Former NJ Senate President and Atlantic City Ally Stephen Sweeney Mounts Gubernatorial Bid

Posted on: December 12, 2023, 08:42h. 

Last updated on: December 15, 2023, 10:19h.

Stephen Sweeney, the longtime New Jersey lawmaker who was a political newcomer, shockingly defeated during the 2021 election, is mounting a comeback with his eyes set on the highest office in the Garden State.

Stephen Sweeney New Jersey Atlantic City
Former New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney shakes hands with former Gov. Chris Christie on Jan. 21, 2014. Sweeney is seeking the state’s highest office in 2025. (Image: The Star-Ledger)

Sweeney served as president of the New Jersey Senate from 2012 until January 2022, when he was forced out of office after losing to state Sen. Edward Durr (R-Gloucester), a little-known truck driver who spent just $153 on his campaign. The shocking upset made national news.

Sweeney assured South Jersey voters his political career wasn’t finished after the defeat. This week, he announced his 2025 gubernatorial campaign to succeed term-limited Gov. Phil Murphy (D).

Sometimes in life, you face setbacks,” Sweeney said in a social media video. “But New Jerseyans get up, we dust ourselves off, we get back to work, because that’s who we are. I will always put New Jersey’s kids, working families, and seniors first. You know that’s who I’ll fight for because that’s who I’ve always fought for.”

Sweeney was also a devout fighter for the Atlantic City gaming industry and regularly pushed for legislative issues that he believed were in the best interests of the beachfront casino town.

Atlantic City Advocate

During his time in state office, Sweeney championed measures designed to improve Atlantic City. He opposed efforts to force the casinos to go smoke-free on industry suggestions that such a regulation would hurt the gaming business and lead to massive layoffs.

In 2016, Sweeney authored the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Tax) bill that withdrew property taxes on the city’s casino resorts in exchange for an annual minimum collective payment of $120 million. The PILOT program came after five casinos closed between 2014 and 2016, causing the remaining resorts to contest their assessed property tax valuations.

Those legal challenges suspended property tax payments and resulted in the local government being unable to fund critical programs like its police and fire departments.

The PILOT scheme calculates the casinos’ property tax responsibility based on annual gross gaming revenue (GGR). Before leaving office, Sweeney pushed legislation that reduced those payments by removing GGR from iGaming and online sports betting from the calculation. The casinos petitioned Sweeney that much of the GGR generated via the internet is shared with third-party operators like DraftKings with little or no physical presence in the beach town.

Atlantic County, receiving 13.5% of the PILOT money, fought against the bill. A compromise was reached where the state guaranteed the full amount of PILOT money the county would have received if iGaming and online sportsbook revenue were to remain in the calculation.

Bipartisan History

Sweeney is a self-described moderate Democrat. His time in Trenton included bipartisan moments, specifically when he and then-Gov. Chris Christie (R) teamed up to oversee Atlantic City’s governance.

In 2016, Christie and Sweeney initiated the state’s coup of Atlantic City to stabilize the region after the five casinos closed. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of runaway expenses, high taxes, and poor governance, the state’s two most powerful lawmakers said Trenton would steady the city over five years.

The takeover, however, remains in place more than seven years after it began. Murphy extended the state’s control of Atlantic City in 2021 through at least 2025.

“We still think they need help,” Sweeney said at the time of the extension. He added that “huge strides” had been made.