By MICHAEL DIAMOND and JOHN FROONJIAN Special Reports Unit, (609) 272-7227
It was Election Night, and the buzz turned raucous as the candidate celebrated with supporters in the congested hall. Away from center stage, a man in a black leather jacket hung back, blending into the crowd, making no fuss about his role in this victory.
A behind-the-scenes man, Eddie "DiNic" has managed to avoid the spotlight during four decades as a tough-talking former cop and businessman who has charmed and bulled his way into a position of influence.
While his name never makes the news ("Why would it?" he demanded. "I've never done anything wrong!"), Edward DiNicolantonio is a major player on Atlantic City's political scene. His work in electing Lorenzo Langford as Atlantic City mayor offers only the most recent evidence.
DiNic, as he is universally known, calls himself a "dying breed" of can-do political operatives. More of his colorful kind worked the streets before casinos. But no mere throwback could survive so well in the present.
He still knows how the local system works; after all, he brags, his family helped found the resort. He operates out of a print shop that used to be a back-alley bar off Tennessee Avenue. His style is vintage Atlantic City: make friends, get them elected and be there when contracts are handed out.
"He is a quintessential Atlantic City character," said Lou Toscano, an aide to Mayor Jim Whelan who knows DiNic.
"He's a gruff, plain-spoken fellow," Toscano said, "full of bluster - a lot like the town itself."
DiNic delivers elections. His specialty is finding absentee-ballot votes. He did it for the city's last four mayors and a dozen board members.
When DiNic worked against school board candidate Stephenine Dixon last year, she received 42 absentee ballots and lost. This year, with his backing, Dixon received nearly 400 absentee votes and won.
Many of those board members voted to give DiNic's cousin, Frank Siracusa, lucrative health insurance contracts. DiNic, as a Siracusa agent, earned commissions.
Critics cried "vote fraud" in two mayoral elections and two school board elections. Incumbent Whelan, who lost DiNic's earlier support, alleged fraudulent absentee ballots cost him the recent election.
"There is no fraud," DiNic said, practically shouting to make his point. "I've never been subpoenaed or indicted. And at age 65, I never want to be."
Langford lost at the polls, but the absentee-ballot drive created with DiNic's help put him over the top. Absentee ballots accounted for an unprecedented 15 percent of the mayoral vote. Langford will take the mayor's oath in January.
With friends in city hall and on the school board, DiNic is at the top of his game.
"After 40 years of doing this (stuff), I better deliver," he said.
* * *
Former board member Terry Perry said many board candidates' first move is to seek "DiNic's blessing."
How much influence does DiNic have over the board? Too much, said former member Jeffree Fauntleroy.
He claims prospective maintenance employees were interviewed at DiNic's office when Fauntleroy was on the board. He said in one instance, a friend was told he would have to register voters to be considered for employment.
DiNic denied the incident happened or that he meddles in district hiring. "I never attend board meetings."
But he always knows the score. He eats with board members at Perry's Cafe, a restaurant in the nearby Howard Johnson's where local bigwigs hold power lunches amid a diner-style atmosphere.
"Of course I pick up the check," he said. "It's chivalrous. What? I'm going to have a girl (board member) pick up the check? That would be horrible."
When pressed, he added: "For the guys too. I pick up the check."
Does he discuss board business? "Not always."
He acknowledges asking board members to vote for certain contracts, including Siracusa insurance work.
Other DiNic friends have done well by the board. Business and real estate partner Donald Targan, an attorney, collected more than $1 million in board legal work in the past six years. Attorney Joseph Jacobs, a family friend who grew closer after DiNic's sons died in their early 20s, also represented the board.
DiNic rejects criticism that his influence wins insurance contracts for Siracusa.
"Frank (the Siracusas) pioneered this town. Why shouldn't he get all the business?" DiNic said, his voice erupting. "He deserves it. He's the cheapest."
DiNic said he never seeks contracts in return for political support. That would be illegal. Perry and Fauntleroy said he doesn't have to. Cross DiNic, they said, and his absentee votes go to another candidate.
Ask the mayoral candidates.
For years, Langford was frustrated. DiNic's absentee ballot efforts regularly beat Langford-backed school board candidates. DiNic also supported Whelan over Langford in his 1998 mayoral election.
But last April, DiNic told Langford he was mad at Whelan and would help Langford beat him.
"I said: 'That's interesting,'" Langford recalled. "'That means I have a chance to win.'"
* * *
As a resort policeman in the 1960s, DiNic said, he received letters of commendation, avoided a notorious police-bribery scandal and saved the lives of three police officers. But when asked to describe the kind of police officer he was, DiNic's one-word answer was: "Practical."
"Everything is local. Everybody knew each other in Atlantic City in those days," he said. "If you found someone, they were a little tipsy, you took their keys and took them home.
"You had to live with these people," he explained.
This friends-helping-friends philosophy guides DiNic. Personality, politics and business are all connected.
"The wheel goes around fast in Atlantic City," he said. "And if you want to be here a long time, you gotta be a good guy."
DiNic grew up feeling he had a stake in Atlantic City. The resort was shaped by DiNic's and Siracusa's families, who ran hotels and restaurants. But DiNic in turn was shaped by the city's freewheeling style. He recalled it with affection.
"There were card games on every corner," he said. "There was a casino called Babette's. My mother, she was 17, 18 years old, she said she would bet the horses there for a nickel."
The practical DiNic couldn't support his family on a police officer's salary. He put his restaurant experience to use.
"I was a cop, but I also had a bar," he said, adding: "It was in my mother's name."
The Opus I operated in the building that now houses DiNic's print shop. The place was popular, but not with police brass. They pressured DiNic to make a career choice.
"I loved being a cop. But I was making $60,000 a year with the bar and about $3,500 a year as a police officer," he said. "So I went into the business."
Then-Police Chief Mario Floriani still had plans for DiNic, who spoke Italian. Floriani and Mike Marshall of Jeddo Construction were officers in the Italian Republican Club. They brought beer and pizza to meetings and organized 2,600 Ducktown residents into a voting bloc.
During this time, DiNic was tutored in the art of absentee-ballot electioneering. He practiced it in the 1982 mayoral election, helping Michael Matthews defeat James Usry.
Usry supporters charged DiNic and others tampered with absentee ballots. The charges didn't stick.
Two years later, Usry beat Matthews in a recall election as Matthews faced federal corruption charges. By then, DiNic was aligned with Usry.
In 1990, State Police arrested Usry in a corruption sting, and Jim Whelan beat Usry for mayor. DiNic was with Whelan.
"I don't support someone when they're getting indicted," DiNic said.
As DiNic scored in politics, he was winning at business too.
He started an ice cream business and eventually sold out to Jack & Jill Ice Cream.
He closed the Opus I bar and opened his silk screening shop. Disney gave DiNic a screening contract and he made "a ton of money," he said.
But personal tragedy eclipsed financial success. In the late 1980s, DiNic's son, Keith, got cancer.
"It was a slow-growing tumor. They cut out most of his liver," DiNic said. But it came back.
DiNic's father was also dying. DiNic moved into his parents' house to care for his family.
One night, his oldest son, Eddie, a track and football star, went jogging. "He never drank or smoke, and he was fast." Nobody knew he had hardening of the arteries. During that evening's jog, the young man collapsed at age 28.
"My father was in one bed, my son was in another. And I had to go tell them that Eddie died," he said, his voice low and measured.
DiNic would do whatever it took to help his son Keith survive. DiNic flew his family to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Tennessee for experimental treatments not covered by insurance.
They didn't work.
He lost two sons and his father within a year. He had spent all of his money, including what he owed to the Internal Revenue Service.
"I was a millionaire and I went broke," DiNic said.
Today, the only wall decorations in his print shop's Spartan white office are yellowed clippings about IRS abuses and cartoons portraying IRS agents as torturers.
DiNic recovered from the ordeal, at least financially.
In addition to real estate ventures with Targan, DiNic earned commissions from the school board insurance contracts he helped negotiate. In 1996, Mirage Resorts Inc. hired him as a consultant in its bid to have the state build the Atlantic City Connector to the marina section.
The Langford supporters who are now DiNic's allies opposed the tunnel. They criticized him then. Whelan's pro-tunnel friends criticize him now. DiNic said in a small city, someone's going to complain.
"I keep becoming the fall guy so they can try to knock me off politically," DiNic said. "But that ain't going to happen. Not in this town."
In DiNic's Atlantic City, it doesn't make sense to hold grudges. Friends become opponents. Adversaries become allies. The wheel goes around.
DiNic supported Whelan but turned against him. Whelan aide Toscano said it was because Whelan refused to cut Siracusa in on city insurance business. DiNic said the mayor's policies hurt mutual friends. "He forgot the Atlantic City people."
Five years ago, Langford complained that DiNic exerted too much influence over the school board. After his election, Langford had no complaints.
DiNic, in typical fashion, soft-pedaled his contribution to the campaign. He spoke only of how Langford's election was good for Atlantic City.
Does he expect to gain anything from his support of Langford - say, city insurance business for Siracusa? DiNic shrugged.
"That wasn't the purpose of this election," he said. "But if (Langford) wants to deal with Atlantic City people, he'll do what he wants."
February 4, 2005