A 48-year-old gay man who owns a financial services company is running for mayor in the popular Delaware resort town of Rehoboth Beach on a platform of government reform and improved relations with community-based businesses.
Tom McGlone, who has lived in Rehoboth with his domestic partner for the past five years, is challenging seven-term incumbent Samuel Cooper, who has been mayor since 1990.
Rehoboth has long been a favorite beach destination for gays and lesbians in the mid-Atlantic region, including D.C. and Baltimore. The town has a large number of LGBT residents as well as tourists and owners of vacation homes.
With the election set to take place Aug. 13, some of the town’s gay residents and gay business owners have complained that Cooper and his allies on the seven-member Rehoboth Board of Commissioners, which serves as the town’s legislative body, have unfairly targeted gay-owned businesses for regulatory enforcement action.
Tension over the enforcement action came to a head last September when police arrested the co-owner of the gay restaurant and bar Aqua Grill on a charge that the establishment was operating an outdoor patio later than a mandatory closing time of 11 p.m.
Police later acknowledged that the arrest was a mistake and dropped the charge. At the time of the arrest, the officers didn’t know that Aqua was among several businesses exempt from the patio restriction under rules that allow establishments to keep patios open if they had them before the 11 p.m. closing time was enacted into law.
Other small businesses, including non-gay bars and restaurants, cited the action against Aqua as one example of an out-of-control regulatory crackdown against businesses popular with visitors and residents, both gay and straight.
Cooper disputes those allegations, saying the city has enforced codes equally among all types of businesses. He said the codes are aimed at restricting excessive noise and use of outdoor spaces by bars and restaurants that can disturb nearby residents.
He acknowledged that police and city regulatory officials made a mistake in arresting Aqua co-owner Bill Shields, who was booked and finger printed before being released.
“What I’ve told everybody else is that the way that was handled was not the best – it was wrong, in fact,” Cooper told the Blade. “But the desire to keep Rehoboth from becoming a party town, a bar town is I think valid and is very much on my mind.”
McGlone told the Blade in an interview this week that he doesn’t believe gay businesses, such as bars and restaurants, are being targeted because they are gay owned. Instead, he said both gay and non-gay businesses have faced what he calls a poorly administered effort by the mayor and town officials to enforce regulations.
“The big issue right now is the fact that local government has lost its credibility with a segment of the population,” he said. “And as a result of that, as things are occurring, in many cases things are being misperceived because of this lack of credibility.”
He said strife among the mayor and members of the Board of Commissioners has grown in recent years, indicating to him and others that “new blood” is needed in the mayor’s office.
McGlone pointed to one of his campaign signs that says, “Change the tone, Vote McGlone.”
Cooper, who spoke to the Blade by phone on Tuesday, said his long record of accomplishment in running the city for more than 20 years belies such claims and shows that he has worked hard to retain Rehoboth’s reputation as a highly desirable place to live and visit.
He notes that Rehoboth was recognized recently by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, for having one of the nation’s cleanest beaches. He points to the National Geographic Society listing Rehoboth as having the sixth best boardwalk in the country.
“So that’s really kind of my message – that we seem to have a town that is a very popular place with a lot of people with different backgrounds,” Cooper said. “So I would like to think we’ve done something really good here. And why would you want to change that formula?”
D.C. gay activist Peter Rosenstein, who owns a condominium just outside the Rehoboth city limits, said a coalition of gay and non-gay residents, businesses and homeowners is backing McGlone as a reform candidate who reflects the concerns of many of the town’s newer residents.
Rosenstein said Rehoboth has changed from the “sleepy” beach side town it was 40 years ago to become a diverse destination for vacationers, permanent residents and retirees, most of whom favor a vibrant nightlife and the shops, restaurants and upscale bars that have opened within the past decade.
“These businesses make it possible for the residents to live there with some of the nation’s lowest property tax rates,” he said, adding that he pays more for a rented parking space in the town than most people pay in property taxes for an entire year.
Steve Elkins, president of Camp Rehoboth, an LGBT community group that operates a community center, said he and the group must remain neutral in elections under the group’s tax-exempt status.
However, Elkins said that during the past decade the town government, including the mayor, have been supportive of Camp Rehoboth and its role in fostering understanding and support for the LGBT community.
“We consider everyone running to be our friends,” he said.
Dennis Barbour, one of two openly gay members of the Rehoboth Board of Commissioners, agrees with Elkins that Cooper and the city government have been generally supportive of the LGBT community.
But Barbour startled gay and non-gay residents alike last week when he announced during a commissioners’ meeting that he was withdrawing as a candidate for re-election because of irreconcilable disagreements with Cooper and most of his fellow commissioners. He said much of his disagreement with Cooper and the commission has been over the city’s relations with the business community.
“While I have never turned away from challenges, it is now evident to me that my goals for Rehoboth Beach can no longer be realized with the City Commission as it is now constituted,” he said in an open letter to his constituents. “Those who serve as mayor and as commissioners must embrace greater openness, transparency in decision-making, inclusiveness, candid debate, and visionary thinking,” he said. “In short, from my vantage point as a commissioner for the past six years, it is time for new leadership.”
In addition to the mayor’s race, voters in the town’s Aug. 13 election will vote for candidates running for Barbour’s seat and the seat held by incumbent Lorraine Zellers.
Two other gay candidates are running for the two seats, with one certain to win the one now being vacated by Barbour. The two are Mark Hunker, co-owner of Eden Restaurant located on the same street as Aqua Grill, and Richard Kirchhoff, co-owner of the Canal Side Inn, a bed and breakfast business at the edge of the town on the Rehoboth-Lewes Canal.
When asked whether his status as a gay candidate could hurt him in the election among some voters, McGlone said, “This is not a gay or straight issue. This is about getting a qualified person in office who is going to do his best job for the city and balancing all of this – gay and straight, tourists, residents, businesses – the whole community.”
Cooper said he, too, doesn’t see the election as a contest over gay-related issues.
“Again, my main message is that for 21 years I’ve been doing this job and I think we’ve moved forward in many, many fronts,” he said. “And relations between gays and straights are one of those and I think we’ve come to a very good place.”
When asked about McGlone’s position that city government has lost credibility over the regulatory disputes and other issues, Cooper said, “Mr. McGlone hasn’t served on any board or run for commissioner. He’s kind of like a blank slate to me. I mean would you really want to turn the town over to somebody who you really don’t know when you’ve got somebody who you know and he’s done it pretty well? That’s my message.”
Said McGlone: “It’s not a matter of trying to slag off the mayor as not having done anything — he’s done a pretty good job. He’s just been in office for a long time and he’s a bit stale in his ideas. They aren’t real fresh as a result of just being in office so long,” he said. “So I think there’s an opportunity to bring some fresh ideas and some new blood to a position that’s been held by the same person for 21 years. That’s a long time.”