Last week, Business Insider created a stir when it used demographic data to rank the 50 “most miserable” cities in America. Though California led the way with ten municipalities, considerably smaller New Jersey was close behind, with nine—including Newark, Trenton, Camden, and Paterson. Why was this case? I was asked. Several days later, an answer arrived, with the news that Atlantic City’s mayor, Frank Gilliam, had resigned after pleading guilty to stealing money from a nonprofit youth basketball club he’d help start, using the money to buy designer clothes and expensive meals. Part of a long line of Atlantic City mayors pushed out of office in disgrace, Gilliam had been elected mayor two years ago—defeating incumbent reformer Don Guardian with backing from a coalition of “top Democrats, unions, online gaming companies,” and other Jersey powerbrokers who thought that “there’s still money to be made” in the currently insolvent city, as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it.
Dishonest mayors who step down in disgrace are “A Jersey Tradition,” as a recent headline in another paper described the long, debilitating history of municipal corruption in the Garden State. There, urban political machines manufacture politicians who regularly enrich themselves at the expense of those that elect them, preferring to line their pockets instead of building—or, in the case of Jersey cities, rebuilding—communities. Sometimes they hijack local institutions, like the school system, and use them as patronage mills, ensuring that the system doesn’t do its job. Or they steal directly from residents, including some of the country’s neediest people. Cities already suffering from urban ills like deindustrialization, high crime, and drug use wind up governed by political machines with little interest in doing the hard work of revival. This status quo goes unreformed because Garden State cities are run by one party—a machine party, consisting of politically connected Democrats, government unions, businesses, and nonprofits that feed off government money. With change virtually impossible, everyone who can manage it gets out, leaving the least capable residents to fend for themselves.
Atlantic City exemplifies this model. Though the city didn’t make the most-miserable list, Condé Nast Traveler once ranked it the world’s worst vacation destination, and a 2010 state report labeled it “unclean and unsafe.” Its success for decades lay in its flouting of laws that other localities forced themselves to live by. From the late nineteenth century through World War II, Atlantic City was a rogue town that openly permitted gambling, prostitution and, during Prohibition, speakeasies. When a Jersey governor sent a tough prosecutor to rein in residents in 1908, local grand juries refused to bring the indictments he sought. When Washington dispatched Prohibition agents in the 1920s, municipal officials jailed them and held them incommunicado, prompting a Justice Department official to call the town “the most corrupt city in America.” Congressional inquiries in the 1950s on Mafia influence in the U.S. included an entire hearing devoted to Atlantic City, which one senator dubbed “a rotten town.”
Despite this colorful history, state residents voted in 1976 to give Atlantic City an exclusive right to legal gambling, amid promises that the mob wouldn’t be allowed into the business. Jersey made this deal even though two consecutive mayors preceding the vote were convicted of extortion and kicked out of office. Once legalized gambling arrived, two more mayors were driven from office in the 1980s, including Michael Matthews, whom the FBI caught on tape bragging about his connections with big-time gangsters like Philadelphia boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and his underboss Phil Leonetti. Matthews later admitted that “greed got the best of me,” which, one local businessman said, “should be the logo of the whole town.”
The corruption was reflected in expensive but ineffective public institutions. For years, Atlantic City, blessed with casino tax revenue, had one of state’s highest-paid police forces—but also one of Jersey’s highest crime rates. Its schools still spend more per pupil than even many rich suburban districts, but its student performance ranks among the worst in the state—even when measured against similar urban districts. When Pennsylvania legalized casinos in 2004, Atlantic City lost its regional hold on the gambler’s dollar and went bust. The state took over governance of the city in 2016.
Atlantic City is not alone. Hugh Addonizio, Newark’s mayor during the city’s sixties-era civil disturbances, was elected with Mafia help and ultimately convicted by federal prosecutors of extortion (along with several other city officials). Sharpe James, who governed Newark from 1986 through 2006, was convicted of rigging the sale of city property and sent to federal prison. Officials prosecuted numerous other members of his administration, including the police commissioner and the mayor’s chief of staff. One prosecutor, reflecting on Newark during those years, said, “They should tie a yellow ribbon around City Hall and designate it a crime scene.” From the time that Addonizio governed Newark to the time that James departed, the city’s population declined from more than 400,000 people to 275,000.
Meantime, Camden, once described as the “most dangerous city in America,” saw three mayors busted for corruption during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002, the state took over the city and maintained control until 2010. In 2013, Jersey took control of the city’s school system—then the worst-performing in the state. So entrenched is the corruption and ineffective governance in Camden that even reformers have struggled to get a grip on local problems. In 2014, city officials, tired of the local police force’s lackluster efforts against crime, took the unprecedented step of disbanding their force and forming with the surrounding county a new, countywide force that it hopes can be more effective.
Jersey is the home of the big corruption bust. The infamous Abscam investigation, in which federal officials created a shell company run by fake Arab sheiks to bribe local and federal officials, was based heavily in New Jersey. The investigation brought down a senator and congressman from Jersey, along with a Camden mayor, Angelo Errichetti, who tried to sell Atlantic City casino licenses. More recently, Operation Big Rig—a federal investigation begun in 2002—has snared more than two dozen local officials, including former mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, and Ridgefield, and a deputy mayor of Jersey City. In separate investigations over the last five years, mayors of Passaic and Trenton—two entries on the “most miserable” list—have been convicted of corruption.
Benjamin Franklin called New Jersey a “keg tapped at both ends,” a reference to the bordering cities of New York and Philadelphia, to which much of the state’s commerce flowed during the country’s colonial period. Today, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that Jersey is a keg tapped by its corrupt political culture—especially in its dysfunctional cities.