Bernie Sanders has spent much of his time on the presidential campaign trail admonishing “casino capitalism”. On Monday morning he did so again – this time literally.
“What we’re seeing in Atlantic City encapsulates the ugliness and the greed,” the Democratic hopeful told a crowd just off the famous casino strip in the New Jersey gambling town, “the greed and the recklessness we have seen from Donald Trump and Carl Icahn.”
Interrupted by howls of disapproval from the crowd, he asked: “Oh, you know Donald Trump? Well, I take it you don’t think he is a brilliant, successful businessman who can bring the kind of prosperity to America that he has brought here.”
If American voters want to know what a United States ruled by Trump might look like, they could start by looking here.
Boardwalk Hall, the ornate art deco hall where Sanders spoke, is steps from the now-shuttered Trump Plaza casino, where a boarded-over marquee is notably absent Trump’s name. The presumptive Republican nominee sued to have it removed. It’s also just a mile from the Trump Taj Mahal casino.
This is one of America’s most distressed cities. It is about a week from bankruptcy, still rebuilding from “Superstorm” Sandy and reeling from consecutive casino closures.
It’s also a town molded by Trump, whose name stomps across the top of the nearby Taj Mahal casino. He has sued to have his name removed from that building too, but had a 10% stake in the business now owned by billionaire Icahn until this February.
Nevertheless, though many of Sanders’ supporters knew the odds were stacked against their man in an increasingly untenable bid for the White House, they refused to relinquish hope.
“People who say the Sanders campaign can’t make it – it doesn’t matter,” said Riley Rooster, a 27-year-old New Orleans native who has traveled across the country for the last two months to volunteer for Sanders. “It’s about reinvigorating the youth vote,” he said. Sanders supporters, he said, have “legitimate hope, and compassion, and love in their hearts … and we’re hoping to use that hope and love as our weapon”.
Less than a month out from New Jersey’s 7 June primary, things increasingly look desperate for the Vermont senator. As things stand, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton needs 155 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, and Sanders needs 929. Although Clinton only leads Sanders by about 300 delegates, she has a huge advantage in superdelegates – party elites who are not bound by primary results and favor her in vast numbers.
In this state, an average of two polls conducted by New Jersey’s Rutgers and Monmouth universities put Clinton ahead of Sanders by 18.5%. As elsewhere in the Democratic race, New Jersey’s 126 delegates will be awarded proportionally, meaning even if he wins, Clinton’s delegate count will also increase.
As Sanders pointed out at the Atlantic City rally, however, he fairs better than Clinton in general election polls. On average, Clinton has a 6.5% average lead over Trump. Sanders has a 13.4% advantage.
Poker face off
Atlantic City’s connections to the presumptive Republican nominee seem endless.
The state’s unpopular governor, Chris Christie, who is attempting to take over the city’s government in a fashion similar to Michigan’s takeover of Detroit, was just appointed to Trump’s “transition team”.
“Governor Christie is an extremely knowledgeable and loyal person with the tools and resources to put together an unparalleled transition team,” said Trump in a statement.
At Sanders’ local campaign office on Atlantic Avenue, the city’s main commercial street, volunteers rustled up support for Monday’s rally inside a stuffy storefront normally home to Unite Here Local 54, a service workers’ union.
That storefront is feet away from the road that leads directly to the Taj, where workers this winter lost a court case to Icahn, the casino’s new billionaire owner who purchased the asset from Trump. Trump’s remaining ownership stake was negotiated after a lawsuit to remove his name, that was settled with a 10% piece of the business and an agreement to leave the Trump name plastered on and throughout the building.
“I let them use my name, but I have nothing to do with it,” Trump told NPR in 2014, when he started his lawsuit to get his name removed from two casinos. “I got out seven years ago – my timing was impeccable.”
Trump, as much as any Borgata or Caesar’s mogul, has shaped the landscape of the city. The first casino to bear Trump’s name opened in 1984 – the Harrah’s at Trump Plaza, according to the University of Las Vegas Center for Gaming Research. Trump Castle opened in 1985, and was renamed Trump Marina in 1996. Trump Taj Mahal opened in 1990.
Trump did successfully have his name removed from Trump Plaza, and the hulking black shell of a building now mars the city’s boardwalk, with no evidence of its previous owner visible.
The city was the scene for three of Trump’s four bankruptcies. The first came just one year after the Taj opened, when the $1bn casino (financed by Trump) had $3bn in debt. Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts, the group that held the Taj and Trump Plaza before Icahn, restructured in 2004, becoming Trump Entertainment Resorts. That went bankrupt in 2009, according to PolitiFact, leading to the Icahn takeover.
For local business owners in Atlantic City, construction companies and investors in the casinos, these bankruptcies meant personally losing thousands of dollars so Trump could escape debt. Many counted reduced retirements and construction debts in their losses.
The Press of Atlantic City reported contractors viewed Trump “as a jerk and a bum”.
“It was a joke among all the [subcontractors] that you’d tack on an extra 10% on to your bids” to balance against delayed payments, Dave Farragut, president of United States Roofing Corporation of Norristown, Pennsylvania, told the newspaper about a $600,000 roofing job he picked up at the Trump Taj Mahal. “He was slow pay, everybody knew.”
The Trump brand
Inside Trump Taj Mahal, branding related to the New Yorker is inescapable. The casino’s frequent visitors enjoy Trump One membership, which gives you access to special offers. A monumental black and white portrait of the man hangs in the first store seen from the escalator to the shopping level. Above the photograph is a Trump quote: “You have to think anyway, why not think big?”
Each receipt for a bottle of water or a muffin bears Trump’s name. In bright lights, “Donald J Trump presents the Taj Mahal” adorns the valet entrance. Trump’s name is on the ice buckets.
But when New Jersey residents voice their displeasure with the city’s former baron, they are equally outspoken. This winter, an 18-foot homemade Trump lawn sign in nearby Egg Harbor Township was defaced twice in a month then set on fire.
“These jobs were good jobs back in the early 80s,” said Valerie McMorris, a cocktail waitress and member of Local 54, at the Sanders rally Monday, referring to casino work. “That was a time when the owners were hands on.”
“Then you have people like Donald Trump,” she said, to a chorus of boos. “I was a cocktail waitress, I had a pension, I had job security … All these things are gone because a billionaire from Wall Street used the bankruptcy laws to strip the workers of all these things,” she said, referring to Icahn and Trump.
Away from casinos, small businesses are also suffering income losses in Atlantic City, not only from casino workers but from municipal employees who delayed their paychecks for a month when the city couldn’t pay its bills.
“Economy is bad, very bad,” said Trupti Shah, one of a family of proprietors of Peter’s Convenience Store on Arctic Avenue. “I got robbed in a week two times.”
Shah used to supervise slots at a Hilton-owned property, but lost her job when the company reorganized. She then took a position at the ill-fated Revel, which lasted only two years before the $2.4bn casino shuttered and sold for just $82m.
“When we had only the casinos, that was good. But when they give permission to Philadelphia they screwed Atlantic City,” she said. The native of Gujarat, India, blames the government entirely for this. “Nobody cares about Atlantic City.”
At one time, Atlantic City seemed to mint money.
A losing hand
Though the town is famous for its casinos, they have been here for less than 40 years. Casino gambling was legalized in New Jersey in 1978 through a constitutional amendment that restricted casinos to Atlantic City.
The measure was billed as a way to revitalize the town, which lost tourism when travel to destinations such as Florida and the Bahamas became easier. Other taxes on casino revenue, such as an 8% tax on gross casino revenue to aid senior citizens and the handicapped, eased the transition.
In 2006, thousands of visitors spent $6.5bn at casinos alone, a marquee year.
But by 2011, that had fallen to $4.5bn. The number of slots alone reduced by a quarter, from nearly 36,000 to around 27,000. In that space of five years more than 10,400 people lost casino jobs.
Now, the city is at a roughly 32-year low number of casino employees. The latest estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Atlantic City put the number of hospitality employees at about 34,700. In 1984, the second year the Center for Gaming Research began tracking it, casinos alone employed 33,681.
Unemployment in Atlantic City hovered at 7.8% in March. That is significant progress from a year earlier, when the city’s unemployment rate was 11.6%, but it is still above the national average.
“They bet everything on the casinos and now they’re losing,” said David Peter Alan, a 68-year-old socialist and Sanders supporter from South Orange, New Jersey. In 2014, he traveled to Atlantic City to watch the closing of Trump Plaza.
“I saw the empty room with its 1980s garishness with one slot machine after another doing nothing,” he said. “I wanted to see it, I made the trip to AC to see it.”
Problematically, Atlantic City’s fortunes are beginning to impact the rest of New Jersey.
Alan, a transit activist, said he is now concerned because limp casino revenues have halved grants transit authorities use to provide buses to the disabled and elderly.
New Jersey’s bond rating, essentially its creditworthiness, has been downgraded eight times by three separate agencies since Christie took office. Many now fear that if Atlantic City isn’t bailed out, it could worsen all New Jersey’s cities lots by making it more expensive to borrow money.
That has precipitated a state takeover of the city, with the likes of Detroit’s former emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who shut off families’ water in Detroit, and George Norcross, south Jersey’s most notorious Democratic powerbroker, advising the governor.
“So, we’re either going to do it, or Atlantic City is going to bankrupt,” said Christie about his state senate-backed takeover bill. A separate takeover bill that would have bought the city more time and installed an advisory committee with local leaders, but the bill was defeated last week. “I know there are many in the Republican caucuses who believe that might be the best option.”
And despite that many attribute flagging revenue in AC to fierce casino competition in neighboring states, a referendum this year allows voters to decide whether to put more casinos in North Jersey, and end Atlantic City’s monopoly in the state.
“We’re in trouble. We’re a community in deep trouble,” said 28-year-old Alex Stein, a Sanders supporter. “We’re on life support. We’re staring down the barrel of a state takeover … I’m watching a lot of businesses close down around the area. We’ve had five, six casinos close, heroin’s become a huge problem.”
Still, he said, Sanders’ goal does not seem out of reach. “This is far better odds than I’m used to.”
Source: The Guardian