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The Vera Coking house dwarfed by Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. The house was the focus of a high-profile eminent domain case involving Donald Trump. (Photo: Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
In 1997, Donald Trump’s plan to expand his Atlantic City casino was frustrated by one woman: Vera Coking. And nearly 20 years later, opponents of the GOP frontrunner are hopeful that the memory of that episode can trip up the mogul once again.
Coking, an outspoken, tough New Jersey widow who wore oversized rhinestone-studded glasses and eccentric outfits, owned a three-story house on the boardwalk that was in the way of Trump’s plans to expand the Trump Plaza casino. And she didn’t want to sell it to him, despite his ever-increasing offers.
Trump, who described Coking’s home as “terrible,” enlisted New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to take the property by “eminent domain” at its market price, allowing him to build something more “beautiful” in its place.
“Cities have the right to condemn for the good of the city,” Trump told ABC News. “Everybody coming into Atlantic City sees this terrible house instead of staring at beautiful fountains and beautiful other things that would be good.” Trump wanted to build a limousine parking lot — not fountains — on Coking’s lot.
Coking and two business owners next door faced off against Trump and the state of New Jersey in court — and won. The case put the issue of private corporations benefiting from eminent domain on the map.
Now, Trump’s opponents hope to use this episode to paint a picture of him as a corporate fat cat wielding government power to get his way against the kind of blue-collar voters who are the base of his support. The Club for Growth, a mainstream conservative lobby, debuted a television ad in Iowa in October saying Trump supports “massive new power to take private property and give it to corporations.” In New Hampshire, an anti-Trump super-PAC called Make America Awesome began running radio ads last week slamming Trump on this issue, and on controversial comments he’s made about employing immigrant workers in his hotels and that wages are too high in America. “He’s even used government power to seize private property — and brags about it,” the narrator says.
Vera Coking walks past Trump, partially obscured against wall at left, in a courtroom hallway at Atlantic County Superior Court in 1997. (Photo: Allen Oliver/AP)
It’s unclear if this property rights issue is one that will resonate with GOP primary voters in general or in New Hampshire specifically. Trump is currently leading the Republican field in the early-voting state by more than 10 points. But until now, Trump’s rivals haven’t used the issue against him much.
David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, said he believes no group or campaign has yet harnessed the power of this story to attack Trump among conservatives who deeply value personal property rights.
“I still think if you put an ad out in Iowa and say he used the government to take away a widow’s house so he could build a parking lot for limousines, that would be effective,” Boaz said.
Public polling after a 2005 Supreme Court decision upholding the government’s right to seize private property for private development showed that more than 80 percent of Americans disapproved of the decision. Trump, when asked about that decision in 2005, said he backed it “100 percent.”
But conservatives haven’t rallied around eminent domain as an issue, limiting its impact in a primary campaign dominated by issues of immigration and national security.
“Democrats have made overturning [the Supreme Court decision] Citizens United an issue, but I don’t think eminent domain has had that same impact,” Boaz said.
Chris Ryan, a New Hampshire WKXL radio talk show host who has covered the past four presidential primaries, said eminent domain is a significant issue in New Hampshire, particularly in the northern part of the state, because of two proposed energy projects, including the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline. Homeowners in the area are starting to worry about whether the projects will affect their property. New Hampshire Republicans have a healthy streak of libertarianism as well, which might dispose them to care about private property issues.
But Ryan said he believes an attack on Trump’s statements about wages being too high would be more effective at eroding the candidate’s support than focusing on eminent domain.
“Do I think it will resonate with some people? Yes. But I don’t think it’s a silver bullet,” Ryan said.
Trump during a press conference promoting a boxing match between Mike Spinks and Gerry Cooney in 1987. (Photo: The Ring/Getty Images)
The woman who could put a face to the story and potentially make people care about it, Vera Coking, appears to be unavailable. She left the house for which she fought so hard a decade ago to move closer to family across the country, according to her former attorney Dana Berliner. Coking’s house was put up for auction, and was sold to billionaire Carl Icahn for $583,000 and eventually demolished in 2014. Coking’s co-defendants in the suit, the owners of a family restaurant and an owner of a jewelry store, eventually sold to Trump. (“I have no disagreement with Trump. He’s been very good to me,” Vincent Sabatini, the restaurant owner, told an Atlantic City newspaper.)
“To be in any eminent domain case you’ve got to know your mind, and she knew her mind,” recalled Berliner, who works for the Institute for Justice, a
nonprofit that fights eminent domain cases. “That was the house that she wanted to stay in until she couldn’t stay there any longer.”
Coking, an elderly woman who coquettishly refused to disclose her age to her attorney, was offended that Trump, as part of his public relations offensive against her, had called the house she had lived in for nearly 40 years “terrible.”
“I mean the house was not in fabulous repair, but it was home,” Berliner said.
The dispute — which pitted three New Jersey regular-Joe heroes against a real estate tycoon — captured the public imagination at the time. The comic strip “Doonesbury” lampooned Trump in several installments as a bully who was frustrated by the small-town holdouts.
“This was the case that brought the problem of eminent domain abuse into the public spotlight,” Berliner said.
The case was unusual in that Trump’s company intervened in the suit, instead of just allowing the state of New Jersey to handle the property dispute. Generally, private companies allow the state to handle eminent domain suits and remain in the background, according to Berliner.
A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not return request for comment, but the candidate has been forced to defend his record on the issue several times since throwing his hat into the ring.
As he told Fox News in October: “If somebody has a property in the middle of a 7,000-job factory, as an example, that’s going to move into the town, but they need this one corner of this property, and it’s going to provide 7,000 jobs in a community that’s dying, of which we have many in this country, OK? I am for that.”