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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Widow’s Home Wasn’t Bulldozed

A Ted Cruz TV ad says Donald Trump “colluded with Atlantic City insiders to bulldoze the home of an elderly widow” for a casino parking lot. Trump called that claim “false.” We wouldn’t go that far. He wanted to bulldoze the home but lost an eminent domain case. However, the ad leaves the false impression that the widow lost her home, and she didn’t.

After a long court battle, a New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Vera Coking of Atlantic City and said that she could keep her home. Trump eventually decided not to fight the ruling.

The Cruz campaign released the ad on Jan. 22. It attacks Trump for once saying that he thinks eminent domain, or government power to seize private land for public use, “is wonderful.”

Trump responded to the ad during an interview with Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on Jan. 24. That was after Todd played the portion of the ad that also says “… Trump colluded with Atlantic City insiders to bulldoze the home of an elderly widow.”

Trump challenged that statement immediately:

Trump, Jan. 24: Good morning, and I have to tell you his ad is wrong, because I never knocked down that house. I wanted to get that house to build a major building that would have employed tremendous numbers of people, but then the woman didn’t want to sell, ultimately I just said, “Forget about it.” So he’s got me bulldozing down a house, I never bulldozed it down. It’s false advertising. But what can I tell you.

Todd: Well, all right. I think the accusation was that that’s what you wanted to do.

Trump: No, the accusation was —

Trump: — that I did it. And I didn’t do it. So I didn’t.

No, the house wasn’t bulldozed, as Trump explained to Todd. But the ad didn’t exactly say that it was. The narrator said that he “colluded with Atlantic City insiders to bulldoze the home of an elderly widow.” Although the house wasn’t bulldozed, Trump and state officials tried for years to seize the property so that it could be torn down.

But we can also see how some viewers could get the incorrect impression that the widow lost her home, when she was able to keep it. The ad shows an image of a bulldozer knocking down a building, and later the ad’s narrator says eminent domain “made Trump rich” — adding, “like when Trump colluded with Atlantic City insiders to bulldoze the home of an elderly widow.” But Trump didn’t make any money because the planned expansion didn’t happen.

The July 21, 2015, Newsweek op-ed cited in the Cruz ad was more clear. It asked, “Remember When Trump Tried to Bulldoze a Widow’s Home to Make a Parking Lot for Limos?” That’s a reference to the unsuccessful attempts in the 1990s to acquire the home of Vera Coking, an elderly widow living next to the old Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.

Trump wanted Coking’s house and other nearby private properties as part of larger plan to rehabilitate an existing Holiday Day Inn and add more parking, a driveway and a park or landscaped walkway. According to a September 1994 story by the Associated Press, Coking was said to have refused at least $251,000 offer from the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which attempted to use eminent domain to have Coking’s house, as well as one other home and an Italian restaurant on the same block, condemned so that the Trump Plaza could make its upgrades.

But in July 1998, after a years-long court battle, a state judge ruled in favor of Coking and her fellow property owners against Trump and the CRDA.

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21, 1998: Superior Court Judge Richard Williams said the attempt by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to take the properties for a new parking lot and a public park at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino was flawed because it did not guarantee that the company would not later use the land simply to expand the business.

Williams ruled that Trump, not the public, stood to benefit from the proposed seizures and that the deal was “analogous to giving Trump a blank check with respect to future development on the property for casino-hotel purposes.”

The ruling — the first serious setback to the use of eminent-domain proceedings for casino projects in Atlantic City — was hailed by one property-rights advocate as a landmark victory for property owners across the country facing similar condemnation efforts.

Two months later, the CRDA officially dropped the case, deciding not to appeal the judge’s ruling because the Trump organization said it was no longer interested in the properties.

So, Coking was able to keep her home for more than a decade longer until she moved to a retirement facility in California. Her house in Atlantic City was purchased at auction for $530,000 in 2014 — the same year the Trump Plaza went out of business.

All of that isn’t clear from the ad from the Cruz campaign.