Late fall and winter is when Rehoboth Beach typically gets to crawl back into its shell, take a deep breath and fade from view for a few months. But not this year. An unseasonable energy is rippling through the town as business owners, restaurant workers, year-round residents and area politicians are still abuzz over the small community’s new connection to the country’s highest office.
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States has put a spotlight on this Delaware beach community where the president-elect and his wife, Jill, and their family have visited for decades and where they spent Thanksgiving at the dream vacation home they bought here three years ago. It’s not exactly Mar-a-Lago (It’s exactly not Mar-a-Lago), but the notion that the beach house in Rehoboth will soon be a regular presidential getaway has many who live here bursting with pride over their local boy made good.
“I’m a registered independent, but I always voted Joe. I’ve always really admired the guy,” said Keith Fitzgerald, who moved to Rehoboth from Wilmington in the early 1970s and helped found the Back Porch Café. One of Rehoboth’s most popular fine-dining restaurants, Back Porch has been frequented by an eclectic mix of Washington politicians and visiting celebrities, including former first lady Laura Bush and Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl.
Fitzgerald and his partner sold the restaurant last year, but he has remained in Rehoboth and couldn’t be more pleased that a town resident will soon reside in the White House.
“Just the fact that we’ve got somebody from here that’s going to be president of the United States, wow. As a native son from Delaware, I have to admit I’m kind of proud,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, it’s a pretty dinky little state. Not a lot going on. And now people in the country will know that we’re not the southern county of Pennsylvania anymore.”
Rehoboth was nicknamed “the Nation’s Summer Capital” after the state built a paved road across Sussex County from Georgetown, Del., to Rehoboth in the 1920s, and a flood of members of Congress and D.C. residents began making the beachside town their summer destination.
But members of Congress are one thing. A president is a different ballgame altogether.
Mark Hamilton, who has operated a Grateful Dead-inspired shop carrying tie-dyed hippie clothing, jewelry, incense and rock-and-roll themed gifts on Rehoboth Avenue for more than 30 years, is excited about the extra cachet a president will bring to the town.
“It’s big news for our little town, I’ll tell you,” Hamilton said. “He’s just normal Joe in this town, but still. There’s a lot of pride. Now we can say the president lives here.”
Along with the pride is an acknowledgment by many here that the Biden summer home could be good for business. Like many summer vacation spots, Rehoboth was hammered especially hard by the pandemic. Restaurants, bars and small businesses count on summer receipts to get them through the year, and health restrictions limited earnings for many establishments. Biden’s election, say some who work here, has made them optimistic that business will rebound and that the virus can be contained.
On Nov. 7, when the major networks announced Biden as the projected winner, Christie Husband was working her shift at the Egg, a popular brunch spot known for its lemon curd crepes and Eastern Shore Benedict. She had waited on the Bidens numerous times, and said she was always struck by how polite and unassuming they were. On his first visit to the restaurant a few years ago, Husband said, Biden visited the kitchen after breakfast to thank the cooks and took a selfie with the staff.
“When he won I was just ecstatic,” Husband said. “Hopefully it does bring more tourists here next summer to reboot our restaurant business. Covid has really put a hurting on restaurants down here, and hopefully his election will help turn things around.”
As the news of Biden’s victory spread through the restaurant, Husband and the staff cheered the result. “Then we went into the kitchen and did a shot for him,” she said.
Similar scenes were repeated across the town that day. Cries arose from the screened-in porches of several homes just off the main drag of Rehoboth Avenue. “Make America America Again!” one homeowner on Munson Street yelled to passersby. “He did it! He did it!” a woman who lived across the street happily squealed from her porch.
A trickle of locals and visitors made a pilgrimage to Biden’s beach house in the North Shores section of Rehoboth. In small clusters at first, and then in larger numbers, people drove, biked and walked over to take selfies in front of the stately three-story wood-sided home. A small caravan of jeeps and minivans rode down nearby roads with passengers waving Biden flags out the windows and the drivers beeping their horns in celebration.
Sussex County leans heavily Republican and solidly voted for a second term for President Trump, but the village of Rehoboth has always been considered a haven for liberals and has a long history of gay-friendly beaches and bars. Trump signs are frequently sighted on the rural county roads outside Rehoboth proper but are rare in town. Oversize Biden-Harris signs grace the tonier areas of Rehoboth — on the larger homes on Lake Drive, overlooking Silver Lake, and in the exclusive Henlopen Acres neighborhood.
The Bidens’ Rehoboth getaway home, which they bought for $2.7 million in 2017, is painted a bright French blue with a pool in the back and broad views overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the distance as well as the grassy wetlands and Gordons Pond of Cape Henlopen State Park. Biden has been described often as wearing his heart on his sleeve, and his beach house does as well. A wide two-story outdoor staircase welcomes guests to the central entrance of the house. On each wing, a message is engraved in white wood slats above the first floor: “Beau’s Gift” on the right side and “Jill Forever” on the left.
The house’s location has special meaning. As a senator, Biden had helped transfer ownership of some of Cape Henlopen parklands from the military — which used the area to defend against submarine attacks during World War II — to the state of Delaware. A short bike ride away from Biden’s home is a tribute to his contribution: a park conference site named the Biden Environmental Training Center.
Kathy McGuiness, Delaware’s state auditor, grew up in Rehoboth and served as a city council member here for 18 years. She can’t remember a time when the Bidens weren’t part of the community. One of her older sisters even babysat Beau and Hunter Biden when their recently widowed father began bringing them here in the 1970s.
For McGuiness, the Bidens are part of the fabric of Rehoboth, and she thinks the appeal of the town for them is its laid-back vibe and their ability to walk around without a parade of gawkers trailing them.
“I don’t mean this in a condescending way, because he’s obviously the president-elect, but he’s a nice, normal person who would come up and say hello and even remember your name,” McGuiness said, sitting outside the Coffee Mill, a longtime popular coffee shop in a downtown alley. “He’s our Joe.”
It will soon become much harder, of course, for the Bidens to enjoy Rehoboth entirely on their own terms. The security footprint around the president-elect is already expanding. When the soon-to-be first couple went biking in Cape Henlopen State Park earlier this month, two Secret Service agents flanked them through the Gordons Pond bike loop, and more security was ahead scoping out his path. The town’s merchants were abuzz that weekend when the Secret Service came to secure a specialty homemade soaps shop on First Street so Biden could pop in to do a little shopping. Word spread rapidly that he prefers pine-scented soap.
A president’s presence can drive up home values and typically creates some sporadic traffic headaches when police block off road crossings to make way for the presidential motorcade. Rehoboth’s main artery, Coastal Highway, is already a painful stop-and-go ride most days in the summer season, to the point that locals try to get their grocery shopping and chores done first thing in the morning before the tourists and vacationers step out the door. While there are just about 1,600 year-round residents in the town, the population balloons during the summer. And more people visited Rehoboth in the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall in the past five years, keeping the roads busy and making the place a nearly year-round resort.
But almost everyone here says they’re perfectly happy to make the trade-off that will come with the extra attention.
“Traffic is already a nightmare. Home sales are skyrocketing,” said Susan Kehoe, the manager of Browseabout Books, a major Rehoboth Avenue gathering spot where locals can not only get first-run books and a raft of newspapers from throughout the Mid-Atlantic, but also gifts and high-end housewares. “I think this will just make it a little crazier and a little busier.”
The store has welcomed the Bidens for three book signings in all — two for Jill Biden and one for Joe Biden. In July last year, as Jill Biden signed copies of her memoir, Joe Biden walked among the people waiting to buy his wife’s book. Kehoe said he greeted each one, saying some variation of, “Hi, I’m Jill’s husband. Nice to meet you. How you doing?”
“He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t look beyond you when he’s talking. He is always focused on the person in front of him,” Kehoe said. “They just couldn’t be nicer, more regular people.”
In the middle of the store is a table laden with Biden products for sale. There are their books, of course, but also “Vote Joe Biden” socks, Biden baseball hats, the Joe Biden Scented Candle (Orange Gatorade is the scent, if you must know) and the Hot Cup of Joe coloring book. Alas, the Joe Biden action figures are sold out. Rehoboth, it seems, can’t get enough.