When the Trump Plaza toppled, like some downtown Beirut total cave-in, a relieved whoop went up from the crowd of onlookers, as if a terminal weight of oppression had lifted, and why not? Donald Trump bailed on the gambling mecca after the plaza went belly up in 2014. Yet somehow the jubilation felt forced, as if the city had again found a way to deflect from the same core of its agony, and now it hovered at the edge of another contest, with players mostly from surrounding towns plucked by party machines to consider the fate of the casino-ravaged city.
The impending retirement of Republican Senator Chris Brown in the battleground 2nd Legislative District (35.3% Dem/25% GOP/38.5% unaffiliated) after just four years on the legislative throne meant a face-off for a
presumably vacant senate seat. Questions persisted about whether he would serve to the end of his term or retire early so a Republican successor could enjoy the advantage of incumbency in what will no doubt be a multi-million dollar collision. There’s a particular history of senate retirees taking that route – on both sides. After Senator Bill Gormley retired in 2007, fellow Republican/Egg Harbor Twp. Mayor Sonny McCullough occupied the seat and competed from its fortification against the Assemblyman and former Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan. Whelan won, and when he died in 2017, fellow Democrat/Freeholder Colin Bell assumed his seat and unsuccessfully ran as the incumbent against Brown (46-53%).
Brown. The name seemed ready made for a long run.
A Desert Storm veteran, attorney in private practice and former judge, the senator quickly tired of
Trenton, however. It was hard to get anything accomplished in the minority party and thanks to the back-to-back double impact of Chris Christie and President Trump (not to mention deep demographic shifts injurious to the party) the GOP had massive statewide problems. Whatever local and districtwide popularity he could muster inevitably ran into the reality of joining a diminished and increasingly cranky core of Grand Old Party caucus-goers huddled under the Gold Dome. He had a style problem too in the cracked version of his party, and his version of grim soldier on patrol had found itself overshadowed by game show mean-spiritedness and sharp elbowed opportunism.
What was the point of it all?
A senator who carried a certain mystique – unique but also bigger than the usual grind of bodies and appetites in the same way that Gormley and Whelan had stood in relief against the squalid backdrop – Brown appeared to be leaving the political stage to players more star-crossed then star-studded. It wasn’t just the minotaur headdresses swarming the United States Capitol. A deadening quality dwelled. If Whelan versus McCullough had been ugly and muddy and costly, the contest still carried the thrill of Whelan; just as Bell versus Brown contained the intrigue of Brown, for both Whelan and Brown had at one time trailed whispers of “governor” down the beach in their wake. Brown and Whelan could both rise above the bogeymen that haunted their contests (Camden and its money for Whelan, and whatever gluttonous monstrosity at a higher level drained life from the party in the case of Brown). The battleground dimensions of the 2nd District made Whelan in particular look like he was in a dogfight every time he ran, his first reelection in 2011 promising to deliver his biggest test, and maybe capping his career.
It had to do with the times, of course, but it also had to do with the man going up against him.
His challenger was Assemblyman Vince Polistina, seen by the Republican Party as the embodiment of the future. “This is the guy you’re going to want to watch; he’s the star,” John Amodeo told me in 2007, referring to his running mate, when he and Polistina ran for the assembly on a ticket with McCullough.
This was when Christie was in ascendency, Democrats almost uniformly cowed and terrified, and Polistina possessed the public panache of a leading man from the movies – and brains.
But his candidacy never quite gelled as he spent more time defending than attacking, and Whelan – repeatedly highlighting the engineer’s public contracts – beat Polistina, 53-47%. “You were all saying it was going to be this razor close contest,” Whelan – looking unflappable as usual – told reporters at his victory party downtown in the Tun Tavern. “I knew it wasn’t going to be as close as you all thought it would be.”
Maybe that was just Whelan’s way of never letting anyone see him sweat. Anyone looking for a gloating twinkle in the eyes of the old jock came away disappointed. He had beaten the man in front of him, he seemed to bluntly say, and took no enjoyment in dismantling the Republicans’ requisite rising star.
It was still the closest contest anyone would give him for that seat; and now, Polistina has returned, clearing the field of would-be Republican rivals in his enduring quest to be the senator from the 2nd District, almost a decade removed from the race that derailed his political career.
On the other side of the partisan divide stands Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) of Northfield, sandwiched between Linwood and Pleasantville, identified by Whelan as one of “two Democratic mayors from Republican towns,” picked as a 2013 Democratic running mate because of Mazzeo’s ability to appeal to conservatives and independents in the burbs of Whelan’s hometown of Atlantic City.
If Polistina is nearly a decade removed from toeing the mound in Atlantic County’s political version of the World Series, grocer by trade Mazzeo has never, at any iteration of his career in the legislature, prompted anyone to suggest that he’s going to be a governor.
Polistina’s star power hangover still radiates more of a titillating nimbus than Mazzeo’s lunch bucket/fruit basket third of a tripod that once helped prop the considerable Whelan – at least by the reckoning of the GOP.
“Nothing gets done, that’s been his record as an assemblyman,” Atlantic County Republican Chairman
Keith Davis said of Mazzeo, refusing to indulge even the slightest hint of a lovable backbencher narrative.
“He’s a potted plant in Trenton,” Davis added. “He hasn’t done anything to stand up for Atlantic County. His disastrous pilot legislation that went to the casino industry in Atlantic City – Mazzeo admitted that the casino industry wrote the legislation that he sponsored. How can you have a legislator go to the industry that is going to benefit and say, ‘You write the rules.’ But that’s what happened. The rules are so heavily tilted at the expense of the taxpayers. Mazzeo led them to do it. That’s not the kind of leadership we need for Atlantic City. Don’t give away the store. He wouldn’t give away his store to someone. And yet there he is, saying ‘you can take all the profits.’
“It’s wrong,” the chairman asserted. “It would be the worst decision for Atlantic County to send Vince Mazzeo to Trenton as a senator.”
Of course, Atlantic County Democratic Committee Mike Suleiman strenuously disagrees, and at the mention of the name “Polistina,” instantaneously reverts to the core arguments of the 2011 Whelan Campaign – with a twist.
“The last ten years, Vince’s track record is second to none,” said the Democratic Party chair. “As for Vince, where has he been except making money on the public dime [with his engineering firm]?
“They’ve actually been in the public eye making life better in Atlantic County,” Suleiman added of Mazseo and his running mate, Assemblyman John Armato (D-2). “For someone to make a political comeback for ego’s sake, it’s kind of silly. I’m pretty confident Vince Mazzeo will get more Republicans to vote for him than Vince Polistina will get Democrats to vote for him.”
Suleiman projected confidence.
“Sometimes the timing is right, and I think it’s there this year, for Democrats to win all three seats,” he said.
Davis took Suleiman’s critique of Polistina in stride.
“Voters are accustomed to Democrats penalizing success,” said the GOP county chairman. “They are going to attack Vince as a successful small business person. It’s not enough for them to be driving people of the state – the outmigration going to the Carolinas and Florida. I would fully expect them to be consistent with that message. The fact is Vince Polistina does a good job and he’s rewarded for doing a good job. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him. He does his job on behalf of his clients.”
Whelan was successful in part because whenever the GOP tried to tar him as a tool of Camden and South Jersey power broker George Norcross III, it never materialized with any force. A former mayor of Atlantic City, he gave the impression of being in charge – and called the shots in his own campaigns, sometimes overriding South Jersey central, especially when it came to handling reporters. But Davis is confident that the Democrats will bubble-wrap a fully acquiescent Mazzeo.
“Mazzeo will be treated like a potted plant and kept in deep hiding for the duration,” said the Republican chairman. “They know what happens when they let him talk. It’s not good. Just look at his meltdown when he tried to explain why he whited out his name on a resolution to stop North Jersey casinos.
“They know what happens,” Davis added. “It’s just so awkward – beginning, middle and end. Meanwhile, Vince Polistina stood up against the special interests in Trenton and came extraordinarily close to beating the titan, Jim Whelan. He came closer than any other Republican.”
But Democrats trust in Mazzeo’s authenticity.
He’ll never be a Cory Booker kind of orator.
But that’s ok, they say.
Chris Brown once dismissed him as a “stock boy.”
He’s still around.
They’ll make Polistina look like an elitist, if that’s what it takes; a guy obsessed with charts and graphs while gritty Mazzeo may not be the most eloquent politician, but knows business and, as a former mayor, gets real world entities like trash collection. sewage authorities and planning and zoning boards; not to mention people.
Then there’s name ID associated with his food market.
“Everyone’s gotten a gift basket from Vince Mazzeo at some point,” said Suleiman.
The Democrats plan to compete with Mazzeo on his home turf of Egg Harbor Twp., traditionally Republican turf where they see an opportunity to play on a growing blue undercurrent. They claim to love the idea of going up against Polistina, instead of Brown, who as a Republican overperformed in the Black and Latino communities of Atlantic City.
But they’re not the only ones intending on riding their chariots into supposedly enemy territory.
In anticipation of the rascally ways of local operator Craig Callaway, Suleiman this week exerted his
chairman’s privilege to award the county line to incumbent Mayor Marty Small. A Callaway foe, Small last year warned fellow Democrats about the shapeshifting capacities of Callaway – whose sister serves as Atlantic City Democratic Party chairman – just before the roguish get-out-the-vote expert surfaced on the Republican team of U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2) in defiance f former employer Amy Kennedy.
Kennedy would go on to lose to Van Drew.
For his part, Callaway appears ready to saddle up again with the GOP, deriding the Democrats in Atlantic County as “the biggest racists in the state of New Jersey.”
Mazzeo and Armato will supposedly run with Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick – an all-white legislative ticket in a diverse county.
“Why wouldn’t it be [all-white] with them?” Callaway groused. “When minority candidates run, they don’t get Democratic Party support. They just use them to get out more minority votes. The chairman lives in his mother’s basement and then he’s going to come to our town and talk trash? I don’t think so. He wants me to change my party affiliation? I think he should change his party affiliation. Look at their actions. It’s all tokenism when it comes to minority people. Mazzeo cant bring out voters in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.”
Callaway, Suleiman and Small allies insist, has a penchant for making himself bigger than he actually is, note that they kicked his butt in Pleasantville last year, and point how Atlantic City (38% Black, 27% White, 16% Asian, and 15% other races; with 31% identifying as Latino) has grown more decentralized over the years and less controllable via conventional organizing channels.
Both sides – Republican and Democrat – have party divisions to resolve in 2021.
Brown never said it outright but again, the Trump version of the Republican Party likely contributed to the old military man’s disaffection, while Polistina – traditionally a pretty good fundraiser – last year co-hosted a Smithville event for the GOP headlined by Donald Trump, Jr.
Suleiman was all over it at the time, with a bullhorn.
“You’ve got two Republicans running this event for a shady super PAC… Don Purdy, a corrupt former mayor of Galloway, and [former Assemblyman] Vince Polistina, who hasn’t been relevant in ten years,” he told InsiderNJ outside the Historic Smithville Inn.
The Republican senate candidate has already announced his preference for former Atlantic City Mayor
Don Guardian and Northfield attorney Claire Swift as his running mates, which plays havoc with the plans of already announced Assembly candidates Commissioner John Risley and go-getter Atlantic City Councilman Jesse O. Kurtz; and while establishment Democrats seem to be coalescing around Mazzeo, Armato and Fitzpatrick (and the AC mayoral candidacy of Small), an enduring grassroots Amy Kennedy faction also looks animated.
Some bad blood remains from the 2020 Democratic Primary.
With issues unresolved, how trying will the primaries be?
Of course, other races will come into play here too once the general election cycles kicks in, including the gubernatorial and countywide contests, in the middle of a pandemic, and while Democrats will no doubt be unable to resist the ongoing immediate, explosive echo of Trump (who lost Atlantic County to Joe Biden by 9K votes), and will weld the ignominy of its aftermath to Polistina, the Republican senate candidate’s more comfortable wearing associations with the former chief executive than Brown ever was; and the GOP will hang Camden around Mazzeo and cringe under the blizzard of ads coming shoreward from the west, each side will revel in the thornier legislative votes of the other, and the city will look no closer to the stars of heaven amid the low slung residential houses and epicurean upswing of those casinos on the boardwalk that have not imploded.
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