ATLANTIC CITY — In Assemblyman Chris Brown’s law office sits a custom-made box of Wheaties cereal with a picture of him on the front speaking on the Boardwalk following the closing of the Showboat Casino Hotel in 2014.
In the picture, the Republican is flanked by Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt and several Showboat employees.
Brown fought Caesars Entertainment when it shut the profitable Showboat. The box, a gift from his chief of staff, Tom Southard, represents his willingness to fight for constituents, he said.
“Being an active member of the community, it was very difficult for me to see our Atlantic County families losing faith in the American dream,” Brown said.
It was that struggle that led Brown to get into politics in 2011. The county was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. Foreclosure rates ranked among the highest in the nation — a problem that persists — and thousands of people were out of work. And that was before five casinos closed in Atlantic City.
Brown, who had been serving as a Galloway Township judge, decided to run for Assembly. He won that year, and again in 2015.
Now, he is attempting to win the state Senate seat from Sen. Colin Bell, a former county freeholder appointed after Sen. Jim Whelan died Aug. 22.
Born in the Atlantic City hospital in 1964, Brown grew up in the area and graduated from Holy Spirit High School in 1982 before going to Rutgers University and joining the Army ROTC.
He was raised by his father and grandmother after his mother walked out on the family when he was 12. His grandmother, Elaine Brown, never finished grammar school but was one of the smartest people he ever knew, Brown said.
His father, Arthur Brown, was chief of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol and attended The Richard Stockton College at age 50 to get his bachelor’s degree.
“My dad told me to work hard and do the best you can, and always remember to be kind,” Brown said. “This lesson served me well when, by working hard and doing what’s right for our middle-class families, we were able to defeat North Jersey casinos.”
The lesson also served Brown well after joining ROTC and serving in the military during the Gulf War. Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division with the 253rd National Guard Transportation Unit, he earned the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge for his service on the ground in Iraq.
Brown said the war taught him how fragile life is, and after returning home, he got engaged to his high school sweetheart, Christine. They have children Matt, 21, Danny, 19, and Mallory, 17.
Through the years, Brown served as a municipal judge and a prosecutor. He opened a private practice in Atlantic City as a civil attorney.
His proudest accomplishments were successfully fighting North Jersey casinos and opposing the state takeover of Atlantic City.
In this campaign, Brown has been accused of taking both sides on every issue, and his opponents point to his “yes” vote on the bill that allowed the state to take over the city.
But the story is more complicated than just a “yes” vote, Brown said. The bill, which he helped negotiate with Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, gave the city 150 days to come up with and submit a plan to the state to become solvent.
The state eventually rejected the city’s plan, but Brown was still proud he and several other lawmakers were able to give the city’s elected officials a chance to get the city out from under its crushing debt.
He criticizes the way the state has handled the takeover. He said he hopes the city will regain its independence when a new governor takes office in January.
He was especially critical when the state hired Atlantic City’s business administrator to help oversee the takeover.
“Everything the state has done came right out of the plan the city submitted,” Brown said. “We didn’t need a private law firm charging hundreds of dollars an hour to get Atlantic City back on the right track.”
If elected to the Senate, Brown said, he would fight for families and against special-interest groups in Trenton.
“I believe Atlantic County deserves a future where our families can earn a decent living, afford to see a doctor if they are sick, provide for their children and be able to retire someday,” he said. “The voters know me. … I won’t back down from a fight for what I believe is right.”
This is the second of two political profiles on the state Senate race in the 2nd legislative district. A profile on state Sen. Colin Bell ran last week and is available online.