Mayor of Atlantic City Don Guardian says the cure for the ailing Jersey Shore city will require some pain. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

ATLANTIC CITY —With the sun still rising and a chilly ocean wind rolling in, Mayor Don Guardian hops on his bike for his regular morning ride, steering down the boardwalk toward the ruins of his city’s once mighty gambling empire.

He pedals past the Revel, auctioned last week for a fraction of its $2.4 billion development cost. He passes the Showboat, with “closed” signs on the doors, and then the Trump Taj Mahal, which might close next month. Trump Plaza’s doors are bolted shut. When he finally reaches the Atlantic Club at the other end, the only signs of life are a few circling seagulls.

Guardian, 61, qualifies as one of the nation’s unlikeliest mayors. A gay white Republican, Guardian unseated an African American Democrat last year in a city long dominated by liberals and minorities. His victory earned him a $65 million budget shortfall, 8,000 newly unemployed casino workers and perhaps the worst political job in the country.

With casinos opening in Pennsylvania, Maryland and other East Coast states, Guardian was expecting hard times. “The monopoly on gambling closed five years ago,” Guardian told residents in a speech early in his term. “Nobody told you. I’m sorry for the bad news. The party is over.”

But nobody, including him, anticipated this summer’s unraveling, with nearly half the city’s 12 casinos now shuttered and several others teetering on bankruptcy. The self-described “non-politician” is scrambling to cut city expenses and rebuild a gambling mecca as a beach resort that just happens to have some gambling.

Guardian’s daily bike rides have become a city hall on wheels. Municipal workers picking up garbage inquire about upcoming budget cuts. Jobless casino workers seek help applying for benefits. Other times, people shout, “You suck!” Guardian’s answer: “I know. But in a couple years you’ll like me again.”

In electing Guardian, voters bet on his charm — he wears a bow tie and natty suits picked out by his longtime partner, whom he married in July — and his success leading a city improvement group for two decades. He is credited with transforming Atlantic City’s sketchy boardwalk into an appealing destination with Adirondack chairs, big-screen TVs and cellphone charging stations.

“He knows where every board is on that boardwalk, and he probably knows where the nails are missing,” says Israel Posner, the executive director of Stockton College’s gaming institute. “In many ways he’s perfectly suited to deal with the changing face of Atlantic City. I don’t think anybody knows the city better than him.”

But some of his supporters still think his odds are grim, even with a key asset — the beach — unlikely to file for bankruptcy.

“I think this town is done and over with,” says Barry Diamond, a 61-year-old Republican who has been selling jewelry on the boardwalk next to the Atlantic Club for 14 years.

Hours go by without Diamond seeing any people. He reads the paper and feeds stray cats. He’s closing soon and moving to Florida. The shadows of the deserted Atlantic Club fill the boardwalk in front of his booth. “I can’t even look at that building,” he says, “without throwing up.”

A city on the brink

Guardian sees what’s happening to his city of 40,000 residents as a painful rebirth, not a painful ending. It was his message during his seemingly ludicrous bid for mayor. Atlantic City hadn’t had a Republican mayor since 1990. Nearly 40 percent of its residents are African American, including the then-incumbent mayor, Lo­ren­zo Langford. An additional 30 percent are Hispanic. Dem­ocrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1.

Mayor Don Guardian waves at a local walking the boardwalk as he passes the huge shuttered Revel Casino. Guardian rides his bike every morning starting at dawn and passes all of the closed casinos during his several-mile ride. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

For years, friends and colleagues urged Guardian — a social liberal and fiscal conservative — to run. He always refused, saying a great candidate is someone in his 60s who has done important work in various local organizations, doesn’t have children to worry about anymore and isn’t interested in using the position as a steppingstone. “One day I woke up,” he says, “and fit the description.”

Guardian connected with Chris Filiciello, a former presidential appointee in the George W. Bush administration working in a state agency. They staged an old-school campaign. Guardian, wearing his bow tie, knocked on 50 doors a day during the week, and 150 on Saturdays, with Sundays off to rest. His pitch was simple:

“I’m Don Guardian,” he’d say. “I’m running for mayor because I think I can make this a better place.”

About 3,000 door knocks later, Guardian won. Langford was so stunned that he sent a letter, on mayoral letterhead, to supporters saying the election was “hijacked” because nobody who is “republican, Caucasian, and gay, would win a city-wide election against me, or another credible popular candidate.” (Efforts to reach Langford were unsuccessful.)

Linda G. Steele, president of the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP, says Guardian simply worked harder than his opponent.

“People were actually getting tired of seeing him,” says Steele, a Langford supporter. “People are persuaded when you come to their door and ask for their vote. Whether I voted for him or not, he put in the time and effort.”

For all his hard work, Guardian was handed a city on the brink. Credit-rating firms have lowered the city’s ratings, raising the cost of borrowing. Headlines about the city have been brutal. “Once fabled Atlantic City hits free fall,” one said. “The Atlantic City Dream is Dead,” read another. Longtime residents and business owners are beginning to give up.

“Everyone hopes,” says Antonio Marega, who works at a men’s clothing store on Atlantic Avenue. “We’ve been hoping for years. But nothing changes.”

Guardian blames past city officials and casino owners for the problems. Both, he says, ignored the coming competition, doubling down on gambling and ignoring what used to make Atlantic City special and delightfully weird.

“There used to be a ‘wow’ factor here,” Guardian says. “The guy sitting on top of a flagpole. The lady on a horse jumping into a pool. We need that ‘wow’ factor back.”

Instead, casino owners employed the old Las Vegas mentality of keeping gamblers in the casinos as long as possible. “Close off the windows, forget about the clocks,” Guardian says. “The reason you only had gamblers here is that there was nothing else to do. We got drunk on the money.”

Guardian is pushing hotel and casino owners to take a more resort-like approach, as the Borgata has done. (His husband, Louis Fatato, is a spa manager there.) He’s pushing for more big weekend events in the city, pointing to this summer’s packed Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Michael Buble concerts as big successes. He wants more conferences during the week. He’s hoping for a college to move into the Atlantic Club.

There are a few encouraging signs amid the wreckage. Resorts reported solid bookings this summer. Air and rail travel into the city were up, according to the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Richard Stockton College. But bus traffic was down more than 20 percent. Guardian acknowledges that those day-tripping gamblers from Pennsylvania and Maryland are probably not coming back.

He’s still trying to fill the $65 million crater in the city’s budget for next year. After raising taxes 29 percent this year, Guardian knows it would be catastrophic to ask residents and businesses for more. Instead, he’s asking Gov. Chris Christie (R) and other state leaders for $50 million in help, while slashing an additional $15 million through layoffs and department cuts. He wants to shift some city services to the county.

Guardian is ramping up services in one area: The city is cleaning streets five times a week instead of twice a month. Even as he deals with a mess behind the scenes, the mayor wants the city to look immaculate. It will give residents one less thing to gripe about and buy him time.

‘A great salesman’

Guardian says he has no political aspirations beyond city hall. All he wants is two terms as mayor. “I need eight years to clean it up, to make it better for kids and grandkids,” he said. Then retire to Florida? No. “I want to live in the city I made better.”

Even some of the city’s toughest critics are willing to bet on him.

“The people of Atlantic City have finally, for the first time in a couple generations, elected someone who understands what it’s like to live in Atlantic City and deal with our problems,” says Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, which represents casino workers. “In many ways his best feature is that he is guileless.”

After the bike ride, Guardian changes into a suit picked out by his husband. He goes to Caesars Atlantic City to welcome a convention on minority business in the city. He is introduced to the theme music from the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire.” Guardian takes the microphone from the lectern and walks into the crowd, moving between tables as he speaks.

“If you’re not having a good time,” he tells them, “I’m not doing my job as mayor. This is a place where whether you’re looking for craft beer or single-malt Scotches, whether you’re looking for foie gras or great waffles and chicken, you’re gonna find it here and you’re gonna find it at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The crowd laughs and applauds.

“And if you can’t find it,” he adds, “call my office and I’ll tell you where to go.”

At a back table, a woman whispers, “He’s a great salesman for the city.”

The guy next to her replies, “He’s got a tough job.”