Former Senate Majority Leader Steven Perskie, one of the most intellectually gifted people to ever serve in the New Jersey Legislature and one of the architects of casino gambling in Atlantic City, has been inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame.
Perskie was 26-years-old when he was elected to the State Assembly in 1972, as part of a Democratic team that toppled the powerful Atlantic County Republican machine. That was the year Joseph McGahn, the uncle of White House counsel Donald McGahn, toppled Frank “Hap” Farley, a legendary South Jersey political boss who had held the Atlantic County State Senate seat for 41 years.
He came from a politically influential family: Perskie’s grandfather was a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice; his grandmother served as president of the Atlantic City Board of Education; his father was a Superior Court Judge; his uncle was a Democratic Assemblyman from Cape May County; and his great-uncle was the photographer for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 and 1936 presidential campaigns.
In the ’71 Assembly race, Perskie and James Colasurdo, a 27-year-old lawyer, ousted GOP incumbent Samuel Curcio (the father of Atlantic County Surrogate James Curcio) and beat another Republican with political lineage: Brigantine Mayor Fritz Haneman, whose father had served as an Assemblyman and later as a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice. Perskie won that race by 4,142 votes.
Re-elected in 1973 and 1975, Perskie moved up to the State Senate in 1977 after Atlantic County Democrats refused to back McGahn’s bid for a third term. McGahn decided to run anyway, as an independent.
With casinos popular among local voters, the two fought over who had done more to legalize the industry.
Some viewed the race as a surrogate battle between Gov. Brendan Byrne and the Senator’s brother, Patrick “Paddy” McGahn, a South Jersey Democratic insider and lawyer/shareholder for Resorts International, one of the city’s casino operators. Paddy had convinced his brother to block one of Byrne’s judicial appointments until the governor signed off on something he wanted. That caused Byrne to trigger a State Commission of Investigation (back when the SCI had some balls) on allegations of influence peddling.
Perskie won the Senate seat in a landslide, defeating the Republican by 11,552 votes (48%-30%). McGahn finished a distant third with 22% of the vote, despite a healthy campaign warchest.
In 1981, Perskie and McGahn faced off in an expensive rematch – this time McGahn ran as a Republican. The two each spent about $200,000, or about $700,000 each in today’s dollars.
Six months earlier, the two fought over control of local government in Atlantic City, with McGahn backers winning three of five city commissioner seats. But Perskie succeeded in passing a change in government that would toss the McGahn supporters a year later.
In the campaign, Perskie attacked McGahn, an OB/GYN, for taking a high paying job as the house physician at Resorts International.
Perskie was narrowly re-elected, defeating McGahn by 1,953 votes, a 52%-48% race.
With Republican Assemblyman Bill Gormley preparing to challenge him in 1983, Perskie decided to leave the Senate in 1982 when Gov. Tom Kean appointed him to the New Jersey Superior Court. That paved the way for Gormley to move up to the Senate in a special election.
In 1989, Perskie left the bench to help his old Assembly colleague, Jim Florio, win election as governor. He served as Florio’s chief of staff until becoming chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1990. He resumed his law practice in 1994 – he was also the vice president and general counsel of Players International – and returned to the Superior Court in 2001.