A Look at Delaware

Posted May 30, 2003 at 4:48pm

If Texas — where Democrats in the state House made a run for the border while their Republican counterparts gave chase with the help of the police — is the World Wrestling Entertainment of state party politics, then Delaware is its antithesis. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the First State, when politicians refer to their “friends” across the aisle, they actually mean it. Two days after each election, candidates participate in the Return Day parade in Georgetown, Del., where the winner and loser of each race ride together in an antique car.

It’s “a ceremony of reconciliation,” said Celia Cohen, who runs the news site DelawareGrapevine.com and penned the book “Only in Delaware,” a historical account of state politics. It shows that “you can’t function in this state without crossing party lines. There simply aren’t enough of us to go around.”

Indeed, Delaware political figures point to the state’s small size — home to all of three counties and one Congressional district, it ranks 45th in population and 49th in land area — as the prime reason for the general camaraderie. Of course, things are not all fun and games.

“It doesn’t stop us from having [a few] nasty little races,” said Priscilla Rakestraw, the state’s Republican National Committeewoman. “We’re not going to say we’re above all that.”

It does, however, mean that unless something cataclysmic occurs, incumbents rarely lose. Case in point: The state’s senior Senator, Joseph Biden (D), just won his sixth term with 58 percent of the vote. In 2000, powerful five-term incumbent Sen. Bill Roth (R) lost his re-

election bid, but it was to another incumbent, then-Gov. Tom Carper (D). Republican sources cited Roth’s age as a major reason for his defeat.

For that reason, even Democrats expect Rep. Mike Castle (R) to remain the state’s sole Congressman for as long as he wants to — in his previous two elections, he’s averaged 70 percent of the vote. His moderate politics seem to give nearly everyone something to like — in fact, James Soles, a former vice chairman of the state Democratic committee and former Congressional candidate, sticks a “Castle for Congress” sign in his yard come election time. The result, according to a Republican official who spoke on condition of anonymity, is that Democrats “know they can’t get anybody viable.”

Or, as a well-placed Democrat put it, “Right now I can’t point to someone and say, ‘That’s our candidate.’ ”

With neither Biden nor Carper up for re-election in 2004 and Castle a shoo-in, most attention this cycle focuses on the governor’s race, where incumbent Ruth Ann Minner (D) will try for a second term, most likely facing former judge William Lee, who missed the 2000 Republican nod by 44 votes in the state primary.

For now, the buzz seems to be that Minner holds the edge, but Lee represents a potentially serious threat. He is well-known for presiding over the 1998-99 trial of Thomas Capano, a married attorney with four daughters who was convicted of murdering his mistress, Anne Marie Fahey, a former scheduling secretary to Carper.

“Both [Minner and Lee] are old, old hands in Delaware politics,” said a Republican source, and the race could boil down to the state economy and fallout from two controversial Minner-backed bills.

“It will be a tougher [election] than last time,” Soles conceded. “She’s made some tough stands.

But Soles believes Minner will win re-election. “I think she retains the confidence of most people in the state. … Delaware has weathered economic problems much better than many,” with Minner plugging holes in the state’s budget without much pain or controversy.

“Other states are letting people out of prison and shortening school days,” said the well-placed Democrat, but Delaware isn’t.

However, problems could arise if Delaware falls into a deep deficit, with even Soles saying that voters might not forgive Minner then.

“If there’s a deficit, she’s dead, forget it,” another source said.

Additionally, at least two bills could pose problems for Minner should they gain traction with Delaware’s moderate voters. Minner backed and signed into law an indoor smoking ban, which has hit some businesses hard as smokers simply drive into an adjacent state to spend their evenings. State slot machine revenues could fall by as much as 25 percent, as residents of slot-less Maryland head to West Virginia, where they can gamble and smoke, rather than to Delaware.

“We have a fighting chance. She’s alienated some of her core constituents” with the smoking law, Rakestraw said. Additionally, Minner has publicly backed a gay rights bill that has yet to reach her desk. Neither issue may sit well with conservative-leaning voters in Delaware’s two southern counties.

Minner also has been accused of reacting too slowly to environmental and other problems at a Motiva oil refinery, with critics accusing the governor of being too close to the oil industry — something you don’t often hear Republicans claiming about Democrats.

In the end, however, some Delaware Republicans doubt all this will add up to much.

“It will be hard to beat her,” said one. “Smoking [will be] a minimal factor … unless the election is close, and I can’t remember the last time we had a close governor’s election.”

In the lieutenant governor’s race, incumbent John Carney Jr. (D) could face any of a number of ambitious Republicans, including Wilmington Councilman-at-Large Paul Bartkowsi, state Sen. Catherine Cloutier and state Rep. Deborah Hudson, according to DelawareGrapevine.com. A mud-slinging GOP primary next September could benefit Carney.

As for up-and-comers, Republicans primarily cited new state Rep. Charles Copeland, and Democrats pegged New Castle County Council President Christopher Coons. Copeland, a descendant of the all-powerful DuPont family, “has the breeding behind him and certainly the money,” a Republican official said. A Democratic counterpart said Coons’ “is one name you’ll hear” as a potential candidate for higher office in future elections, even if incumbents have a stranglehold on many state offices.

Unique among other state 2004 elections are those for districts that do not yet exist. New Castle County is doubling the size of its council from six to 12 (plus the at-large president, currently Coons). However, Democrats control the council and therefore get to divvy up the districts.

“It likely will be going in with a Democratic majority and coming out with one,” one source said. Since Republicans in the state House recently redrew that chamber’s districts, resulting in the defeat of several Democratic incumbents, the Democrats are eager to return the favor in New Castle.

Maybe Delaware has a little bit of Texas in it after all.