Christie Squares Off With Fulop Over Atlantic City Bailout Bill, Gubernatorial Politics

By David Cruz

Say this for Chris Christie, he has gotten really good at ratcheting up the rhetoric when he wants to make a point. This week, he threatened to let the entire Atlantic City rescue plan, and the prospect of North Jersey gaming, go up in flames because of the politics he says his opponents are playing. In this case, Speaker Vincent Prieto and his ally, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who Christie believes are in cahoots in an effort to undermine an Atlantic City plan promoted by the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“Because the mayor doesn’t want to see anything that Sen. Sweeney, who will be one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, succeed,” he charged at a press conference yesterday. “He also wants to sidle up closer to the public sector unions in the hope that he can get their endorsement, rather than Sen. Sweeney.”

We asked Fulop if he was so preoccupied with handing Sweeney a political defeat that he would engage the Assembly speaker in a plot to undermine the Atlantic City takeover bill.

“Let me say that the absurdity of that scenario is off the charts,” he replied. “Not only have the speaker and myself not discussed this, I’ve never read the bill, I’m not engaged in anything regarding Atlantic City. The North Jersey gaming at the end of last year pertained to Jersey City. This takeover bill does not pertain to Jersey City. I haven’t been involved in it.”

The Fulop camp suggested that the governor has a strange obsession with the mayor. Christie watcher Matt Katz of NJ Public Radio, says this all may be working in Fulop’s favor.

“I don’t know if it’s strange but he does have a bit of a — I’ll call it a bit of a — preoccupation and it has certainly helped Fulop in some respects because his name ID is up this week,” mused Katz. “And he gets to look like the chief foil against the governor in a state where the governor is very unpopular in advance of a gubernatorial election in which he’s going to be running against Sweeney.”

Prieto and Sweeney have been keeping their distance of late, although they insist that they’re still friends. Still, sources say the Atlantic City rescue bill, which has gotten Senate approval, will not be posted for a vote when the Assembly reconvenes next Thursday. Christie says if Prieto lets the bill die, there will be repercussions on the prospects of a North Jersey gaming expansion referendum in the fall.

“For all these legislators in the northern part of the state who have been on my back for six and a half years to approve North Jersey gaming, they should stop talking to me and go down the hall and talk to the speaker and tell him to stop setting up a situation where this referendum has no chance of winning,” snapped Christie. “And I’ll tell you this; if the Atlantic City takeover and PILOT bill are not passed and sent to my desk in their current form, I will oppose North Jersey gaming.”

“I think that’s mostly a threat,” suggested Katz. “I think he still supports the concept but it’s certainly a threat that has to give the speaker pause.”

As for Fulop? “The reality of the situation is that — Jersey City — we’re doing fine, with it [or] without it, and I feel comfortable that the way that we’ve structured our budget, structured the city, we’ll be fine,” he said. “I think North Jersey will be fine the same way, and you’re not going to hold anybody hostage.”

Sidelined in this high-powered battle of political gamesmanship are the Atlantic City mayor and council, who’ve had their say, to no avail, and are now having to postpone some paydays in order to avoid a total city shutdown, ironically unable to even declare bankruptcy without permission from the state.