August 3, 2017 at 1:16 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Rehoboth mayoral race divides LGBT residents
Rehoboth mayoral race, gay news, Washington Blade

Incumbent Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper faces a challenge from Paul Kuhns. (Photo of Cooper public domain; photo of Kuhns courtesy Kuhns campaign)

A number of outspoken LGBT residents of the Delaware resort community of Rehoboth Beach have taken sides in the town’s Aug. 12 election in which nine-term incumbent Mayor Sam Cooper is being challenged by Rehoboth City Commissioner and businessman Paul Kuhns.

Several longtime LGBT residents and summer visitors, including Steve Elkins, executive director of the LGBT community center CAMP Rehoboth, say Rehoboth’s longtime reputation as an LGBT-friendly and welcoming place will likely prompt LGBT voters to focus on non-LGBT issues in choosing the candidate to support.

In interviews with the Washington Blade, Cooper and Kuhns each described themselves as strong supporters of the LGBT community and praised Rehoboth’s LGBT residents for contributing to the betterment of the popular beach community.

“I think they’re just a part of Rehoboth and I’m very pleased with the acceptance over the years and the integration,” Cooper told the Blade. “It’s a part of the fabric of the community now.”

Kuhns, who said he and his wife have been Rehoboth homeowners since 1987 and full-time residents since 2005, credited CAMP Rehoboth and its many members and supporters with playing a key role in transforming the city into an LGBT-supportive place.

“Over the years from my perspective personally they’ve created a great atmosphere in the neighborhoods because they’re investing in nice houses, there are great restaurants, there are nice shops, and they’re nice people,” he said. “And they do good things for the city and I think it’s something from an economic perspective that’s been very helpful for the city over the last 20 years or so.”

Elkins currently serves as an appointed election judge who is among those who will count the ballots in the Aug. 12 election. In that role as well as his role as head of CAMP Rehoboth, which is a nonpartisan organization, Elkins said he cannot take sides in the election for mayor and for two Rehoboth City Commissioner seats that are on the ballot this year.

Although the throngs of summer vacationers and second home occupants bring the number of people staying in Rehoboth to tens of thousands, Elkins said there are only about 1,600 registered voters living within the city’s one square mile boundary who are eligible to vote in the Aug. 12 election. Out of that number, typically about 1,300 people turn out to vote, Elkins said.

Like many small cities of Rehoboth’s size, its election for mayor and city commissioners is nonpartisan. However, voter registration records show that Cooper is a registered Republican and Kuhns is registered as a Democrat. Neither of the two have raised their party affiliation as an issue so far in the campaign.

Peter Rosenstein, a longtime D.C. gay Democratic activist and Washington Blade columnist who has been spending time in Rehoboth for more than 20 years, is among the outspoken LGBT backers of Kuhns for mayor. Rosenstein’s Rehoboth residence is located outside the official city limits, making him ineligible to vote in the election. But he pointed out that property owners living within the city limits are eligible to vote, even if they are full-time residents of D.C. or other states.

He has urged them to vote for Kuhns, saying that Mayor Cooper has been insensitive to the city’s small businesses, which bring in the bulk of revenue to enable Rehoboth to provide services to its residents and visitors. Like other Kuhns supporters, Rosenstein holds Cooper responsible for the cost overrun in the construction of a new city hall building that has come under fire from visitors and residents alike.

Cooper’s supporters, including Rehoboth’s gay city commissioner, Patrick Gossett, and full-time gay Rehoboth resident Frank Cooper, who is not related to Mayor Cooper, have said Mayor Cooper has been an effective leader of the city. They call criticism of the mayor’s handling of the new city hall building project unfair, pointing out that the seven-member City Commission, including Commissioner Kuhns, voted unanimously to approve the project.

Cooper supporters also note that Rehoboth residents approved the project in a voter referendum. They acknowledge that cost overruns have resulted in the price of the project increasing from between $18 million and $19 million to as much as $21 million or more, but they insist the overruns are due to rising costs of construction contractors and should not be blamed on Cooper or the City Commission.

Kuhns, who for 25 years served as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch in New York City with a specialty in loan underwriting for municipalities, told the Blade the cost overruns for the Rehoboth city hall building could have been avoided if Cooper had a better understanding of long range financial planning.

He pointed to another big project to reroute the city’s wastewater outfall pipe from the Rehoboth Canal to the ocean, as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as another example of the mayor and some city commissioners failing to engage in better long range planning.

He said if elected mayor he would delegate more responsibilities to the Rehoboth City Manager, Sharon Lynn, a lesbian with years of experience in municipal government planning and operations. According to Kuhns, Cooper has attempted to serve as project manager of the city hall and wastewater outfall projects rather than delegate more responsibility to the City Manager under what he and others consider to be a city manager form of government.

Cooper disputes that assessment, saying he has worked closely with the city commissioners and other city officials on all important projects as well as on the city’s annual budget.

“To say we don’t have a formal long-range budget doesn’t mean I and the city manager don’t have a plan for the future,” he said. “Part of my response is I’ve been mayor for 27 years and the city I think has finished in the black every year,” he continued. “You can always make those arguments that there needs to be more planning.”

Cooper added: “But I think the evidence is clear that the city is well managed. It is very attractive and clean and it has a lot of things going for it. And I like to say those things don’t happen by accident. They happen through leadership.”

Like their straight counterparts, some of Kuhns’ LGBT supporters have pointed to a number of controversial regulatory proposals and ordinances pushed by Cooper that they say have hurt small businesses, including gay-owned businesses such as bars and restaurants.

Kuhns supporter Richard Perry pointed out in a commentary in the Blade that the co-owner of Aqua Grill, a Rehoboth gay bar, was arrested and handcuffed several years ago for allegedly violating an ordinance requiring that bars and restaurants with outdoor patios or decks close those spaces by 11 p.m. Police quickly dropped all charges against the Aqua co-owner and apologized after realizing Aqua was legally exempt from the ordinance.

But Perry and other critics of Cooper argue that Cooper has set an atmosphere of overregulation that, among other things, led to a controversial proposal to ban swimming pools in rental homes and to significantly strengthen a city noise ordinance that some claimed were aimed at targeting gay group homes. The pool ordinance proposal, introduced by Cooper, was quickly dropped following a groundswell of opposition by a coalition of LGBT and rental housing advocates.

Cooper told the Blade the regulatory proposals emerged from requests from residents who pointed out that newly built large houses that were dubbed mini mansions were being filled with rowdy tenants who were generating excessive noise all hours of the day and night. He said the proposals were in no way targeting any one group, and certainly not LGBT people.

Cooper and his supporters have long argued that regulatory actions like noise and building height restrictions were needed to retain Rehoboth’s widely supported status as a small-scale, low-key beach community and to avoid having it turn into a large bustling and often rowdy town like nearby Dewey Beach or Ocean City, Md.

Kuhns told the Blade he too favors preventing Rehoboth from turning into an Ocean City or Dewey Beach. But he said Cooper often has not carried out the regulatory measures to retain Rehoboth’s small-scale character in a fair and equitable way.

“I will do that,” he said. “That’s what sets me apart from the mayor.”

Elkins, who reiterated his neutrality in the mayoral election, said he and CAMP Rehoboth’s organizers don’t believe the controversial regulatory proposals that emerged during the past five or more years were intended to target gays.

“None of these were aimed at gay people,” he said. “They’re aimed at crowded houses that are making noise,” said Elkins, adding, “That’s not a gay or straight thing. There are just as many gay people who are getting a little up in age that they want it to be quiet too.”

In the previous two mayoral elections in 2011 and 2014 Cooper beat challenger Tom McGlone, a gay businessman who ran on a platform that Cooper had been in office too long and had lost touch with the needs of the residents and businesses.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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