A headline on an Aug. 8 Metro article mischaracterized Rehoboth Beach mayoral candidate Bob Sokolove's position on growth. Sokolove says that "growth is inevitable, but it must be controlled by sound land-use regulations." (Published 8/10/2005)
This seashore town, long a leisurely summer hideaway for Washington politicos, suddenly has found itself embroiled in a political skirmish that is growing more heated by the day.
The town's avuncular mayor is in the fight of his political life. Sam Cooper, the man folks here call Mr. Rehoboth, is running for a sixth three-year term, but for the first time in memory he faces a competitive challenger: businessman Bob Sokolove, a political neophyte and a vacationer-turned-resident who is backed by many in the town's booming real estate community.
The campaign, which will peak Saturday when voters go to the polls, has been striking to many locals because candidates are volleying stinging attacks typical of Washington politics but altogether new to Rehoboth.
Cooper and his supporters characterize Sokolove, 52, as an opportunistic businessman who parachuted into Rehoboth and decided he wanted to take over the town. Sokolove paints Cooper, 53, as a half-baked small-towner who runs Rehoboth as if it's still a 1960s "Andy-of-Mayberry" kind of town.
Such personal assaults -- one resident called Sokolove's team the "Swift Boat Realtors" -- are unusual in this town that votes neighbors into office.
And so at the height of the vacation season, with bikini-clad visitors swarming the boardwalk, the campaign is simmering. It seems to have divided this downstate town of 1,500 full-time residents. The race is so hot that politicians representing the town at the state capitol in Dover and in Washington are keeping their distance.
"I've been around Rehoboth for decades, and I don't think I've ever seen the town as polarized as it is in this election," said state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), who is not endorsing a candidate.
It would seem odd that two men would fight so fiercely over becoming mayor, a job that pays $83.80 a month. But there is a lot more than that at stake.
Residents on both sides of the campaign say the future makeup of the town is on the line. Property values are soaring along the Delaware shoreline, with sprawling developments popping up in the once-rural area just inland from the beach resorts. Rehoboth, a town of one square mile marked by its beach bungalows and early-20th-century cottages dotting tree-lined streets, is feeling the crunch.
Developers are trying to buy up cottages for large sums, tear them down and build bigger, suburban-style houses to sell for even greater sums. The trend has angered some locals who fear Rehoboth is losing the individuality and charm that made it a popular summertime spot in the first place.
"I happen to sit between two of the McMansions -- the McRisers -- and I can't see the rise and fall of the sun anymore," said Betty Barnes, 90, a longtime resident. "It's like a sandwich. I'm the meat between two slices of bread. It's horrible."
Former mayor John Hughes said the developers have "a buck to make at the expense of our way of life."
So in May, the City Commission -- made up of six commissioners and chaired by the mayor -- passed an ordinance limiting the size of buildings developers can construct.
The commission was split on the ordinance, and Cooper cast the tie-breaking vote. For Cooper, who was born and raised in Rehoboth and still lives in the white Victorian cottage his grandfather built in 1918, it seemed like the right thing to do. And the town's old-timers supported it.
But many in the business community did not.
"Mainly, it clearly reduces the businessman's opportunity to enlarge his business," said Carol Everhart, chief executive of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, which actively opposed the ordinance but is not endorsing a mayoral candidate.
Sokolove's candidacy, many observers say, took root in the building-limit issue. The cry of the real estate community could not be ignored, said Mary Campbell, a longtime resident who sits on the city planning commission.
"There was almost blood in the streets over there," she said.
So out stepped Sokolove, with the bombast and swagger of a man determined to make change.
In an interview over lunch at the Java Beach Coffee House and Cafe, which he calls the "little bagel shop that could," Sokolove pledged to run the city professionally. He said he'll be Rehoboth's biggest cheerleader in Dover and Washington to bring home more money; he'll travel to California, Nantucket, Mass., and Key West, Fla., to study the successes and failures of other beach towns; he'll upgrade technology at City Hall.
"There is a terrible lack of leadership on some terribly important issues," Sokolove said. "This is a mayor that sits in his big white house."
"His base of knowledge is Rehoboth," Sokolove added. "Some people are afraid of the outside world. But it's kind of like medical technology. You wouldn't be happy if your doctor never left his office and only knew how to treat your medical problems based on what he observed only in his office."
For his part, Cooper said he prefers to stick to the nuts and bolts of city administration and avoids the pageantry of being mayor.
"I'm a shy sort of guy. I usually avoid the limelight and what have you," Cooper said. "I do it because I love the city and I love the activity, but getting out there is not really my style."
Some business owners think Cooper is not equipped to tackle the development issues facing Rehoboth.
"This is a small-town guy," said Brooks Long, 38, a longtime resident who owns an art gallery on the town's main drag. "The city has outgrown his capabilities of managing it, and he just needs to allow someone else with a real education" to manage the city.
But in Rehoboth, it takes a while for successful politicians to earn their stripes.
"There's a culture down here that you only elect people who've been here all their lives," said City Commissioner Henry DeWitt, 59.
Despite the blistering tone of the campaign, there is hope among some that folks will make amends. Rehoboth, residents said, is a place where winning politicians often ask their losing opponents to join the team.
"This is going to end in a week, and we'll all be neighbors again," said David McCarthy, who is running on Sokolove's ticket for city commissioner.
He added, with a laugh, "One more week."