Both U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and his Democratic challenger, Bill Hughes Jr., spent the summer and part of the fall promoting themselves and painting each other as worse for the region’s dominant industry, as casino after casino closed.
The closing of at least four casinos in 2014 has walloped the 2nd Congressional District: More than 90 percent of the 31,600 casino workers registered with the state in July lived in ZIP codes within the district.
Now, with the closing of the Atlantic Club, Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza, and the threatened shutdown of Trump Taj Mahal, as many as 11,000 of those district residents could find themselves jobless by Thanksgiving.
Both Hughes and LoBiondo have long-standing ties to the region’s casino industry.
Detailed campaign finance reports from the first two quarters of 2014 show LoBiondo reported $10,500 from four gambling-related political action committees, including the largest amount, $5,000, from the Caesars Entertainment PAC, out of $1.5 million in total campaign contributions.
Federal Election Commission filings show LoBiondo also received $1,150 from individuals who could be identified as directly working for the casino industry.
Hughes received nothing from gambling-related PACs out of about a half-million dollars in donations, according to the FEC. Instead, casino industry employees gave him $9,500, with $6,500 coming from his sisters Lynne and Tama Hughes, both top Atlantic City casino executives.
N. Lynne Hughes, 56, of Ocean City, serves as Caesars Entertainment’s vice president and chief legal officer for its eastern division. She has represented the company’s different casinos in front of the Casino Control Commission and elsewhere.
Tama B. Hughes, 52, also of Ocean City, is a vice president and corporate counsel for Tropicana Casino and Resort. She previously was an assistant prosecutor in the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, and her name was floated as a potential county prosecutor there in 2002.
Neither responded to requests for comment earlier this summer. A third sister, Barbara Sullivan, 54, of Alexandria, Virginia, has no casino industry connection.
Bill Hughes said he takes pains to separate his campaign from his sisters’ business interests.
“Going back very early on, my mom had a very simple rule: no politics or law at the table,” Hughes said in August. But he does not campaign in a vacuum: “If I say or do something that is remotely impacting, I make sure that they know about it.”
Members of Congress have a limited role in the state’s gambling industry. Federal law limits sports wagers, but New Jersey otherwise regulates Atlantic City’s casinos. Regardless, when Showboat Casino Hotel announced it would close this summer, both Hughes and LoBiondo held separate Boardwalk press conferences.
Hughes and a dozen supporters in July first criticized the casino’s parent company, Caesars Entertainment, for planning to close the casino at summer’s end. He also criticized LoBiondo for not doing more to stop Showboat from closing, saying the congressman doesn’t have a plan to save local jobs.
“He has a plan to save his own job,” Hughes said at the time, and promoted his idea to target foreign trade with Atlantic City International Airport.
A week later, LoBiondo joined state Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who announced a package of proposed state bills to help casino workers. The congressman said it was important to show solidarity with the workers, even though there was little that could be done at the federal level.
“Where is the regard for the men and women who are responsible for this being a profitable facility?” LoBiondo asked at the time. “Where is Caesars’ responsibility for all the years when things were really good?” LoBiondo later disclosed that he had talked with Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, and told him he would stand with the workers.
Hughes repeated his attack that LoBiondo stood by as joblessness engulfed the district in a television ad that shows the candidate walking the streets of Atlantic City, shuttered casinos behind him. Hughes says in the ad, “When Frank LoBiondo went to Congress, more than 47,000 people worked here, but in 20 years about half of these jobs have disappeared.”
LoBiondo quickly criticized Hughes for holding a fundraiser with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat whom the LoBiondo campaign labeled as “the man directly responsible for expanding regional gaming competition against New Jersey.”
LoBiondo even ran an advertisement that featured three casino workers, repeatedly naming Hughes and claiming he was “bankrolling his campaign with the same people who brought gaming to Pennsylvania and want to bring it to North Jersey.”
Ultimately, it was LoBiondo, who again won the endorsement of Local 54 of UNITE-HERE, the dominant casino employee union. In a statement, union President Bob McDevitt said LoBiondo “stood strong with the men and women of Local 54 as we continue to weather the repercussions of casino closures in Atlantic City.”
On Friday, both men asserted they were best for the region’s casino work force.
“Well, I didn’t just come to their defense this year,” LoBiondo said, adding that he has long been involved on their behalf. This is particularly relevant now as casino workers face “the most horrible challenge they have.”
Saying LoBiondo has ignored district unemployment, Hughes argued instead he has the energy, drive and vision to diversify the local economy, which he said is long overdue.
“These are the people who are the engine for the regional economy,” Hughes said, “and they are the ones who are taking it on the chin from the failure to heed those long-term warning signs.”