BY CLYDE HUGHES, AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY — It has not been an easy road for Frank Gilliam, but the 48-year-old Atlantic City native is now the face of the city heading into his 200th day as mayor.
And while Gilliam, a two-term city councilman in his hometown, had to battle controversies – many from within his own Democratic Party – he said in an interview our initial interview with Front Runner New Jersey, he is ready to put those things aside. He talked about not only getting control of city finances back from the state of New Jersey but as mayor being a role model for the youth watching him in office.
“(Being a role model) is tremendously important,” Gilliam said. “Young people mimic what they see most. Here, you can see professionals from all walks, whether it’s a doctor, lawyer, firemen, all of the African-American persuasion. I can honestly tell you it made a significant impact on how I looked at the world.
“As a native of Atlantic City as well as an African-American, I hold that space and I want to share with young African-Americans in the community and regionally. We can rise up above the adversities that we face to become something that not only our families, but our heritage can be proud of,” he continued.
In a city that has been electing mayors since 1865, Gilliam is the Atlantic City’s third African-American mayor. James Leroy Usry was the first, serving from 1984 to 1990. Lorenzo Tyrone Langford was the second, serving on two separate occasions – from 2002 to 2006 and then again in 2008 to 2014. Gilliam said filling that relatively new legacy of African-American leadership from the mayor’s seat is bittersweet.
“I take (being Atlantic City’s third African-American mayor) with a certain amount of pride, but also with a certain amount of displeasure. From inception, African-Americans were part of the landscape of Atlantic City and making this town what it is. To only have three tells you we haven’t (progressed) as much as we think we have.
“It’s a great feeling (to be the face of Atlantic City), but humbled by the entire process. What it stands for me, is a level of African-American excellence. I have a great deal on my shoulder to make sure the city prospers and does well. Also, I understand the scrutiny and set of eyes and ears that are on you as an African-American leader in America,” he added.
Gilliam knows the territory. He was born and raised in Atlantic City and was a basketball star on his high school basketball team before graduating from Atlantic City High School in 1988. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Stockton University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of San Francisco.
After leaving the city for a period of time, he returned in 2007 and two years later won a spot on city council.
Gilliam’s rise to the mayor’s seat and his first several months in office has been a test by fire. First, he defeated then Atlantic City’s city council president Marty Smalls in a testy Democratic primary and then beat Republican incumbent Don Guardian last November.
Since taking office Gilliam was hounded by some members of his own party over a $10,000 campaign check that made its way into his account instead of the party’s.
The controversy played out in the local media as the city’s Democratic committee took Gilliam to court despite him acknowledging the oversight and paying the money back. In April, a New Jersey Superior Court judge threw out the lawsuit, citing that there was no probable cause to support the complaint.
Gilliam said he was glad the incident happened early on in his tenure as mayor to know exactly where his friends and foes lied as he worked to keep the city’s momentum moving forward.
“Atlantic County still a segregated and race-oriented county,” Gilliam said. “I realize that head people come in certain targets on their backs. I’m a strong believer in what doesn’t kill you make you stronger. I was able to learn where the snakes were before getting deep into the work. Now what we’re doing the work of the city, I know where my opposition lies.”
Gilliam and city officials have plenty to do along with what has already been done. After losing thousands of jobs to the closing of four casinos nearly several years ago, Atlantic City celebrated in June the opening of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in the place of the former Trump Taj Mahal and the Ocean Resort Casino, which filled the former Revel Casino. Each casino hired 3,000 people.
Stockton College will open up its new Atlantic City campus along the city’s famed Boardwalk in September.
“I believe some of the goals ran on, like increasing the employment rate, we have been able to do in the first seven months,” Gilliam said. “We lost 8,000 with the closing of four casinos. Fortunately, with enough community partners, we’ve been able to get up to 7,500 of those back.”
Gilliam said that the city was able to work with the Hard Rock, for example, to provide job training for many Atlantic City residents who had been locked out of the job market.
“We want to continue to do the things we need to for the city,” Gilliam said. “We want it to benefit not just the tourism district, but north side and where the residents are. That’s what is most important. We want to develop youth-oriented programs for the 10,000 kids who live in Atlantic City.”
The mayor said, though, the major goal of taking the city’s finances back from the state remains a goal not yet met. The state took over Atlantic City’s finances under Republican government Chris Christie and it became a campaign issue last fall. Gilliam said he believes that he will be able to work with new governor Pat Murphy, where the city can once again conduct its own financial business.
“I just want to say that Atlantic City is alive and well,” Gilliam said. “We’ve started to put this ship in the right direction. We’re very proud with what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short period. With open-mindedness and the ability to work with each other and with others, Atlantic City’s best days are ahead.”
And Gilliam will continue for now to be the face of Atlantic City’s changing fortunes.
Photo courtesy of City of Atlantic City.