ATLANTIC CITY — Marty Small was greeted by cheers and applause as he took the podium as interim mayor in Council Chambers Friday afternoon with his family around him.
Upon Frank Gilliam’s resignation Thursday night, Small became interim mayor, taking a position he has sought for at least a decade, in a city he has called home since a child. The oath of office took place out of the presence of the public and news media.
“I’m humbled by this opportunity, I don’t take it lightly,” said Small, 45. “To all my friends and supporters, my family: it’s been a long, long journey.”
Small is retaining his title as Council President, and when asked if he would collect both salaries, he deflected. The mayor’s office comes with an annual salary of a $103,000, while the council president’s office comes with an annual salary of $29,800.
His time as mayor could be temporary as the city’s Democratic Committee starts discussions on which three names they will bring to City Council to vote on to finish out Gilliam’s term. Gilliam pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday morning to one count of wire fraud and resigned his position hours later, not until Governor Phil Murphy called for him to step down and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal filed an application with state court to have him removed.
Gwen Callaway Lewis, chair of the Democratic Committee, said she is “sure” Small will be one of the final three names.
“I know not to take that Democratic Committee for granted,” Small said. “There’s some serious people in that committee that are in charge of putting good Democrats in office, and I think that I’m one of the eligible Democrats that they should consider.”
The changeover began before he appeared for the first time as interim mayor. By mid-morning, the Council President’s Office was dark, and the sign on the mayor’s office door that just one day earlier read “Frank M. Gilliam” was gone.
The doors on the office were propped open, and Small could be seen in good spirits just across the floor in the Business Administrator’s Office.
Small takes the reins of a position hamstrung by a state takeover to which he remains opposed. If he is voted in as mayor, Small said he would work with the state while aiming to get the city back to self-governance. He also wants to look into changing the tax structure to attract homeowners into the resort.
The last two days were not uncharted territory for Atlantic City. When then-Mayor Bob Levy resigned in 2007 on allegations he misrepresented his military history, then-Council President William Marsh became interim mayor.
“I’ve seen him grow so much since I’ve been here since 2002. ... And he’s more than prepared for this opportunity,” Marsh said. “As for me, I got thrown into it. ... He’s wanted it for a long time, and I think at this point he’s ready to serve and ready to serve honorably.”
In 2007, after Levy’s resignation, Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans became acting mayor the next month on a council vote of 6-2 and served the remainder of the term.
“The fortunate thing is, with Acting Mayor Small, is that he has the experience of city government, being here for as long as he has,” Evans said. “He’s literally going to hit the ground running, which is going to be beneficial to the city.”
William K. Cheatham, 89, president of the Atlantic City Free Public Library’s Board of Trustees, sat at the front of the Chambers as Small spoke Friday.
Having lived in the city since he was 1, his friends referred to him as “Mr. Atlantic City,” and he’s seen the mayorship switch hands under less-than-ideal circumstances many times before.
“This is something that has been going on in Atlantic City as long as I can remember,” Cheatham said, referring to corruption and crime among elected officials.
He said he hopes Small learns from Gilliam’s mistakes and moves the city forward.
“If he starts with a positive attitude toward things, it can be overcome,” Cheatham said. “If you do anything, it follows you. It follows you here.”
Small, 45, became the youngest member in City Council’s history when he was first elected in 2004. He has eyed the mayor’s office numerous times since, most recently when he ran a primary campaign in 2017 that he lost to Gilliam.
On Friday, Small preached a hopeful message between cheers from his supporters at City Hall.
“Just know one thing: that my heart is for this city, my heart is for the people,” Small said, “and this is a responsibility that I take very seriously.”