FILE - Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford

ATLANTIC CITY — A verbal battle between Mayor Lorenzo Langford and state officials escalated Tuesday when Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the state’s top Democrat, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, criticized him for recently likening the Atlantic City Tourism District plan to a “modern-day apartheid.”

“He is playing to the lowest common denominator,” Christie said when a reporter asked about the mayor’s comments, which he made Tuesday and previously to another media organization. “He should be ashamed of himself.”

Langford, who refused to attend the governor’s bill signing Tuesday, said residents have likened the plan to the structure of the South African apartheid, saying that the state is creating geographical boundaries with its new Tourism District, “one for the haves and one for the have-nots.” He then said the apartheid reference “has some validity.”

Christie seized on the mayor’s comments to justify his call for change in Atlantic City, claiming the city’s current leadership seems content with the status quo.

“Look, I understand that he didn’t want this to happen,” the governor said. “I understand that. But the people of this region have been waiting too long for effective leadership in this city.”

Sweeney — Langford’s fellow Democrat — then took the podium to continue the criticism, calling for an end to the “grandstanding” and “racial baiting.”

“This city needs leadership. This city needs to get things done,” said Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland.

 After hearing the governor’s comments, the mayor stood firm on his analogy, but stressed that he did not want to turn his opposition into a “verbal joust” between him and Christie. His comments, he said, are directed at the plan, not any one individual.

 “We know that the process was replete with flaws,” Langford said. “I’m more concerned about the final product.”

 The governor’s bill signing featured only two city politicians: City Council Vice President Steven Moore and Councilman Dennis Mason. Langford had shared his intention not to attend with The Press of Atlantic City the day before.

“I thought I should be there because I wanted to hear about developments with Revel,” Moore said. “No matter what you say, this project affects us all.”

The governor also mentioned, and Langford confirmed, that the mayor met with state law enforcement officials Monday to discuss policing inside the Tourism District.

 “I reiterated the concerns that I have,” Langford said of the meeting. “There is no real crime on the Boardwalk. They need to stop lying to people. It’s disingenuous.”

 The mayor has repeatedly complained that the state is suggesting the city pay for additional officers to increase the police presence in the high-traffic tourism areas, while the state holds the authority over those officers. The city laid off 60 officers in the spring to combat a near-$10 million hole in the city’s budget. The state required the city to cut its budget before it agreed to provide some financial aid.

 “Make up your mind,” the mayor said of the state insisting on budget cuts and hiring new officers. “You can’t have it both ways.”

 Christie said he did not have concerns about Langford’s opposition, saying the city is primed to move forward — with or without him.

“All of those who want to get on board with this success, now is the time to get on board, because the train is leaving the station,” Christie said. “And if you’re not on when the train leaves the station, then what happens is, you wind up, if you’re on at all, you wind up in the caboose.”

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