Don Guardian said he never became involved in politics until recently when he “got fed up with how bad things were” in his hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Guardian, 60, a gay Republican, ran for mayor this year in the Nov. 5 election. He shocked Atlantic City’s political establishment by defeating incumbent Mayor Lorenzo Langford, a Democrat, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by a nine to one margin.
“I said I thought we needed to bring all of the different groups within Atlantic City together,” Guardian told the Blade. “And that extended to race, color, creed, national origin, political parties, sexual orientation and gender.”
For the past 21 years, Guardian has worked as executive director of the Atlantic City Improvement District, a non-profit corporation recently acquired by the state government that provides services to the city’s tourism district where more than a dozen casinos and upscale hotels are located.
Guardian said he believes he succeeded in defining himself as a good-government reform candidate capable of using his knowledge and experience in running the tourism district to address the longstanding problems plaguing the rest of the city, where most of the residents live.
“From a city standpoint the services are very, very poor,” he said. “From not cleaning the streets or replacing lights, paving roads, maintaining parks and playgrounds, cleaning beaches, maintaining the boardwalk – services that you would expect from a city to be commonplace – are not,” he said.
“And yet we have the third highest budget in the State of New Jersey. Only Newark and Jersey City are larger than us,” he said. “And we have the largest workforce in the state.”
Added Guardian, “I ran on a platform that I was going to bring those services to the other half of the city that was not receiving them.”
Pointing to his promise to limit his tenure in office to two terms, Guardian said he also “ran on a campaign that I needed eight years to clean up this city, to bring development back, to bring housing back, to bring up the standards, to lower taxes and to reduce crime.”
To the surprise of many of the city’s political observers, he attracted the support of constituency groups that traditionally back Democratic candidates, including a key local labor union and Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander advocacy groups.
Also on his agenda, he said, are plans to strengthen efforts already under way to promote Atlantic City as an entertainment and beach destination in addition to its well-known reputation as a center for casino gambling. With many other states legalizing casino gambling, Atlantic City no longer has an East Coast monopoly on gaming, Guardian said, making it essential that the city “reinvent itself” as a destination with attractions other than gaming.
Among the groups that endorsed Guardian were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, and the Pakistani-American Muslim Organization of South Jersey.
Guardian said rank-and-file Democrats clearly crossed over to vote for him following what he says was an aggressive grassroots campaign in which he knocked on the doors of more than 3,000 homes to listen to what people’s concerns were.
“There’s no question – Democrats and independents are the reason that I’m the mayor-elect today,” he said. “They provided the majority of my volunteers, the majority of the funding.”
Following a recount and careful examination of mail-in and provisional ballots counted during a 10-day period after the Nov. 5 election, the Atlantic County Board of Elections last week issued its final vote count in the mayoral race.
Guardian received 3,929 votes compared to Langford, who received 3,568 votes, showing Guardian won by a razor-thin 361-vote margin. An independent candidate, John McQueen, received 230 votes.
Although Guardian beat Langford by a close margin, election results show he received 1,032 more votes in Atlantic City than Gov. Chris Christie, who won his statewide re-election bid by a landslide.
In Democratic dominated Atlantic City, Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono beat Christie, a Republican, by a vote of 4,293 to 2,897. In the statewide vote, Christie trounced Buono by a margin of 60 percent to 38 percent, catapulting him into the national spotlight as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Guardian said that although he has yet to meet Christie, the governor initiated policies in his first term to boost economic development efforts in Atlantic City. He said he looks forward to an amicable relationship with the Christie administration.
Most political observers said Langford’s relationship with Christie became strained last year when he and Christie clashed over an evacuation plan for Atlantic City during the onset of Tropical Storm Sandy, which devastated much of the Southern New Jersey coast.
Guardian, in describing himself as a political newcomer, said he was unaware of the existence of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national political organization that raises money for openly LGBT candidates running for public office. Had he applied for and received an endorsement from the Victory Fund, he could have received additional financial support for his campaign.
“I have to tell you I was very naïve in not knowing there was such a thing as organized gay, lesbian, transgender support, either financial or otherwise,” he said. “And so no, I never applied and no one contacted me.”
Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, said there is no state Log Cabin organization in New Jersey, which prevented Log Cabin from endorsing Guardian under the group’s bylaws.
“I had my eye on this but we were not involved,” Angelo told the Blade. “But the fact that we have an elected gay Republican is a good thing.”
While he had few connections with LGBT organizations, Guardian said he supported LGBT equality during his tenure with the Atlantic City Special Improvement District, which he said adopted its own internal non-discrimination policy for LGBT employees.
As a longtime member and leader of the Rotary Clubs of Southern New Jersey, Guardian said he and his partner of 19 years, Louis Fatato, used the occasion of Guardian’s 2005 induction ceremony as district governor of the Rotary International organization of South Jersey to formally announce they had legally filed for a domestic partnership.
“It was great for us to announce it,” he said. “This was a great day for Rotary and for me personally. I have a domestic partnership and I’m also being inducted as a governor of Rotary International.”
During this year’s mayoral campaign, Guardian said he expressed his support for same-sex marriage in New Jersey in response to a question presented to him and Langford during a candidate debate.
“He said that was a national issue and he was a Christian and everybody has their own views,” said Guardian. “My response was the courts have made it very clear that gay marriage is a civil rights issue and that I would always stand on the right side of civil rights.”
Added Guardian: “In other words, I’m not supporting it because I’m a gay guy. I’m supporting it because the courts have already ruled that New Jersey has to provide gay marriage and that our current domestic partnership is not the same as civil marriage and therefore it had to be changed.”
According to Guardian, Langford never raised Guardian’s sexual orientation directly on the campaign trail in his public statements. But Guardian said a letter that the Langford campaign sent to voters urged voters to ask Guardian about “his unacceptable lifestyle.”
Neither Langford’s office nor his campaign responded to a request from the Blade for comment on this and other issues surrounding the campaign.
Similarly, the Atlantic County Democratic Party Chair, James Schroeder, and the county’s Republican Party Chair, Keith Davis, did not return calls seeking comment on Guardian’s election as mayor. Atlantic City is located within Atlantic County.
Also not responding to calls from the Blade for comment on Guardian’s election were spokespersons for Christie.