We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Betty Ann Kane is outfitted for a day at Rehoboth Beach—bright pink gingham shorts, blue-and-white Perry Ellis sneakers, the requisite sunglasses. And today, a 3-inch stack of campaign leaflets.
For 20 years, the former D.C. councilmember, congressional candidate, and influential lobbyist has gone to Rehoboth to escape politics. But while you can take a girl out of the District, you can’t take the District out of the girl. Now Kane’s running for city commission in the Delaware beach town, and she’s getting some help from a fellow Rehoboth homeowner—former D.C. Councilmember and mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz.
Yes, this is what happens when Washington goes on vacation.
Kane, who served on the council from 1979 to 1991 and lost to Eleanor Holmes Norton in the 1990 D.C. congressional race, has been vacationing in the town of 1,200 since the mid-’70s. She finally bought a house in 1988 and spends most weekends there, recuperating from her heavy-duty lobbying of Congress and the council (Kane operates her own firm, Betty Ann Kane & Co.).
For years, she says, Schwartz and other friends have urged her to help tackle the small city’s problems. “I kept putting them off and putting them off,” Kane says. “But this year I decided to go.” So she filed her petition for city commissioner—submitting double the required 12 signatures—on the morning of June 3, just minutes before the filing deadline. The election takes place this Saturday.
The small town needs Kane’s big-time expertise, says Schwartz. With nearly three-quarters-of-a-million visitors each summer, Rehoboth has exploded from a sleepy resort area to a traffic-jammed hive. Parking, traffic, liquor licenses—once relatively simple problems for the seven-member city commission—have been getting out of hand.
Of course, what’s out of hand in Rehoboth would be heavenly in the District. As a D.C. councilmember, Kane grappled with a multibillion-dollar budget, the highest murder rate in the nation, and a prison system with eight times as many inmates as Rehoboth has residents. Rehoboth may be more frantic than it was 20 years ago, but life there is still, well, a day at the beach.
“It’s not a big deal,” Kane says of the Rehoboth commission, which pays its members $50 per month. “It’s almost more like being on the board of directors of a condo association or a homeowners association than on the city council.”
Indeed, this campaign scarcely compares to her races in D.C. Though local law allows nonresident homeowners like Kane to vote in city elections, a mere 1,500 people are registered in Rehoboth, and only 800 of them turned out for the last election. Kane’s small white house with wind-beaten red shutters serves as her campaign headquarters, and she answers her own phone. She’s raised about $2,000 for the race, less than a D.C. Council candidate spends on postage. “I don’t even think there is a campaign manager,” Schwartz says of the homespun operation.
Red yard signs emblazoned with “Elect Kane” are stacked neatly against the barbecue in the backyard. Inside, a copy of Congressional Monitor sits forlornly on an end table, a reminder of Kane’s day job. In Rehoboth, the only papers Kane needs are voter registration lists that she affixes to a clipboard decorated with old “Kane for Congress” stickers.
Perhaps the most important difference between the nation’s capital and the resort is that Rehoboth residents, like small-town voters everywhere, are retail politics voters. They demand to meet their candidates face-to-face, door-to-door, a luxury Washingtonians don’t have. Media buys and big-time consultants are worth less here than a firm handshake and one of Kane’s big-toothed smiles.
Kane understands this, which is why she plans to have visited every neighborhood personally by election day. Still, for an out-of-towner with a lengthy Beltway résumé, trying to connect with locals brings nettlesome problems. “With some people, if you’re not native-born, you have no right to have an opinion,” she laments.
“People are wary of a big-city woman coming in,” says Steve Elkins, a Kane supporter who runs a gay and lesbian community organization in Rehoboth. “People wonder if she’ll have time with her business in Washington, lobbying, and so on.”
“You’ve got to do a lot of one-on-one here,” says Schwartz, who has been distributing “Elect Kane” signs and T-shirts. “The year-rounders know each other pretty well.”
Still, Kane has a natural constituency in the part-time residents who make up half of Rehoboth’s registered voters. Most come from D.C., and many are political refugees like Kane and Schwartz. Elkins, for example, worked in the Carter administration. And William Courville, Kane’s campaign treasurer, held a post under former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Rehoboth’s burgeoning lesbian and gay community provides Kane’s other big constituency. As a sign of gratitude for Kane’s years of support for gay rights, Washington’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club even playfully endorsed Kane for the Rehoboth commission and gave her campaign a small donation.
As for the native and other longtime Rehoboth residents, Kane hopes trudging door-to-door in the sweltering heat will impress upon them that she’s not a title-hungry A-lister but, rather, a member of their community. That’s why she’s strolling down Rehoboth’s Pennsylvania Avenue—a comfortable, sylvan street where most of the houses have mosquito-netted porches and well-kept lawns—to wrest locals away from their families and televisions one recent Sunday.
For someone who’s campaigned in D.C.’s roughest neighborhoods and who butted heads with Marion Barry in the 1982 mayoral race, canvassing Rehoboth is a lazy way to spend an afternoon. Consider her encounter with eightysomething John Salin, who first visited Rehoboth in 1915. A city commissioner himself, Salin rocks comfortably in a black wooden chair as Kane gives a wonkish spiel about parking reforms and long-range city planning. Salin listens carefully, but seems most interested in the fact that a reporter and photographer have bothered to accompany a commission candidate. Rehoboth has a few problems, he says, but hardly enough to make for interesting politics. “It’s just that a little problem can generate an awful lot of conversation,” he says with a smile.
Indeed, while most Washingtonians use just about any forum to express their anger with city government, Rehoboth voters seem content. Many of them are, after all, on vacation.
Kane’s opponents are trying to make the most of her outsider status without getting too nasty—a kind of restraint not often seen in District politics. “I’m concerned myself that a lot of business of the city goes on outside the commission meetings,” says Richard Sargent, one of four candidates opposing Kane for two open seats. “A lot of the business of the city happens during the week, with people talking to each other, running into each other on the street.”
Residents “want someone they can go to on the commission who has a lot of experience in the community,” agrees Patty Derrick, another candidate who’s been going door-to-door since February. Derrick and Sargent are both full-time residents who own businesses in the area.
But Kane promises she won’t neglect her constituents. She plans to spend weekends in Rehoboth if she’s elected, returning Monday or Tuesday to Washington. She will also attend all of the city commission meetings, which are held on Friday evenings once a month. (Not that Kane is severing her D.C. political ties. She will still lobby full-time, hold down her seat on the D.C. Retirement Board, and vote in District elections.)
Rehobothites would be foolish to pass up the chance to elect Kane, says her treasurer Courville. “Cities and towns all over the country hire and pay her a lot of money to help solve the problems we have in Rehoboth. We get to have her for free.”
It’s a bargain for Kane as well. Where else, after all, could a Washington politico get to enjoy two of her favorite pastimes: schmoozing voters and relaxing on the beach? At a recent cocktail party to benefit a local community group, Kane and Schwartz sip drinks and chat with well-tanned residents. Then, when the party breaks up, Kane ambles outside to knock on some doors. “The nice thing about Rehoboth is you can campaign in your shorts,” she says as she leaves. “You couldn’t do that in D.C., even in July.”