Hurricane Sandy was two days gone when Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford had the opportunity to tell the world that, despite the storm’s ferocity, the resort was still standing.
“Today” show weatherman Al Roker was visiting the city Oct. 31. Standing on splintered remnants of a small portion of the Boardwalk, he asked Langford, “People think Atlantic City, they think the Boardwalk, and you're looking at — you're looking at part of that Boardwalk. What do you do when you see something like this?”
“This can be replaced,” Langford replied. “Human lives cannot be replaced, and so we'll do what we can and what we must and what we should do to regroup and pull ourselves together. We'll rebuild this Boardwalk, no doubt about it.”
“To be honest with you, the damage is pretty extensive,” Langford said, adding it could have been a lot worse.
Rather than capitalizing on the opportunity to tell the world that Atlantic City had survived, Langford arguably perpetuated the myth that Hurricane Sandy had demolished the historic Boardwalk. A poll taken by the Atlantic City Alliance shortly after the storm showed 41 percent of Americans believed the Boardwalk had been destroyed.
For Langford, 58, who declined to be interviewed for this story, 2013 is an election year in which he must deal with the challenges of Hurricane Sandy recovery within the confines of the city government’s sharply diminished authority during his term. Beyond his running battle with Gov. Chris Christie, he faces challenges from within his party.
As he seeks to become the second mayor in the city’s modern form of government to be elected to three terms in office, the question rises: Has he been good for Atlantic City?
Langford, when talking to Roker, never revealed that the destroyed segment of the Boardwalk was small and had already been scheduled for replacement. He never said the resort’s dune wall saved virtually the entire Boardwalk, and he never mentioned that the casinos that keep Atlantic City relevant escaped with minimal damage.
In fact, the residents of Atlantic City were the hardest hit. Officials said owners of more than 9,000 city properties have sought Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Of those properties, 47 percent have been deemed unsafe and 47 percent were uninsured when the storm came ashore.
Sandy also produced verbal jousting between Langford and Christie, who called Langford a “rogue mayor” for ignoring evacuation calls. The spat attracted national attention and a host of articles, spoofs on “Saturday Night Live” and a parody Twitter account for Langford.
Overlooked in those barbed back-and-forth comments was that Langford had repeatedly urged residents to flee days before the storm. About 30,000 of the city’s 39,000 residents left, and the city said it bused another 3,600 to mainland shelters. The city then opened six shelters for stragglers, and Langford said people remaining in the city should take advantage of them. That’s what provoked the governor’s ire.
“I'm extraordinarily disappointed in elected officials who directed people (in contradiction) of an order from the governor,” Christie said.
As they went back and forth, Langford seemed to challenge the governor to a fistfight on the “Today” show when he said he wanted to settle the dispute "mano-a-mano.”
A diminished office
The antagonism between Langford and Christie has characterized his term, as the state has radically reduced the role of City Hall in Atlantic City.
Christie’s transition team recommended greater oversight of city finances in January 2010. When the city needed permission to increase its budget threshold above legal limits, the state agreed — with the state Department of Community Affairs overseeing the city’s financial management.
Langford said last month that ending oversight is a goal. But state officials have said they need to know how the city plans to protect its residents from tax increases of as much as 25 percent, caused by plummeting city property values.
The state also created the Tourism District during Langford’s term, taking any regulatory power over the multibillion-dollar casino industry away from the city and giving it to the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority. Langford resisted, saying he was excluded from the planning process. He described the separation of Bader Field, the casino districts and the Convention Center area from the residential neighborhoods as “apartheid.” The state has blocked the city from questioning the Tourism District’s legality in court.
Goals and plans
Langford has had mixed success with smaller proposals.
During Langford’s term, the city successfully repurposed Bader Field, the 144-acre shuttered airport, into a concert venue that has repeatedly drawn multiday events, starting with the Dave Matthews Band Caravan in June 2011.
The Langford administration continued to demolish eyesores while cajoling derelict property owners to improve others. Langford targeted 10 properties in his first term, but the cleanup effort took hold once the city published the 2010 list.
The city also has a supermarket, said Stephanie Stewart, the chairwoman of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee and Langford’s campaign committee treasurer, for which she credited Langford’s influence. The Sav-A-Lot discount supermarket opened in the Renaissance Plaza in May, after the city went six years without one.
Similarly, Michael F. Johnson, a longtime supporter of the mayor, said Langford cut city expenses by reducing the top Fire Department brass. Johnson also credited city workers with helping the resort make repairs cost-efficiently after Hurricane Sandy.
Additionally, Langford and his City Council have essentially moved in unison, with virtually none of the contentious opposition and orchestrated chaos by political opponents that marred his first term. Instead, council members could not recall any ordinances vetoed by Langford while high school friend and longtime political ally William Marsh served as council president.
But the city’s attempts to rein in legal bills had mixed results. The Press of Atlantic City found in June that as Langford's administration began actively fighting legal battles instead of settling, legal fees rose 28 percent, to $9 million, in 2011. The costs were driven by workers compensation claims and the tax appeals that decimated the city’s ratable base.
Langford traveled to China and Korea in 2010, saying later he met with a pair of Chinese billionaires interested in investing in vacant city properties. He also met with Korean officials interested in establishing a student exchange program at Richard Stockton College and Atlantic City High School.
At Stockton, India Karavackas credited Langford with helping make the initial contacts between the school and officials from Zhanjiang, China, where the city signed a friendship agreement. She said Stockton is expecting to welcome the first teachers from the 6.9-million person city in China’s far south this summer.
“I would say that he was very influential in the sense that he made the initial contact,” said Karavackas, director of the college’s Office of International Services. “I can’t say that Zhanjiang was on anybody’s radar.”
It is not clear if the city has realized any foreign investment as a result of the trip, or what, if anything, has happened in the school district. The high school has not announced any program, and the principal, district business administrator and superintendent all ignored repeated messages seeking comment in January.
Langford had said no city money would be used for the cost of the trip. State election reports indicate that the Langford-allied Voters United PAC paid $1,350 on Sept. 15, 2010, to “Asia American Council” of Whitestone, N.Y., for airfare with the purpose of a “trip to Asia meet gov leaders.” The expenditure was nestled between donations to local groups and reimbursements for expenditures.
No one from the Asian American Advisory Council, of Queens, N.Y., could be reached for comment. The phone was disconnected, and attempts to reach Executive Director Michael S. Limb, 74, through his son, Lawrence Limb, were unsuccessful. While the AAAC was incorporated in New York as a nonprofit, no federal nonprofit records could be found.
Four more years?
Atlantic County Democrats are uneasy with Langford, and party Chairman Jim Schroeder indicated Langford might not get the party's endorsement at its March 23 convention.
“Yeah, I think it’s wide open,” Schroeder said. He cited Langford’s endorsement of Republican Vince Polistina over state Sen. Jim Whelan, a Democrat, in the closely contested 2011 Senate race in the 2nd Legislative District, which includes Atlantic City and most of Atlantic County. State campaign finance reports show Voters United spent $5,995 on 25 workers to get out the vote for Polistina.
Whelan won with 53 percent of the vote, but Republicans carried the district’s two General Assembly seats.
Schroeder’s endorsement guarantees prime ballot position in the June 4 primary. Democrats hold an 8-to-1 registration advantage in Atlantic City, making the June primary decisive. Opinions differ on the value, but Schroeder’s endorsement — and prime ballot position aligned with other Democrats — is generally considered very beneficial.
Schroeder said he wanted to hear from members of the city party and party executive board before deciding. City party officials plan to make an endorsement in April.
Langford was an incumbent in 2005 but he didn’t get “the line” from the chair. He lost the primary to Bob Levy and left office. He returned in 2008, following Levy’s resignation and temporary replacements. But in 2009, his earlier support for Republican Assemblyman Frank Blee nearly cost him the Democratic nomination. He won the party’s endorsement, then easily beat two primary candidates and rolled to victory in November.
He seeks re-election after pledging in 2009 this would be his last term. Other Democrats in the race now include retired Atlantic City police Officer David Davidson, 51, and Atlantic County Freeholder Charles Garrett, 66, seen as the party’s first choice. The winner is expected to take on Don Guardian, executive director of the CRDA’s Special Improvement District and the Republican candidate, in November.
Potential candidates have until 4 p.m. April 1 to file petitions to run for office.
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