CHESTERTOWN -- Elmer E. Horsey, the colorful and often combative mayor of Chestertown for nearly 16 years, announced yesterday he will bow out of politics when his term expires in December.
Although he has been a key figure in a bitter legal and political battle over the future of commercial development in Kent County, Mr. Horsey said he and his wife, Joan, had decided several years ago that this four-year term be his last.
"I'm sure there's some people who think Elmer Horsey wants to be mayor the rest of his life," he said yesterday. "That's not true."
Mayor Horsey has been a dominant figure in the picturesque town of fewer than 5,000 residents since he defeated L. Vernon Downey in the 1977 mayoral race. He ran unopposed for three terms and until the recent development brouhaha was considered unbeatable. Known locally by the nickname "Chief," he is easy to pick out even in crowds because of his signature flattop haircut and checkered pants.
Despite the bruising he has taken over his role in developers' efforts to build a 98,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store at the edge of town, Mr. Horsey predicted he could stay in office if he chose to run again for the $3,600-a-year job.
"I'm sure I could win easily if I wanted to," he said yesterday. "But it's not my intent to seek another term."
As mayor, Mr. Horsey oversaw efforts that brought restorations and new construction to downtown Chestertown, including new government and police offices, Colonial-style brick sidewalks, a new water treatment facility and major repairs to the Chester River bridge. He said that before he leaves office, he wants to find a developer willing to build on a vacant lot in the center of town where a McCrory's store stood before it was destroyed by fire.
During the past year, Mr. Horsey's accomplishments have been clouded by his part in the tumultuous Wal-Mart debate. The mayor was forced to abstain from voting on any issue relating to the store after it was disclosed that he accepted a $500,000 loan from Grasmick Enterprises, headed by his friend Louis J. Grasmick, who is a potential investor in the Wal-Mart proposal.
Mr. Horsey drew criticism from some local circles because of his close relationship with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who is not popular in Chestertown. Mr. Horsey helped start the governor's annual crab feast, which until this year was held at a waterfront park on the edge of town. The mayor and his wife also raised eyebrows when they had a large brick mansion built for #i themselves on one of the few remaining waterfront lots in town.
Mr. Horsey's tough and sometimes ham-handed style of running local government alienated many residents, particularly newcomers.
But H. Hurtt Deringer, publisher and editor of the weekly Kent County News, called him "the best mayor, for most of his time in office, Chestertown has ever seen."
Yesterday's announcement, which came on the mayor's 61st birthday, caught his friends and foes by surprise.
"I'm stunned," said Vito Tinnelli Jr., a Chestertown councilman who has served with -- and often supported -- Mr. Horsey for 14 years. "I can't imagine Chestertown without Elmer Horsey."
Margo G. Bailey, a council member often at odds with the mayor and who is considered to have a good chance at succeeding him after December's town election, said Mr. Horsey's decision to quit will put a new twist on Chestertown politics.
"This is going to shift the complete political scene," she said.