A snapshot of some of Cape May’s mayors
Like other towns and cities across America, Cape May has had its share of mayors—some good or not so good, some more colorful than others, and a few whose time in office was marked by significant changes. Cape May voters, as in other towns, have been quick to vote mayors out of office when their actions are not to the liking of at least some citizens, and quick to change the form of government to alter the roles of mayor, city council, or city manager.
Historically, Cape May mayors are voted into office for either two- or four-year terms dependent on the form of government in place at the time: voters may elect the mayor directly, the elected members of city council determine the mayor, or the mayor may be the person running for City Council with the highest number of votes.
Cape May has had mayors since 1851 when first incorporated as Cape Island Borough. Our current mayor, 170 years later, is Zack Mullock, who is serving a four-year term that will end in 2024. Like earlier mayors, before being elected, Zack held previous government positions as a member of city council and of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. And like many previous mayors, Zack was born and raised in Cape May County.
Over the years, many mayors have been elected in response to unpopular activities of the current administration—enough citizens did not like something that a particular city administration was doing. In fact, throughout Cape May’s history, many mayors have been voted out of office over various disagreements. For example, the 1960s Gauvry administration (but not Mayor Frank Gauvry himself) was voted out of office over disagreements about the city’s use of urban renewal funds. That administration was replaced by a city council headed by historic preservationist Bruce Minnix as mayor, who served one term before being voted out of office and replaced by a new administration.
Our current mayor also was voted into office on the heels of several controversies, the most prominent of which related to building a public safety building combining the fire and police departments. Major challenges face this mayor and his administration, many of which are being addressed quickly and with high visibility, others of which will be less visible and take much longer to accomplish. The new fire house is well under way, under budget, and within projected timelines, as are the restoration of the Franklin Street School into a library and the renovation of the AME church.
Balancing commercial tourism needs with residential quality of life is a complicated and more challenging task. Dreams of a Cape May future as a full-time community where families work and raise children are undermined when properties are purchased as income-generating investments rather than for year-round or even summer living, or when housing is not affordable. Other important issues include addressing water and desalination needs and the negative economic and physical impacts of climate change. This mayor differs from others throughout our history in that wide communication is possible via social media, giving the administration some degree of transparency. Cape May residents and visitors need only to log onto Facebook to see what this administration reports and celebrates as the city’s accomplishments.
Other mayors may not have had or used social media, but most administration controversies and accomplishments have been reported over the years via newspapers. The first mayor of Cape May, Isaac Church, was the minister of the Baptist Church in 1851 when elected, but in that same year was replaced by James Clark, who took over when Church was reassigned to a northern New Jersey congregation. Until the turn of the century, those elected as mayor served two-year terms and were generally long-standing Cape May residents and members of the Cape May business community.
By the end of the century, several men were elected for more than one term, although not always consecutively. People like Waters B. Miller (1869, 1873), owner and operator of Congress Hall; Samuel Magonagle (1861, 1863), owner and publisher of the Cape May Wave newspaper; or J. Henry Edmunds (1885, 1895) served more than one term as mayor. Each of these men faced challenges as the city grew from the small community of Cape Island to the much larger turn-of-the-century City of Cape May with its flourishing tourism industry.
Cape May was in a growth period following the Civil War when Waters B. Miller was elected to his first term as mayor. Miller had purchased Congress Hall from his father Jonas Miller, but his primary early occupations were not as much in hotel management as in land ownership, development, and politics. Prior to becoming mayor, Miller served at the beginning of the Civil War as a county freeholder and on committees throughout the war supporting enlistees of Cape May County companies. He was elected a county freeholder many times.
In 1880 and 1883, Miller served as a New Jersey senator. An instrumental person of his time, in 1863, he and others successfully attracted the Cape May and Millville Railroad to come to Cape Island. This was a major accomplishment and made a huge impact on the future of Cape May.
Atlantic City had become accessible via train in 1854 and robbed Cape Island of its advantage of being easy to get to by steamboat. Trains were faster, and Atlantic City was closer to a main source of summer visitors—namely Philadelphians. In August 1869, during Miller’s first year as mayor, the summer tourist economy was also attacked by the so-called “fire fiend,” who burned a two-block area of the resort’s oldest hotels, including the United States Hotel and Atlantic Hall. But by the summer of 1870, Miller was managing a resort once again filled with people staying in their newly built cottages and in the hotels and boarding accommodations being constructed by out-of-town investors. Affluence abounded. When he died in 1892, Miller’s many contributions to the state had far surpassed his leadership in Cape May City and County. His once ownership of Congress Hall was a mere blip in a lifelong number of notable accomplishments.
Cape May has had its share of good and bad times, prosperity and downturns, and economic and physical transformations. Mayors have contended with things like fires, storms, and floods—and there have been many of these over the past centuries—and in good times such as the prosperous years during both World Wars when Cape May played such an important position in defending our country.
Mayors and their city councils have defined not only the pressing issues but the strategies for addressing these issues. For example, many—including the present one—have created strategies to increase employment, jobs, and the number of families living in town. Others of 50 or so years ago created the seawall/promenade to decrease the damage done by flooding and increased the size of the beach to attract tourists and protect property. The town citizens have supported many of the strategies, but others were more divisive. Some seemed positive at the time, but in the long run led to potentially negative economic and cultural consequences. Few mayors have been well-liked by all people.
One of Cape May’s most unusual mayors was Bruce Minnix, 1972–1976, one of a small number who was not born and raised in Cape May. Minnix was a New York television producer whose credits included several daytime soap operas, a staple of early television. Recruited by residents, including many who were recent transplants, Minnix ran on a historic preservation agenda. Since the late 1950s, a group of long-time Cape May residents had advocated for the use of historic preservation to create economic recovery by attracting more tourists and businesses and extending the summer season into spring and fall shoulder seasons, thus strengthening the tourism industry. These residents were joined by new transplants whose businesses were being built on historic preservation tourism.
Not all people shared this view. In a hotly contested race, the Minnix slate won over the incumbent administration which was not doing enough to promote historic preservation despite administering federal urban renewal programs based on preserving as much of Cape May’s Victorian building stock as possible. By voting the previous administration out, residents forced preservation issues into a central focus.
Minnix is often noted as the mayor who saved a lot of Cape May’s properties which in the years prior to his election were rapidly being demolished for new construction and major projects. These included the Washington Street Mall and various low-income housing developments. Widespread demolition was halted and slowed down. In 1976, just after the end of Minnix’s term and because of renewed emphasis on preservation, the entire City of Cape May was designated as a National Landmark by the National Park Service. Shortly before Minnix’s successful election, Frank Gauvry, Cape May’s mayor at the time, had turned down federal funding awarded to restore the Physick property. Minnix and others prevented the Physick Estate from being torn down and established the Mid Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC, and now Cape May MAC) as an organization to operate the estate as a house museum and to develop other cultural resources for Cape May. In so doing, MAC became the central organization for interpreting and presenting Cape May’s history through many varied tours and programs.
Minnix did much to promote Cape May through his many contacts. He appeared as a contestant on the popular TV show What’s My Line?, with his line being that he was not only a TV producer but also the mayor of Cape May. Newspaper and magazine articles touted the historic preservation efforts, encouraging people to visit and learn about the wonderful architecture Cape May had to offer because the city’s wide and sandy beaches had significantly eroded. While supported by many townspeople, Minnix was criticized by others who viewed his administration as being harmful to expansion and new development that would benefit the year-round community. He lost his re-election to Arthur “Mickey” Blomkvest who had served as a member of City Council from 1968 to 1972 and went on to serve as Mayor for four terms, a total of 12 years, from 1976 through 1988. Blomkvest achieved many accomplishments during his terms of office, in particular spearheading the early beach replenishment projects designed to restore Cape May’s eroding beaches.
No article on Cape May mayors would be complete without mention of Frank Gauvry, another “outsider” who became an “insider” when he was stationed in Cape May during the Second World War and married a local woman. Eventually, he started an insurance business and settled his family in Cape May. Even back in the 1960s, Gauvry knew the importance of networking and forming relationships with people who could help him promote his agenda. Elected to city council in May 1964 along with Mayor I. Grant Scott and Harry Reeves, Gauvry became mayor six months later in November 1964 when Scott died suddenly of a heart attack.
The eight years Gauvry served as Mayor were filled with action and controversy. Strongly allied with Carl Sandman, a well-known politician and state senator from Erma, Gauvry’s administration acted using funds obtained in both previous and their own administrations to undertake many projects. During his term, many buildings were demolished, so many that the Star and Wave reported about the challenges in safely burning building remnants, which took place largely under guidelines of the state Health Department to protect against toxicity. The primary burn location was on the then-empty lots on Lafayette Street.
While the preservationists saw that too many buildings were being demolished and viewed them as indiscriminate, Gauvry and his administration were clear about what they were trying to accomplish. Simply put, the administration believed that the city’s poverty and now-flagging economy would be improved if more people came to Cape May to retire or live as year-around residents, visit as summer cottagers, or even come as day- or week-tripping tourists. Where they differed from the preservationists, who basically thought the same thing about the economy, was on the strategies necessary to attract new people.
The preservationists saw the old homes and architecture as the attraction, while the city administration viewed these same buildings as impediments to their strategy, which was to build new. Gauvry believed and acted on an agenda to develop and build new motels, new housing, and improved shopping. As a result, many properties came down to create the Washington Street Mall, Victorian Towers, the Broad-Lafayette- Osborne Street low-cost housing, and new motels conveniently located for shopping and the beach.
Other projects such as Village Greene yielded deals between the city and various developers to fill in and use wetlands for housing and new motels. The massive number of projects undertaken during this time resulted in both positive and unintended negative consequences, while transforming the town’s physical and social structure.
Gauvry was a mayor of action, a person to get things done. When running for re-election in 1968, ads in the Star and Wave and other papers highlighted the accomplishments of the administration’s first four years as reported in major newspapers all over the country. Paid political ads in the May issues of the Star and Wave proclaimed: “Is this the time to waste a vote on a candidate whose record of public service is nil?,” “Is this the time to waste a vote on a candidate who has been against every progressive program Cape May has had in the past four years?” The answer was to “Protect Cape May’s Future – Vote for the Experienced Team.” City voters responded by re-electing Gauvry and the Council in 1968 in the only other election in which he ran.
This was an unusual election in that four people ran for three Council seats. The Star and Wave reported the votes: Gauvry (853 votes), Berk (869 votes), Sharp (772 votes), and Blomkvest (771 votes). Blomkvest filed a lawsuit challenging the vote and the Judge ruled that there should be a runoff election between Blomkvest and Sharp. Blomkvest won this election, in November 1968, and was seated as the third Council member; Sharp was unseated. In the next four years, this administration continued an agenda of new housing and new experiences to attract tourists. Only at the end of the second term did the rift between this administration and the preservationists gain enough steam to result in electing Minnix as the next mayor.
There have been many outstanding mayors in Cape May’s history, some of whom helped steer the future direction of the city. In part, Frank Gauvry was in the right place at the right time, and, depending on one’s perspective, maybe doing the right thing. Right or wrong (or in-between), Gauvry was an ambitious mayor at a fortuitous time in Cape May’s history. The city was still in recovery from the 1962 Nor’easter storm, little development or new construction had occurred in years, the beaches had eroded down to small slivers of sand that all but disappeared in high tide, many of its citizens were poor or elderly, and increasing amounts of federal monies were becoming easily available to address these issues.
Gauvry pushed full steam ahead using whatever strategies worked to accomplish his agenda. So many changes resulted that the center of town was essentially physically re-created, the outskirts became developed, and Cape May began its national notoriety as a tourist destination. Few mayors throughout Cape May’s history have had both a strong agenda for what they wanted to accomplish and the economic and other resources necessary for implementation.
One unresolved and continuing issue in city government centers on who is eligible to vote. In Cape May today, the mayor is elected by an ever-decreasing number of registered voters. More than 50% of properties in Cape May City are owned by non-resident people who pay taxes but can’t vote—sometimes referred to as “taxation without representation.” (Our current Mayor was elected with 837 votes out of approximately 1400 people who voted in the past election.)
Mayors have made significant impacts on Cape May throughout its long history but heading up any resort community is tricky when mayors are elected by residents and, theoretically, also need to be sensitive and responsive to the concerns of non-resident property owners. Various Cape May organizations such as the Cottagers and the Taxpayers Association have attempted to bridge this gap by providing a voice for non-residents for what happens in the town. Cape May has been and will continue to be guided by these governmental officials, their agendas, and strategies that have throughout history shaped the city of today. ■