Commentary: Surprise, Christie cares more about Iowa than Atlantic City

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I interrupt the regularly-scheduled “Chris Christie doing and saying stuff in Iowa” report to give you this breaking news bulletin – New Jersey’s “governor” has made another bad decision regarding Atlantic City.

If you missed the news, late last week Christie appointed an emergency management team to take control of Atlantic City, announcing, “I can’t wait any longer. We need to take more aggressive action.”

It’s not a complete takeover, per se. Christie’s appointees, corporate turn-around expert Kevin Lavin and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, won’t be allowed to act unilaterally. As NJ Spotlight noted, they have a lot less authority than the state currently has over Camden, and Orr won’t have nearly as much authority as he did in Detroit. 

Still, I think the rush to supplant current Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian just a year into his term is short-sighted and a big mistake, made by a politician who seems to care more about his well-crafted image outside of the state than actually doing anything to really fix the city’s problems.

Guardian, by all accounts, has been a terrific spokesperson for Atlantic City and has shown a resourcefulness in terms of moving the city out of the shadow of gambling (I personally think his idea to grow Gardner’s Basin into something akin to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a winner. He has also shown an ability to wrestle all the power brokers together to work with the state to turn around Atlantic City’s troubled financial situation, a not-too-common occurrence in a city known for its corrupt and bumbling leadership.

City Council President Frank Gilliam, whom Guardian was able to broker an agreement on a economic-recovery plan, is very skeptical of Christie’s move, saying, “I find it very imposing that we will basically have outsiders come into the city and dictate the direction of the city without sitting down with the city fathers and getting their input.”

The move has already had an effect on Atlantic City’s finances. Not only has it provoked Moody’s Investors Service to slam the city with a six-notch credit downgrade, Atlantic City’s revenue director said the resort might be forced to change gears on the refinancing of $12.8 million in debt due next Tuesday, possibly costing the town more.

It’s not as if Christie has shown any instinct or insight in turning around the struggling Shore resort. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it Christie who thought the now-bankrupt and vacant Revel was supposed to usher in a new age for Atlantic City? Has his much-touted “tourist zone” done anything to change the town’s negative image to tourists? And don’t get me started on the failure of online gambling to act as a life-preserver for the town’s struggling casinos, or his quixotic (and expensive) quest to legalize sports betting in New Jersey.

Personally, I think this move by Christie is a political ploy to silence critics of his handling of the Shore town as he moves towards running for President. Instead of responding to questions about Atlantic City’s lost jobs, he can talk about his bold and brash plan to take charge of the city in the face of immense challenges. Take-charge leader versus failed governor – it’s a compelling message if you don’t live in Atlantic County, where four casino closures have led to nearly 10,000 job losses. 

It’s not as if Christie is keen to mention Atlantic City in Iowa, London or anywhere else he’s traveling these days. He didn’t even mention the town once in his State of the State speech, you know, the one time this month he was actually supposed to care about the state’s well being?

Let’s face it, Christie is too busy running for President to do an effective job on something that’s little more than a distraction to him at this point. While Guardian has been working day in and day out to dig out the struggling Shore resort, Christie has been launching PACs and hiring RNC fundraisers.

The worst part? Christie’s plan only has to last as long as his presidential campaign (just like his failed, back-loaded pension plan). So Atlantic City residents worried about what 2015 will bring, I’d keep my eyes more on 2016 if I were you.

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Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe.

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