A mayor enters on wave of enthusiasm Ocean City's Mathias takes office today


OCEAN CITY -- James Norman Mathias Jr. can't say exactly when he decided to run for the mayor's job here -- the post he will be sworn in to tonight -- but he can remember clearly when he decided to get involved in the town's government.

It was 1974. His father had died shortly after moving the family from Baltimore to Ocean City, and the younger Mathias had taken over Gentleman Jim's, a billiard parlor.

The building next door had burned down, but nobody knew who owned the lot, which was a mess. So Mathias, then 23, went to City Hall for help. Mayor Harry W. Kelley said he would see what he could do.

"He picked up the phone and had the fire marshal and the building inspector in there. Within 15 minutes, things were happening," recalls Mathias, now 45. "When I saw how fast things could happen, I decided right then I wanted to be part of the town."

So, with a little encouragement from Kelley, Mathias got involved in politics. He served on local business boards and in the Fire Department. He even ran a couple of campaigns for City Council members, testing the political science he had studied at the University of Maryland Baltimore County against the real world of small-town politics by the sea.

Then, in 1990, he ran for the council and won a job that he kept until August of this year, when he resigned to vie with three others who also wanted to be mayor. Roland E. "Fish" Powell, the mayor since 1985 -- and, like Kelley, a political mentor to Mathias -- wasn't running again.

Months of planning and politicking turned into a decisive victory, with Mathias capturing nearly half of the votes cast Tuesday. And his political associates and supporters say the campaign is a good indicator of how Mathias will serve as mayor of Maryland's summer playground -- organized, hard-working, purposeful. No detail is shrugged off by this tall, thin, fast-talking businessman who still owns the billiard parlor.

His energy and his enthusiasm for his adopted town appear to be endless.

"He is the most thorough, meticulous man," says Ralph Sapia, Mathias' campaign coordinator. "You can disagree with him, but when the conversation is over, it's over, time to move on. He wants everybody to be part of this town."

"He's got tons of energy," says Buck Mann, a council member who was elected the same year Mathias was. "He's got tons of enthusiasm."

"I want to be effective and build a good partnership," Mathias says.

Partnership is the key element of the job. Ocean City has a manager, who works with a seven-member City Council. The mayor offers guidance but does not vote with the council unless a tie-breaker is needed. He also may veto local legislation.

The most critical partnership, however, lies outside Ocean City. The mayor represents the town in Annapolis. Ocean City is a quiet place of 10,000 or so in the winter, but in the summer, the weekend population can rise to 350,000 or more. So the town looks to the legislature when something big is needed.

"The mayor is our lobbyist," Mann says.

Issues facing the town this year mostly involve infrastructure. Increasing retail development along U.S. 50 in West Ocean City has contributed to clogging the main road and bridge into the town. A third bridge is clearly needed, many in the town say.

"The problem with a third bridge is funding -- the state just doesn't have it," Mann says. So Ocean City will seek other kinds of assistance -- maybe access roads along the commercial strips or additional state police during peak travel times.

Asked about his goals, the new mayor shuttles quickly and easily between detailed discourse on the political process and sentimental descriptions of the Ocean City he first visited as a child. His overall goal, says the married father of two, is maintaining the town as a safe, family-oriented haven for vacationers.

"Some people, in their life, never see what we're looking at," he says. He points to the body of water that is the town's biggest asset and its biggest threat -- the Atlantic Ocean -- from a bench on the Boardwalk.

"When you see both the beauty and the fury of it, you realize you have to manage it."

Pub Date: 10/17/96

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