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Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Ocean City’s against Mainland’s during the first half of boys basketball game at Mainland Regional High School Friday Jan 25, 2019. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer


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developing
Atlantic City Rail Line restoration pushed back

ATLANTIC CITY — The Atlantic City Rail Line could remain shut down for up to five more months.

The line, which stopped running between Philadelphia and Atlantic City in September for the installation of federally mandated safety equipment, was originally supposed to resume service at the start of 2019. NJ Transit pointed commuters toward bus service instead.

“We recognize the impact that these service adjustments have had on our valued customers, particularly those who use our ACRL and Princeton Dinky services,” NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Our goal is to begin restoring a service that remains reliable and predictable for customers as quickly as possible. I share our customers’ frustration and thank them for their continued patience during this time.”

Still lacking a definitive date for passenger train service to resume, NJ Transit said restoration could take place in the “second quarter of 2019.”

But, during a transportation committee hearing in Trenton on Thursday, members discussed portions of a conversation from earlier in the day with NJ Transit in which Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said “we could see this situation going on for another five months.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, condemned the public transit agency Friday.

“The lack of communication and the delay of the ACRL’s restoration line is completely unacceptable, causing extreme frustration for South Jersey commuters and impacting our regional economy,” Van Drew said in a statement. “It feels like South Jersey is getting the short end of the stick, and I will not tolerate this. I am immediately going to call NJ Transit and find out what the hell is going on and respond accordingly.”

Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, said neither he nor his district partner, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, have been able to get a straight answer from NJ Transit about why no other train line in the state had to be completely shut down or when service would resume.

In December, NJ Transit announced it had met a federal deadline for installation of positive train control, technology aimed at stopping trains before human error snowballs, including derailments from excessive speed and train-on-train collisions.

When that announcement was made, NJ Transit said service would resume “in early 2019.”

The federally mandated equipment installation began in September. During a public forum at the Atlantic City Rail Terminal in August facilitated by state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, Corbett told the media service would resume Jan. 1.

“I spoke with Executive Director Corbett today and let him know that Atlantic County families deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and that NJ Transit’s incompetence and broken promises are completely unacceptable, which is why they need to get their act together quickly so our middle-class families can get to work and earn a living,” Brown said Friday.

Mazzeo said it’s “unfortunate” the deadline has been pushed back.

“We will continue to push all parties involved, including the Governor’s Office, to restore the A.C. Rail Line as quickly as possible,” he said.

Since the announcement in September, there has been speculation among riders that the stoppage was permanent, given the line’s thin ridership. NJ Transit has continually pushed back on those claims.

In 2011, annual ridership on the Atlantic City Rail Line was just more than 1.38 million. By 2017, ridership fell to less than 1 million, a decline of more than 9 percent from 2016, according to NJ Transit.

Ridership was down 4.1 percent in 2018 before the service was suspended.


Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Members of unions, federal workers and contractors rally to reopen the federal government Friday, just a few hours before President Donald Trump announced a deal to fund affected agencies through Feb. 15, at the airport circle in Egg Harbor Township.


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AP
Trump, Congress leaders agree on deal to end shutdown

WASHINGTON — Submitting to mounting pressure amid growing disruption, President Donald Trump agreed to a deal Friday to reopen the government for three weeks, backing down from his demand that Congress give him money for his border wall before federal agencies get back to work.

Standing alone in the Rose Garden, Trump said he would sign legislation funding shuttered agencies until Feb. 15 and try again to persuade lawmakers to finance his long-sought wall. The deal he reached with congressional leaders contains no new money for the wall but ends the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

First the Senate, then the House swiftly and unanimously approved the deal, sending the legislation to Trump for his signature.

Trump’s retreat came in the 35th day of the partial shutdown as intensifying delays at the nation’s airports and another missed payday for hundreds of thousands of federal workers — including those at the Coast Guard base in Cape May — brought new urgency to efforts to resolve the standoff.

Jessica Manfre, who runs the pop-up food bank on base at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, wasn’t over the moon at Friday’s announcement.

“I think we were all just kind of like, ‘OK, this is something,’” Manfre said. “But we’re also like, ‘Are we gonna go through this again in three weeks?’”

The shutdown was ending as Democratic leaders had insisted it must — reopen the government first, then talk border security.

“The president thought he could crack Democrats, and he didn’t, and I hope it’s a lesson for him,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of her members: “Our unity is our power. And that is what maybe the president underestimated.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, was delighted by the deal.

“Now it is our job to work together and find compromise in a bipartisan way so that the American people do not suffer again,” Van Drew said. “Most importantly, I am happy that the American federal workers and Coast Guard can receive the back pay they are owed.”

Trump still made the case for a border wall and maintained he might again shut down the government over it. Yet, as negotiations restart, Trump enters them from a weakened position. A strong majority of Americans blamed him for the standoff and rejected his arguments for a border wall, recent polls show.

“If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb. 15, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and Constitution of the United States to address this emergency,” Trump said.

The president has said he could declare a national emergency to fund the border wall unilaterally if Congress doesn’t provide the money. Such a move would almost certainly face legal hurdles.

As part of the deal with congressional leaders, a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers was being formed to consider border spending as part of the legislative process in the weeks ahead.

“They are willing to put partisanship aside, I think, and put the security of the American people first,” Trump said. He asserted that a “barrier or walls will be an important part of the solution.”

Gov. Phil Murphy was pleased with the end of the shutdown but said the damage was already done.

“Thousands right here in New Jersey were forced to go a month without a paycheck,” Murphy said. “They deserve better, and I hope the president understands how destructive it is to play politics with people’s lives.”

The deal includes back pay for some 800,000 federal workers who have gone without paychecks. The Trump administration promises to pay them as soon as possible.

Also expected is a new date for the president to deliver his State of the Union address, postponed during the shutdown. But it will not be Jan. 29 as once planned, according to a person familiar with the planning but unauthorized to discuss it.

As border talks resume, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes there will be “good-faith negotiations over the next three weeks to try to resolve our differences.”

Schumer said that while Democrats oppose the wall money, they agree on other ways to secure the border “and that bodes well for coming to an eventual agreement.”

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said Friday afternoon it’s “great news” that the government is going to reopen.

“Every week that goes by and somebody doesn’t have a check coming in, it has a very worrisome effect on the people,” Mazzeo said.

He added there were so many people affected by the shutdown in Atlantic County, such as at Atlantic City International Airport, and the negative effects have rippled through the economy in the region.

Said Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, “I think of the families down in Cape May County. They’re working without any money in the Coast Guard. They’re literally defending our coast, and they shouldn’t be a pawn in this.”

“We’ll have to wait and see” what happens, he said.

In striking the accord, Trump risks backlash from conservatives who pushed him to keep fighting for the wall. Some lashed out Friday for his having yielded, for now, on his signature campaign promise.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter suggested on Twitter that she views Trump as “the biggest wimp” to serve as president.

Money for the wall is not at all guaranteed, as Democrats have held united against building a structure as Trump once envisioned, preferring other types of border technology. Asked about Trump’s wall, Pelosi, who has said repeatedly she won’t approve money for it, said: “Have I not been clear? No, I have been very clear.”

Within the White House, there was broad recognition among Trump’s aides that the shutdown pressure was growing, and they couldn’t keep the standoff going indefinitely. The president’s approval numbers had suffered during the impasse. Overnight and Friday, several Republicans were calling on him openly, and in private, to reopen the government.

Press staff writers contributed to this report.

The breakthrough came as LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey both experienced at least 90-minute delays in takeoffs Friday because of the shutdown. And the world’s busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — was experiencing long security wait times, a warning sign the week before it expects 150,000 out-of-town visitors for the Super Bowl.

The standoff became so severe that, as the Senate opened with prayer, Chaplain Barry Black called on high powers in the “hour of national turmoil” to help senators do “what is right.”

Senators were talking with increased urgency after Thursday’s defeat of competing proposals from Trump and the Democrats. Bipartisan talks provided a glimmer of hope Friday that some agreement could be reached. But several senators said they didn’t know what to expect as they arrived to watch the president’s televised address from their lunchroom off the Senate floor.

The Senate first rejected a Republican plan Thursday reopening the government through September and giving Trump the $5.7 billion he’s demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he’d long promised Mexico would finance. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.

Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. But it earned more support than Trump’s plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53-47. It was aimed at giving bargainers time to seek an accord while getting paychecks to government workers who are either working without pay or being forced to stay home.

Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting many of the federal workers, who on Friday faced a second two-week payday with no paychecks.

Throughout, the two sides issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump had refused to reopen government until Congress gave him the wall money, and congressional Democrats had rejected bargaining until he reopened government.

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Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Colleen Long, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Juliet Linderman contributed to this report.


Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett was at the A.C. rail terminal to answer questions from commuters and address concerns ahead of the line’s temporary shutdown on Sept. 5. Aug.20, 2018 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)


Politics
Roger Stone's roots in Atlantic County

Acquaintances of Roger Stone on Friday reminisced about his days as a lobbyist for Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino empire, and his relentless campaign to recruit someone to run against then-state Sen. Bill Gormley, a former client of his consulting work, at the supposed behest of Trump.

The FBI arrested Stone, a political operative and adviser to Trump with deep roots in Atlantic County politics, Friday morning at his Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home.

Stone was charged with seven counts in connection to his communications with WikiLeaks during Trump’s 2016 campaign, part of the almost two-year special counsel probe into possible coordination between Russian officials and the campaign.

Locals’ descriptions of his tactics parallel much of what made Stone — known for “dirty tricks” dating to his time with President Richard Nixon — a tabloid mainstay.

“He was an assassin,” said former Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough. “When he went after you, he went after you.”

McCullough said he had a business to worry about in 1991 when Stone suggested he run against Gormley, an offer McCullough declined.

Stone became furious, McCullough said, and never spoke to him again.

Stone’s boss, Trump, was upset with Gormley’s alleged support for a tunnel project in the resort that he saw as a boon for another developer, Steve Wynn, and a threat to his business.

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson called Stone a “very shadowy figure” and referred to the recruitment campaign as a “clandestine operation.”

“I wanted no part of it,” he said, adding he was closely allied with Gormley at the time.

A jitney driver named Domenic Capella eventually ran against the state senator and lost the primary.

“I remember the battle with Gormley and with the jitney driver, absolutely,” said Ed Kline, former Brigantine mayor and state assemblyman. “I was on Bill Gormley’s side.”

Stone worked on Kline’s campaign for Assembly in the mid 1980s as an adviser.

And when Kline, as the mayor of Brigantine in 1986, did “friendly battle” with Trump over road improvements in front of Trump Castle, Stone called to lean on him to ease up on Trump.

Kline called Stone “a great spin doctor,” with no apparent distaste.

“He’d put a spin on things … and I’m sure that’s why he’s in trouble as we speak,” Kline said. “He would spin things and say, ‘I’ll go make a phone call. … I’ll take care of this. … I can fix this.’”

Kline was impressed with Stone’s political instincts. When Kline ran for Assembly, Stone said they should send a mailer to every resident in Brigantine requesting campaign donations. Kline was unsure. Stone won out. They ended up raising about $30,000 from the effort, Kline said.

Stone’s regional connections include media types, too, such as Harry Hurley, who has hosted “Hurley in the Morning” on WFPG-AM 1450 since 1991. Stone has been a regular guest since the beginning, and the two have been friends for more than 30 years, Hurley said, having known each other originally through “political circles.”

He was last on the program a few weeks ago and has said countless times, on air, that he expected to be indicted in the special counsel probe, Hurley said.

Stone’s colorful persona is no recent development. He once owned a vacation condo in Margate, and Levinson remembers hanging with him on the beach, and seeing the tattoo across his back of Richard Nixon’s face, which Levinson described as “life-sized.”

“I could see possibly putting George Washington or Abraham Lincoln on permanent display, but you have to scratch your head with Nixon,” Levinson said.

None of those interviewed seemed delighted by Friday’s news.

Hurley was sad for his friend.

“I think it’s a very sad day, and I think that this is another example that this special counsel probe has just gone off the rails,” Hurley said, arguing most of the charges lodged against Stone were “process crimes.”

Stone, free on bail, said he is innocent and won’t testify against the president.

McCullough called the raid “ridiculous.”

“You’d think he was an international terrorist,” he said.

And Levinson saw the arrest as a stunt for cable news.

“I think (the raid) was a bit of an overkill,” Levinson said. “Extremely dramatic. I mean, you’re not arresting an international criminal. It’s not like you’re arresting El Chapo. … I think he may have come in with a phone call.”


Missamerica
Lawsuit continues for Miss America, but so does pageant confusion

While a judge has allowed a lawsuit against the Miss America Organization’s new leadership to continue, the organization is not required to stop its current operations.

Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael Blee on Friday ruled the lawsuit filed by a former MAO board member and four state organizations can proceed in court. Both sides celebrated the ruling.

The lawsuit claims that MAO Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper orchestrated an “illegal and bad-faith takeover” of the MAO, beginning in January 2018. It stems from an ongoing battle between the MAO and the state-level pageant leadership.

Since June, volunteers with the organization have said there has been a lack of transparency over the MAO’s decision making, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition and revoking licenses from seven states, including the four named in the suit.

Miss America heads to court

Atlantic City Superior Court Judge Michael Blee is expected to rule on several issues detailed in a lawsuit filed by a former MAO board member and four state organizations, according to court officials.

Former MAO trustee Jennifer Vaden Barth and West Virginia director Leah Summers sat with their attorney Paul Perkins while the remaining plaintiffs, Mansfield Bias, of Georgia, and Jane Alderson, of Tennessee, sat behind. The plaintiff from Pennsylvania could not make it to the hearing.

Carlson and Hopper also did not appear in court.

Blee read his ruling to an audience that included former Miss America Suzette Charles and representatives from state organizations such as the Georgia Miss America Scholarship Fund.

While the judge allowed the suit to continue, he denied a preliminary injunction aimed at stopping Carlson and Hopper from further damaging the state organizations’ operations, according to court documents.

Blee denied the injunction because the plaintiffs failed to prove the states experienced “irreparable harm” from the organization’s decision to terminate state pageants’ licenses in September.

The Miss America Organization said in a statement it was pleased with Blee’s ruling Friday.

“MAO and those who support its mission are gratified that the court has recognized that it has the legal green light to move forward to build a program that encourages inclusivity and diversity while focusing on scholarship and service,” it stated.

Vaden Barth said she was glad the judge listened to their concerns and saw it as a step in a hearing that is going to take more time and litigation.

“We look forward to continuing the conversation because we believe we are fighting for the right thing and for the thousands of volunteers and participants,” she said.

“This is a case where we’re not fighting over money, we’re not fighting over things that might often be before this court,” Perkins said. “But we’re fighting for an institution, and we’re fighting for all of the volunteers and others who are here represented by my clients.”

While Blee recognized and commended the efforts of the volunteers who have worked under these organizations for years, he said the MAO had the right to make decisions.

Blee said the state organizations do not own or have a stake in the brands because the brand is owned and trademarked by the MAO.

He said the agreements between the individual states and the MAO clearly stated the MAO had the right to revoke licences after one or two years.

New Jersey, New York and Florida pageant organizations have had their licenses reinstated and new directors appointed after appeals.

Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania have new licenses awarded to new separate pageant entities, and Blee said West Virginia is looking to start a new one as well.

Blee said an injunction would halt these new pageant endeavors altogether.

“The lack of competitions in these states could have an impact of depriving young women (of) the opportunity to participate ultimately in the Miss America program and to obtain the career advancement opportunities that come with participating in such a worthwhile endeavor,” he said.

MAO attorney Timothy Davis said the opposition is a “vocal minority” unable to accept change.

“We all commit to the newer mission of Miss America, but we want it with integrity and good governance,” Vaden Barth said. “Change isn’t that hard when you just rely on integrity and good governance.”

The next hearing will be held Feb. 12, during which Blee said parties could seek mediation or, if not, submit discovery and set trial dates.

Miss America in A.C.