New bad hand for down-on-its-luck town: missing mayor

Times Staff Writer

The mayor of this seaside gambling town hasn’t shown up for his usual cheese steak sandwich and root beer at a local submarine shop in more than a week.

Bob Levy didn’t arrive to take his seat at a City Council meeting on Wednesday, either. And when protesters gathered at City Hall on Friday demanding to know his whereabouts, the Democrat’s seventh-floor office sat empty, except for aides who wandered in and out.

People here reported seeing Levy drive off in his city-issued silver Dodge Durango amid a federal investigation into his inflated account of his Army service in Vietnam and a flurry of rumors about a pending resignation. It has been 11 days since he has been seen in public.


“Nobody’s heard from him,” said Phillip DiGesare, 65, over lunch a few blocks from City Hall at the White House Submarine Shop, where Levy often eats. “Nobody knows where he is.”

“His bodyguard is usually here every other day, and we haven’t seen him in a week either,” said waitress Terrie Merendino, 46. She recognizes most of the regulars who dine at the 60-year-old blue-and-white corner shop across from Caesars casino and Trump Plaza.

For longtime residents of this city of 40,500, Levy’s vanishing act hardly rouses more than a chuckle or a head shake. Four of the last eight mayors have been arrested. One-third of last year’s nine-member City Council is in prison or under house arrest. Former Council President Craig Callaway is in federal prison for taking bribes in office.

Councilman John J. Schultz is charged with helping frame another councilman, Eugene Robinson, who was allegedly lured to a hotel room and videotaped having sex with a prostitute. Councilman Timothy Mancuso is charged with driving while intoxicated -- behind the wheel of a city car, across the boardwalk and onto the beach in the middle of the night. Schultz, Robinson and Mancuso still serve on the council.

It’s not the first time Levy, who took office early last year, has dropped out of the public eye. People here say he has been a mostly invisible leader, taking periodic sick leaves and frequently failing to show up at his office. On Friday, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine held a news conference asking Atty. Gen. Anne Milgram to look into whether Levy had abandoned his office.

According to the mayor’s staff, Levy is in the hospital and his car is parked in the city lot. But a local newspaper reported the car gone last week.

“The mayor did not ride off into the sunset,” said spokesman Nicholas J. Morici. “He did not take his car and run off.”

He said the mayor did not want to disclose his whereabouts or his illness.

The mystery surrounding his disappearance has left locals wondering if it is a ploy cooked up to evade the federal investigation.

“Nobody gets outraged over political scandals anymore,” said DiGesare at the sub shop. “It’s so blatant. Every time you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television set there’s some asinine thing going on.”

Next to his sandwich rested a copy of the Press of Atlantic City, the newspaper that broke the story that Levy had not been a member of the Green Berets as he claimed. A story on the front of its local section last week led with a quote from a resident speaking at a City Council meeting last week: “What exactly is going on in this city?”

Life goes on anyway

The towering gold-and-white Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Resort here is expanding. Chain store outlets blanket the downtown area. MGM Mirage Inc. is planning to develop a $5-billion mini-city of casinos, hotels and condos beyond the boardwalk.

“All these things are happening without a real strong city government,” said Frank Dougherty, owner of Dock’s Oyster House, a restaurant that caters to the mayor and City Council members. Dougherty’s great-grandfather Harry “Dock” Dougherty opened the eatery 110 years ago, decades before casinos lined the boardwalk.

Atlantic City is in the midst of an high-price face lift. It has suffered financial slumps in recent years, and poverty and crime run high. Power-holders are trying to transform their city, now a day-trip gambling destination for retirees, into a vacation spot that rivals the Las Vegas Strip.

“Commerce is going to continue,” said Dougherty, who is hopeful about the revival, “with or without a mayor.”

For now, the city’s business administrator, Domenic Cappella, is acting mayor. A councilman asked a judge last week to appoint Council President William Marsh mayor pending a new election.

City Hall is still running during the mayor’s absence, but on a recent afternoon many offices in the nondescript black building were empty. A secretary in the mayor’s office fielded reporters’ calls as Levy’s chief of staff, Vanessa King, told visitors: “He’s on a medical leave of absence. Nothing has changed since yesterday.”

Nearby, the city spokesman’s office was empty. The mayor’s secretary said he had taken the day off and could not be reached by cellphone. Across the hall, another secretary said the acting mayor was also gone for the day. A council member’s office doors on the first floor stayed closed and locked.

Democratic state Assemblyman Jim Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor and childhood friend of Levy, stirred public criticism Sept. 27 when he called on the mayor to either explain himself or resign. The two grew up together and worked side by side as lifeguards as young men.

“Can you imagine? It’s like you and I since fifth grade knowing each other,” DiGesare said to his childhood friend Dominic Colangelo, 64, over a birthday lunch. Whelan betrayed Levy, he said. “It’s all political.”

Colangelo nodded. “A rat is a rat.”

A few blocks down at the oyster bar, Dougherty said he thinks Levy is a nice guy, but, he added, “Whelan had a point. He’s the mayor. He does have a responsibility to the people, and part of that responsibility is to be forthcoming.”

‘Like a crapshoot’

Inside O&A;’s Hair Bazaar on Atlantic City Avenue, the conversation between men waiting for haircuts and shaves turned to the running joke about city politics.

“It’s like a crapshoot,” said customer Richard Webber, 34. “Whoever gets in, it’s like, all right, let’s hope.” He clasped his hands in a praying pose.

For all the years of corruption and the revolving door or shady leaders, customers and barbers in this shop say little of it has affected them. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. It has been this way for decades.

In 1976, New Jersey voters approved casino gambling for Atlantic City in an effort to revitalize the city’s downtrodden economy. What developed was a glimmering tourist industry full of broken promises, residents say. Multimillion-dollar casinos were built steps away from blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“We don’t have our government dealing with things,” said barber Jimmy Bair, 33, who has lived in Atlantic City 25 years.

He turned to the shop full of customers and made an announcement: The mayor had said “ ‘Hold up, I’m sick, I got to go.’ And you ain’t heard from him since.”

The men sitting in chairs waiting for their turn under the razor laughed.

“The whole thing has just run amok,” said Webber. “Here we go again. It’s an embarrassment that he’s gone.”

But, Bair added, “this is nothing new to us.”