re being dictated.”
“It’s the governor disrespecting the Assembly, and it’s the governor disrespecting local leaders,” said Guardian.
"There was an attempt to steamroll the Assembly and to bulldoze Atlantic City, and it would have went through rather quickly if not for one person, and that's Speaker Prieto," said Assemblyman Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen.
Golden said not just Prieto but rank-and-file Assembly members took umbrage at being told what to do.
“I think there was some resentment there, that they felt that they were being treated unfairly,” Golden said. “You know, it’s the old saying: If you don’t have a seat at the table, the chances are, you’re on the menu.’ And I think that that’s how they felt.”
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said the issue isn’t the first time Christie clashed with Prieto, pointing to topics like the budget, the millionaires’ tax and the minimum wage. But it’s the first time in more than six plus years that a disagreement has unfolded the way it has this time.
“Throughout Gov. Christie’s tenure in office, we’ve seen him at odds at different points in time with the Democratic leadership,” Harrison said. “But I think that this is really a remarkable situation in that there seems to be a pretty deep level of cohesion among the North Jersey Democrats and building a coalition with some of the Republican legislators.”
The back-and-forth between Christie and Prieto has at times been personal — and as Harrison put it, “the politics is really taking precedent over the policy.”
Among their volleys:
- Christie on Prieto: Doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Thinks we’re all stupid. Playing union politics for his political boss, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, and his own political ambitions. Broke a promise to post the bill for a vote.
- Prieto on Christie: Misrepresenting a private conversation. My-way-or-the-highway. Letting Atlantic City wither by refusing to exercise powers he’s granted by state law. Ignoring the Assembly. Violating civil rights and workers' rights.
Harrison said she thinks Christie is partially right about 2017 politics being part of the equation, though not as much Fulop — who, like Sweeney, is a potential gubernatorial candidate — pulling the strings as North Jersey wanting to block George Norcross, whose brother is a lobbyist for a water company that might seek to purchase Atlantic City’s water utility.
“I think that North Jersey is trying to say to Sweeney with his gubernatorial ambitions, you know, ‘Not so fast,’ particularly when it would seem that there this kind of greedy effort to kind of take over parts of Atlantic City,” Harrison said.
As for a the union politics, here’s a hint as to how connected that is: At Thursday’s Assembly committee hearing where changes to Prieto’s plan were approved, 14 union representatives testified in favor, and another dozen in attendance submitted slips indicating their support but opted not to testify.
Prieto sponsors a bill under which a Planning Committee, which would be controlled by Christie administration officials but also include Atlantic City elected officials, would set financial benchmarks for the city. The city would then forfeit powers to the committee if it didn’t meet those goals. Union contracts couldn’t be broken unless the city missed its marks in two years.
Last Thursday, Christie said he would consider other options on the Atlantic City intervention, though he maintains his preference for the immediate takeover bill that passed the Senate.
A day earlier, Sweeney said he planned to make changes to that bill giving city officials 130 days to approve a legally binding plan that would cut municipal spending nearly in half — to the equivalent of $3,500 per resident, down from the current $6,700. City officials say that’s unrealistic.
“Right now I would say that Prieto really seems to have the leverage,” Harrison said. “We saw the governor, perhaps unwillingly, allude to the fact that he may have to compromise, and that’s a much different tone than he struck over the past several months.”
Though there’s no deal yet, Golden said “there’s some glimmer of hope” that the conversation has shifted to policy rather than personal acrimony.
“The good news is that at least they are now talking about compromise, whereas for the past month or so, it’s been more talk about capitulation,” Golden said.
Harrison said there will have to be a compromise.
“I think that there has to be some negotiations, but I think that Prieto has really stood up and made it clear that he’s not going to allow Christie and Sweeney to run ramshod over the city,” Harrison said Friday.
“I think that you can hear that gratitude when you talk to both city leaders but also city residents and workers of the city. I was just in Atlantic City this morning and people are very happy that someone stepped up to the plate and was looking out for their interests.”