Posted: Oct. 27, 2014
By Celia Cohen
Margaret Rose Henry, the state Senate's Democratic majority whip, has a gathering about this time every year. Punkin' Sumthin', she calls it.
The event is an urban answer to Punkin' Chunkin', the seasonal extravaganza in downstate Delaware, where pumpkins are catapulted in post-Halloween indignity from their celebrated status as jack-o'-lanterns to jack, oh, jack stuff.
Punkin' Sumthin' is not nearly so strenuous. It is indoors, and nothing round was going to launch unless somebody dropped a meatball.
It is a political function, and Henry, a state senator from Wilmington since 1994, hosted it Friday evening at Timothy's restaurant on the Riverfront with about 100 people there.
Punkin' Chunkin', of course, was canceled this year as it shifts northward from Sussex County to Kent County, but Punkin' Sumthin' was more important than ever.
Henry has a Republican opponent. So do Stephanie Bolden, James "J.J." Johnson and Helene Keeley, all Democratic state representatives with districts in and around the city.
This is practically unheard of. All of these legislators have constituencies that are anywhere from half to two-thirds African-American and voter registration that is 71 percent to 75 percent Democratic, and the legislators are African-American themselves, except for Keeley, who is white.
Until now, the Republicans generally have left these districts alone. Not only were the odds lopsidedly against them, but worse, it could give the Democrats an incentive to raise their turnout in a carryover into other races on Election Day. Better to let sleeping voters lie.
This year, however, the Republicans decided it was high time for some outreach. They recruited four candidates, all of them African-American but not necessarily all of them Republican, to run on their ticket -- Robert Martin against Henry, Richard Dyton against Bolden, Robert Bovell against Keeley, and Gregory Coverdale against Johnson.
The Republicans also showcased Martin by giving him a prime speaking spot at their state convention in September.
Martin took the opportunity to explain why he is a Republican. It had a lot to do with being able to trace his ancestry back to a slaveholder whose lineage also included James Vardaman, a notorious white supremacist elected governor and senator in Mississippi, naturally as a Democrat.
Nor did Martin have much time for the Democrats of today.
"Democrats have been controlling Delaware for 22 years. They've been controlling the city of Wilmington . . . and their main focus has been on social issues and raising taxes. What has this gotten us? A city plagued with extreme violence," Martin told the convention.
With Punkin' Sumthin', Henry struck back. She was rallying her vote for Election Day on Nov. 4.
Henry did not stand alone. Bolden, Johnson and Keeley all appeared with her, as did Chris Coons, the Democratic senator who is up for re-election.
Bolden did not pussyfoot around. "We need votes. We need Democrats to come out to vote. It's really a disgrace on our part if we don't," she said.
Keeley proposed that nothing less than the future of the city was at stake.
"Margaret Rose Henry is the majority whip in the Senate. She is the only person in the city of Wilmington in the leadership. Margaret fights for the city of Wilmington from her position as the whip," Keeley said.
"It is important for Margaret Rose Henry to go back to Dover, it is important for Stephanie T. Bolden to go back to Dover, it is important for J.J. Johnson to go back to Dover, and yes, it is important for me to go back to Dover. We fight for what Wilmington deserves. If Republicans get elected, I guarantee you, they're not taking care of us in this room."
Johnson let the Republicans have it. He delivered the biggest applause line of the day.
"You cannot divorce the local Republican Party and the national Republican Party and what they're doing to our president. You see how gray he's getting?" Johnson said.
"November 4, you have to remember one thing, Democrat all the way."
Henry and the other three legislators should all be fine on Election Day. If there is any suspense, it is about whether they really can jack up the turnout, because city voters are not known for coming out in mid-term elections, when the presidency is not on the ballot, Obama or no Obama, and neither are the races for mayor or the Wilmington City Council.
If the Democratic city voters are roused, there could be that spillover into other elections, and in that case, the Republicans would have nothing but their own strategy to blame if it undercut their serious statewide push to win the open race for state treasurer and keep the state auditor's office.
Now that would be sumthin'.