Republicans Focus on Atlantic City Woes in Bid to Oust 2nd District Dems

Jon Hurdle | October 15, 2019 | Elections 2019
GOP pair say Democratic legislation to freeze casino revenues has hurt economy but Democrats say their efforts have helped to stabilize Atlantic City
Top row: Democrats Vince Mazzeo, left, and John Armato; bottom row, Republicans Phil Guenther, left, and John Risley

Republicans seeking to eject Democratic incumbents from two General Assembly seats in this November’s elections for the 2nd Legislative District are hoping voters will endorse their arguments that Democrat-backed policies on casino taxation have damaged the economy of Atlantic City and its county.

GOP candidates Phil Guenther and John Risley believe they can help overcome a big Republican deficit in voter registration in the Atlantic County district by convincing voters that a 10-year freeze on casino taxation under the city’s 2016 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program has driven up taxes for other property owners and hurt the local economy.

“We need to eliminate or restructure the taxes being frozen in Atlantic City,” said Guenther, in an interview. “Our preference would be that we get the property valuations right for the casinos, that legislatively we find a way that is fair to value the casinos and tax their properties.”

Guenther said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, one of the incumbent Democrats, wrote the legislation that froze the casino taxes at a time when five of the city’s 12 gaming halls had closed because of competition from gaming in nearby states.

“Most tax revenue from casinos goes to Trenton to begin with, and now one source of revenue for the city is frozen,” Guenther said. “That was the direct result of legislation that Mazzeo authored.”

Rich DiCriscio, a spokesman for the Democrats’ campaign, said the PILOT program had helped to stabilize both tax revenue from the casinos and the broader Atlantic City economy.

Helping a city on the brink

“Atlantic City was on the brink of bankruptcy when Vince Mazzeo took office in 2014,” DiCriscio said. “He quickly took action, passed the PILOT legislation to stabilize tax rates in the city, and now Atlantic City’s economy has turned around. That legislation is single-handedly responsible for ensuring that casinos paid their fair share into the city’s budget and kept Atlantic County taxpayers from picking up the tab.”

The Republicans also argue that the state takeover of Atlantic City government by the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie in November 2016 needs to end despite last year’s announcement by Gov. Phil Murphy that the state will continue to oversee the city’s perilous finances, possibly until the scheduled end of the program in 2021.

Guenther and his running mate, John Risley, oppose a plan by Mazzeo to transfer local taxing authority to the county from its municipalities because it would increase costs to taxpayers and weaken local control.

“The plan would create a county bureaucracy which would take over all the assessments and all the workings of the tax assessors in all the towns in Atlantic County,” said Risley, a stockbroker and investment adviser. “We would have to hire a lot of people, and it would take all local control away and put it all in the county’s hands.”

Mazzeo said through a spokesman that he supports a countywide tax assessment because it would cut costs and help reduce property taxes. “It’s long past time that we address the sky-high property taxes across our state and find a way to shrink redundant government costs without cutting services,” he said.

Even if the Republicans win the district, Risley said he has no illusions that they will be part of a majority in the Legislature. “Will be in the minority, no question about it,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me because I’m all about Atlantic County.”

For his part, Mazzeo focused on the district as a whole, and pledged to continue to work for lower property taxes.

Paying less in taxes and for prescription drugs

Mazzeo, 55, a small-business owner who lives in Northfield, said he has made some progress on curbing property taxes since the last Assembly election in 2017 but that more remains to be done. “Too many seniors and hard-working families in Atlantic County pay too much in property taxes and for prescription drugs,” he said in a statement.

He acknowledged that the district is among about a half-dozen of a statewide total of 40 that will be competitive in the Nov. 5 election but predicted that he and his running mate, Assemblyman John Armato, will prevail.

“My district has been competitive for over a decade and I know that a win is never handed to you in Atlantic County,” he said. “My district has always been targeted in the past, but I have found a way to win because Atlantic County families know that I am on their side.”

In 2017, Mazzeo and Armato won 28 and 26% of the vote, respectively, some six percentage points ahead of Republicans Vince Sera and Brenda Taube.

Guenther said the GOP would work to overcome the Democrats’ advantage of about 16,000 registered voters by working to attract the district’s approximately 57,000 unaffiliated voters (more than those registered for either of the main parties), urging high turnout among Republicans and hoping to attract any Democrats who are frustrated by the incumbents’ record.

Still, the larger number of registered Democrats may exaggerate the party’s advantage because many of them are in Atlantic City where turnout is traditionally low, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University.

Registration not deciding factor

“Voter registration doesn’t mean as much here,” Dworkin said. “The Democrats have a clear plurality in terms of voter registration but many of those votes are in Atlantic City which historically doesn’t have the kind of turnout that Democrats would always want.”

He noted that the district is one of only two among the state’s total of 40 where representation in Trenton is split between the parties; the district’s state Senate seat has been held by a Republican, Chris Brown, since 2017.

The GOP candidates see Brown’s incumbency, and the fact that he previously served three terms as an assemblyman in LD2, as hopeful signs that they can seize the district from the Democrats.

“The model that we know has been successful already has been Chris Brown’s election to the Assembly and the Senate,” Guenther said. “We believe that the people in the second district understand the issues. Our challenge is to make sure we get that information out.”

Guenther, 61, who was mayor of Brigantine for 25 years until January 2018, said he had been planning to retire but was persuaded to run for the Assembly by GOP officials. He is a former teacher and school principal, and now superintendent of the Atlantic County Vocational and Special Services school districts.

Armato, 71, a retiree from Buena Vista Township, said he will focus on reducing property taxes by working to cut costs and fully fund the state’s school-funding formula if elected to a second term.

“Providing property-tax relief is always a priority,” he said in a statement. “We have made some great strides during the last two years, but New Jersey still needs to fully fund the school-funding formula and focus on shared services to bring property taxes down.”

He played down the possibility that national politics will influence the local race now that President Donald Trump is under threat of impeachment, saying that 2nd District voters are more concerned with local issues.

“President Trump has been at the center of the media’s attention for four years but that isn’t what people talk to me about at their doors,” he said.