Politics still haunt North Jersey casino debate
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Politics still haunt North Jersey casino debate
Politics still haunt North Jersey casino debate
Friday, August 07, 2015
By John V. Santore
For now, a North Jersey casino referendum is dead in Trenton.
But the issue is alive in the 2nd Legislative District, where both assemblymen running for reelection
have pledged their opposition to an expansion of gambling outside Atlantic City.
Assemblyman Chris Brown says that while he unveiled a tangible legislative plan to end the expansion
debate in 2014, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo is offering only rhetorical opposition to northern casinos
because of political pressure.
Last week, Brown, R-Atlantic, highlighted an $8,200 donation Mazzeo received in June from
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who wants casinos in Hudson, Bergen, and Essex counties. Mazzeo
has also received pledges of support from Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who has expressed
openness to northern gambling.
Brown said Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, is afraid to alienate such powerful backers. For that reason, Brown
said he believes, Mazzeo privately supported the Republican's anti-expansion plan before reversing
himself and dishonestly distancing himself from it publicly this year.
"It's no secret his political bosses changed his mind so his position would not interfere with Sweeney's
plans to garner needed North Jersey support to run for governor," Brown said, suggesting Sweeney's
openness to a gambling expansion will earn him northern votes.
Prieto declined to respond to Brown's remarks last week. Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Sweeney,
said Brown's "words and actions don't accomplish anything constructive for Atlantic City or Atlantic
Legalized gambling can be extended outside Atlantic City only by a popular constitutional referendum,
which must first be approved by the Legislature.
Mazzeo dismissed Brown's "conspiracy theories" last week, saying he never supported Brown's plan
and has fought northern casinos consistently.
He said he has effectively lobbied his fellow Democrats and the Democratic leadership against an
expansion referendum, though he declined to name the Democrats he has convinced to oppose it.
Brown, however, said he initiated an action plan more than a year ago, authoring a resolution that
would have put Assembly members on the record against a referendum vote until January. The
resolution also would have required an economic impact study to be completed before that vote was
Brown said Mazzeo supported the idea during a private meeting in July 2014 that was also attended by
state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, another expansion opponent.
"The strategy was to introduce a bipartisan resolution with a majority of the Assembly as sponsors,"
Brown said. Doing so would "end the talk of a North Jersey casino," which Brown said is inherently
detrimental to Atlantic City's redevelopment.
By September, Brown had obtained 23 additional Republican signatures for the resolution, delivering
them to Mazzeo on Sept. 15. A total of 41 signatures constitutes a majority of the Assembly.
In an associated letter, Brown offered to make Mazzeo the bill's first prime sponsor, but the Democrat
returned the resolution Oct. 3 without any Democratic signatures.
Confusingly, Mazzeo's name had been added above the bill's prime sponsor line, before being whited
out. According to Brown, Mazzeo said he "didn't want to upset anyone."
That day, Brown sent Mazzeo a letter expressing his disappointment, adding, "I disagree with your
concern about offending people."
Mazzeo rejected every aspect of the story last week. He said he doesn't remember discussing the
resolution in detail in July — Whelan said the same — adding he didn't offer support for the idea in
Regarding the signature, he said it was added by mistake by a "legislative aide," though he wouldn't say
Mazzeo said he never supported the resolution because it wasn't legally binding.
"If it would stop the referendum question, then I would have signed it in a heartbeat," Mazzeo said.
"But it wasn't a binding resolution. To me, it didn't make any sense, and it gave false hopes to the
people of Atlantic County."
Brown didn't introduce the resolution in 2014, a fact the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee
has said proves it was a partisan stunt.
In response, Brown said introducing it without Democratic support would have shown that South
Jersey politicians were divided on the issue, hurting the anti-expansion cause. If reelected, he said, he'll
revisit the resolution strategy next year.
For his part, Whelan has portrayed the resolution issue as political gamesmanship, describing it as a
"totally ineffective" gesture that failed to halt talk of a gambling expansion.
Whelan said a referendum vote is virtually guaranteed in the Legislature, and he'll spend his energy
"coming up with a viable strategy to beat this at the ballot box" once it gets that far.
"I live in reality," Whelan said, contrasting himself with Brown. "I don't live in lala land."