Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford's presence lingers in the 2nd District state Senate race long after he dropped out as an independent candidate, with the Democrat encouraging resort residents to cross party lines and vote for Republican candidate Vince Polistina.

Langford hosted a campaign event Friday at the All Wars Memorial Building in the resort, where he invited people to meet Polistina. Polistina is challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Jim Whelan in the Atlantic County district.

The mayor's invitation said the meet-and-greet was paid for by his Senate campaign fund and mentioned only Polistina. Langford did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

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Polistina said he attended the gathering because it was an Atlantic City event but downplayed Langford's involvement. When asked Saturday if he viewed Langford as a political ally, Polistina said, "I see him as someone who recognizes that the current senator has not done the job."

Langford and Whelan have been political rivals for two decades. Langford lost to Whelan twice before unseating him in the 2001 race for mayor of Atlantic City. After losing re-election to Whelan-ally Bob Levy in 2005, Langford was voted back into office three years later in the wake of Levy's resignation.

"They've had a long personal and political battle," Polistina said, adding that Atlantic City represents an important part of the 2nd District. "They should check the Hatfield and McCoy thing at the door. That's not how we're going to make progress in Atlantic City."

Democrats have long feared that Langford could serve a spoiler role, depressing voter turnout for Whelan in Atlantic City, a crucial base of Democratic voters in the 2nd District. A Stockton College/Zogby poll released this week by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey labeled the race a dead heat.

In June, Langford filed to run in the state Senate race as an independent candidate. He hosted a Langford for Senate fundraiser in September but dropped out of the race weeks later. A subsequent September Stockton College/Zogby poll suggested that Langford would reduce Whelan's totals by about three percentage points, while dropping Polistina's totals by more than 1.5 percentage points.

But Whelan said Langford has been working behind the scenes to support his Republican opponent, knowing this might not sit well with many Democrats.

"This last-minute foray is an attempt to siphon votes from me and do it in a way that is relatively quiet so the rest of Atlantic City doesn't realize he's doing it," Whelan said.

Democrats said Langford, who is black, was also behind a campaign flier that leveled charges of racism against Whelan, who is white. The flier says it was paid for by Langford's Senate fund and accuses Whelan of targeting black workers for layoffs when he was mayor of Atlantic City in the 1990s.

"It wasn't targeted that we only laid off black people like the mailer suggested," Whelan said Saturday. "The supervisor's union did provide givebacks. The other unions didn't offer any, and there were layoffs."

Whelan, the flier states, "crafted the Tourism District, in order to infringe on our right to self governance. This is the first step towards a state takeover!"

City resident Adele Kwaw, 73, said Friday that a city worker with the Meals on Wheels program handed the flier to her with her food this week.

"I don't know if it was on my porch or whatever, and he picked it up for me, but it was from Mr. Langford," Kwaw said Friday, adding that she supported Whelan. "I know everyone has a right to put out their politician's views, and et cetera, but I thought it was inappropriate in its delivery, and I didn't agree with its contents."

Langford neither accepted nor denied credit for the flier but wrote in an email Friday that Whelan was clearly "running scared." He challenged anyone with proof that a city worker distributed fliers to turn the matter over to the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office.

Staff Writer Michael Miller contributed to this report.

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