I moved to Atlantic County during my Freshman year of high school and lived there until my early 20’s when I moved to Las Vegas. I returned to New Jersey in my early 30’s. I always considered the Atlantic City area home. My first full time job was working EMS in Atlantic City – a job that allowed me to get to know the city and its people well. At one point I considered pursuing a career in law enforcement. Had I done so I would have become a police officer in Atlantic City. Instead I went to work in the gaming industry working in marking roles in Atlantic City hotel casinos. While I moved on from Atlantic City and the gaming industry 25 years ago my love for Atlantic City has never wavered.
I often hear people say that Atlantic City’s problem is that they didn’t learn the gaming industry from Las Vegas. I somewhat agree. Generally you find hotel rooms in Vegas relatively inexpensive. The casino operators know that you’ll spend your money at the gaming tables and restaurants. When I lived in Vegas I lived just a few miles from the world famous Las Vegas Strip but stayed over many nights in Las Vegas hotels. I enjoyed a night at the gaming tables, a few drinks and a night in a strip hotel. I would visit Atlantic City much more than I do if room prices were more reasonable. Many times I’ve wanted to spend a weekend in Atlantic City but found hotel rooms averaging $350 or more per night. I am probably the average customer in that I would spend that and much more at the gaming tables and restaurants but refuse to spend that money on a room. I can just as easily cross the river and go to a Pennsylvania casino much closer to home. Those in New York can just as easily go to a Connecticut casino much closer to home. Atlantic City is a destination for most people not a day trip.
But has Atlantic City’s inability to effectively market itself as a destination it’s only problem? The answer is no.
Atlantic City was built by corrupt politicians with connections to organized crime. Over the years the city has not forgotten its roots. In 1909 Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was appointed political boss of Atlantic County after the prior political boss Louis Kuehnle was convicted of corruption and sent to prison. In this role Johnson controlled both the Atlantic County and Atlantic City governments. Johnson allowed alcohol during prohibition, gambling and prostitution in Atlantic City and took kickbacks from the racketeers providing these vices. Johnson has been quoted as saying “We have whisky, wine, women, song and slot machines. I won’t deny it and I won’t apologize for it. If a majority of the people didn’t want them they wouldn’t be profitable and they would not exist. The fact that they exist proves to me that the people want them”. In 1941 Johnson was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison.
In 1951 the Kefauver Commission exposed criminal activities under Johnson’s successor political boss Frank S. Farley.
By the 1950’s and 1960’s Atlantic City was in decline. Atlantic City hosting the 1964 Democratic National Convention did not help the city as the press showed the city in a negative light.
In 1973 former Atlantic City Mayor Richard Jackson pleaded guilty to extorting contractors who did business with the city. Also in 1973 former Atlantic City Mayor William Somers was convicted of taking a bribe.
In 1976 voters approved a gaming referendum and the first Atlantic City casino opened in 1978. In 1982 Michael Matthews was elected Mayor of Atlantic City. In 1984 Matthews plead guilty to attempted extortion in a sting operation where an FBI agent posed as a member of the Scarfo mob.
In 1989 Atlantic City Mayor James Usry was arrested for bribery, conspiracy, official misconducted and accepting unlawful gifts. Usry eventually pleaded guilty to improper reporting of campaign contributions.
In 2006 Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway pleaded guilty to bribery charges.
In 2007 Atlantic City Mayor Bob Levy resigned from office following false claims about his military record and rumors of an FBI investigation.
In 2008 former and future Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Lanford and former acting Mayor William Marsh were ordered by a Superior Court Judge to repay Atlantic City $850,000 they received as a settlement of a wrongful termination lawsuit where they claimed to be terminated due to political retaliation. The court found that the settlement being approved during Langford’s term as Mayor of Atlantic City was a conflict of interest.
In 2018 Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam was caught on surveillance video getting into a fight in an Atlantic City hotel casino. Just a month later the FBI and IRS raided Gilliam’s home removing computer equipment and other evidence. In April a Judge dismissed criminal charges against Gilliam over the theft of a a $10,000 check from the Atlantic City Democratic Committee. Gilliam claimed he deposed the check by mistake and returned the money. There are also questions about Gilliam’s claim that he has a Master’s degree in Social Work as neither of the schools that he claims to have attended will verify his degree.
All of the above is in addition to the city employees, officials, council members and police officers in Atlantic City who have faced criminal charges over the years.
Atlantic City was the first jurisdiction outside of Nevada to allow casino gaming when its first casino opened in 1978. Had it not been for years of corrupt politicians willing to sell their influence and line their pockets Atlantic City had the opportunity to be the premier gaming destination on the east coast. When you look at the history of Atlantic City and it’s inability to reach it’s full potential a large part of the blame has to fall in the laps of these corrupt officials. Given the amount of gaming competition that now exists across the county I’m left wondering if Atlantic City will ever get it right. If Atlantic City has any chance at future success it must forget its corrupt past and elect officials who are more focused on positive growth than lining their pockets.
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