OCEAN CITY - Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., for many Marylanders the face of this Atlantic resort, is up against stiff opposition this month in what some say could be a watershed municipal election.
Challenger Vincent Gisriel Jr. is running as a slow-growth advocate who says the town has failed to rein in developers or hold the line on property taxes.
"People are stirred up and ready to go to the polls," says Gisriel, 60, a state tax assessor who has been a lonely dissenter during much of his 14 years on the town council. "There are straightforward issues - taxes, gridlock, overdevelopment and overspending - that have energized people at a grass-roots level."
The nonpartisan Oct. 19 election comes in a year when change has been especially noticeable. Smaller, older properties are rapidly falling to make way for high-rise buildings and luxury condominiums.
The town council could see its biggest turnover in years, with five of seven seats up for grabs among 14 candidates. The ballot also includes a tax cap referendum.
Mathias, 53, is an unabashed booster who moved here 30 years ago after growing up in Baltimore. The owner of a boardwalk T-shirt shop, he says Ocean City needs to strike a balance that preserves its image as a family resort but leaves room for growth that helps fuel the local economy.
"I try to lead with passion, energy and experience, and unlike the council, I have to stand for election every two years," he says.
Sounding a theme of keeping the resort "clean, safe, fun and affordable," he says he's staying close to his political base: longtime residents, members and supporters of the volunteer fire and ambulance company, and old friends in local service clubs, such as the Elks Club, where he is a member.
After eight years as mayor, Mathias is well-known to residents and to many visitors who have seen him good-naturedly mugging through an interview atop a Ferris wheel, riding go-carts and greeting participants at gatherings at the city's convention center.
Last weekend at the 30th annual Sunfest, Mathias was in his element, singing oldies with a rock band and taking the podium for a welcome speech. A few days before, he was on Capitol Hill, lobbying lawmakers for beach replenishment money.
He has sometimes chafed under the limits placed on the mayor's position by charter changes approved by voters nearly 20 years ago. The job is largely one of persuasion, giving the mayor veto power but little else.
Gisriel says his approach would be to focus on details, not acting as the town's spokesman.
"I'm a nuts-and-bolts kind of person, not a PR [public relations] man. And I really think this is a turning point for our city," Gisriel says. "Do we want to be a concrete metropolis by the sea or do we want to keep our traditional family image?"
With about 6,000 registered voters, many of the 1,400 voters who signed a petition to limit future property tax increases to 2 cents a year are expected to back Gisriel, a veteran of a half-dozen referendum drives going back a decade or more. In June, Gisriel supported a budget veto by Mathias that held the property tax rate at 48 cents.
Mathias' supporters, including some business leaders who have clashed with him in the past, say Gisriel comes off as needlessly contrary in frequent 6-1 council votes.
Many in the business community aligned themselves with Mathias when it became clear that the alternative was Gisriel. They fear cuts in taxes would lead to cuts in essential services.
"Vince has been the one councilman who's always against just about everything," says Leonard Berger, who owns the Clarion Fontainebleau hotel and other properties. "Mathias is a promoter, a dedicated public servant. It's a $30,000 job that's nearly 24-7, and Mathias is committed to it."
For Berger and others in the business community, Ocean City's recent boom, in which $1 million condominiums have become commonplace, is a "renaissance."
Others, including C.G. "Joe" Coleman, who's running for a council seat after taking the lead in Common Cause Coalition, the local group that headed the tax cap referendum fight, see a different picture.
"We're a group that's at great odds with the current council," says Coleman, 78. "If it's a renaissance, it also could be our undoing. We used to treasure our bayside vistas, and now we're going to see 16-story buildings where there have been three or four stories."
Coleman is one of a half-dozen candidates who have at least loose ties to the coalition. He says there will be no formal slate with Gisriel, a longtime coalition leader.
Another potential force in beach politics, the Ocean City Condominium Owners Association, lost a battle to register such property owners as voters in Ocean City. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. ruled that members would have to establish Ocean City as their primary residence in order to vote here.
Association President Jerry Frey says the group intends to take an active part in the election, even if members can't cast ballots.
"Clearly, we need a voice down here," says Frey, who is considering changing his legal address from Fallston to Ocean City. "We'll abide by the attorney general's opinion, but we intend to be very active in other ways."