Posted: Dec. 7, 2004
COUNTING MINNER'S POLITICAL CAPITAL
By Celia Cohen
In Ruth Ann Minner, Delaware has something it rarely sees -- not just a two-term governor, but one who is not running for anything.
It has been 60 years, since Republican Walter W. Bacon was re-elected in 1944 during World War II, that the state had one of those.
Minner has put it in writing, noting in her column in the December-January edition of The Delaware Democrat, her party's newsletter, "These next four years will be my last in a long public career."
The thought of a two-term governor is not to be taken lightly. Although Delaware has had a string of them lately, beginning in 1976, there have been only eight of them ever -- somewhat because governors were limited to a single term before the 20th Century.
Being a governor is good. Being a two-term governor is better.
As much as a two-term governorship connotes authority, it is leavened in this case by Minner's final ambition to go home to Milford, unharnessed from cultivating the good will for another campaign. All the other governors since Bacon have been running for something -- a second term, the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, or even president as Republican Pierre S. du Pont tried to do.
Minner also returns to office with a shade under 51 percent of the vote, a comedown from her tally of 59 percent in 2000.
It is the smallest margin for a governor since the 1972 election of Democrat Sherman W. Tribbitt, a one-term executive for whom Minner worked as a receptionist before getting herself started in the legislature in 1974, and it led William Swain Lee, the Republican ex-judge she defeated, to snap on Election Night that she had no mandate.
For Minner's last years, she will have to leverage what she has -- the achievement of a second term with her slender victory and an approaching retirement that quickly will be of far less interest than whether Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. or Treasurer Jack A. Markell can outmaneuver the other for the Democrats' 2008 nomination and who the Republicans' candidate will be.
"Is she going to be irrelevant, or is she going to be unleashed?" quipped state House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Brandywine Hundred Republican.
The same status -- an end-of-the-line second term won with barely 51 percent of the vote -- did not hamper Bacon. He managed a momentous accomplishment by getting legislative approval to build the Delaware Memorial Bridge, beating back decades of opposition from rail and ferry lobbyists to open up the state to new traffic economically and intellectually. It changed Delaware.
A mandate is what a governor makes of it.
"When people talk mandate to me, I say, 'Mandate, leadership, it's all the same thing,'" said Mark T. Brainard, the governor's chief of staff.
Advisers to Minner say she wants to come out of her governorship known as a good steward who kept the state's finances and economy sound and presided over orderly growth. She already may have what she will be remembered for the most -- the indoor smoking ban, a lifestyle-changing law that took aim at the state's stubborn cancer rates. Even Bill Lee has called it "landmark."
Minner's grasp of politics is acknowledged by both parties after a 30-year run that has taken her from the state House of Representatives to the state Senate to lieutenant governor and governor, with a stint as the Democratic national committeewoman for Delaware thrown in, too.
"If she'd won by one vote or 100,000 votes, I don't think you'd see much change. She's pretty predictable and pretty stable," said Glenn C. Kenton, a Republican who was the secretary of state in the du Pont administration from 1977 to 1985.
Minner is known for the working relationship she has forged with the General Assembly, where the Democrats have the majority in the Senate and the Republicans do in the House.
The Senate Democrats under President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams have been willing to use their 13-8 margin to protect the governor more often than not. It is a caucus where Minner herself served for 10 years as a senator and where it cannot go unnoticed that she recently chose James T. Vaughn Jr., the son of Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., as the Superior Court president judge in a display of gubernatorial clout and friendship.
In the House, the Democrats picked up three seats in the election, cutting the Republican majority from 29-12 to a less daunting 26-15.
Not that the governor and the House were always at odds, anyway. Upstate Republican representatives have to be careful with their votes, coming from an area that increasingly votes Democratic. At the same time House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan effectively persuaded the Democratic caucus to give Minner all the cover it could.
"When you're in the minority party and stick with the governor, you're never in the minority," Gilligan said. "The governor can do a great deal for you, and this governor is very supportive of her friends. After 32 years being in the majority without the governor and the minority with the governor, I'd rather be in the minority with the governor."
The closeness of the re-election has something to say about the way Minner handled her governorship -- particularly her very public embrace of the smoking ban and House Bill 99, the gay anti-discrimination measure that passed the House but died in the Senate. She paid a price for it, creating a backlash that benefited the Republicans while they also zeroed in on the hostage-taking and rape of a prison counselor.
"There were some issues that weren't popular with some people. People voted if they were upset with various issues," Adams said.
Nationally it was not a good year to be running for governor. Of 11 states with gubernatorial races, only four incumbents were re-elected and nearly half of the governorships changed party. The Montana governor was so unpopular that she did not run again, and the governors in Utah and Missouri could not even get nominated, according to a gubernatorial roundup by Larry J. Sabato at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"Getting re-elected was something of a feat. If you look at the new governors from 2000, only three made the cut -- North Carolina, North Dakota and Minner. It's the result of the economy and the result of a divided population, although we don't have as much of that here," said Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist and Democratic ex-legislator who is a close political adviser to the governor.
Minner's victory in 2004 was considerably different than in 2000, and not just because her margin shrank.
Four years ago she carried 36 of 41 representative districts, losing only five upstate districts in the traditional Republican areas of Chateau Country, Brandywine Hundred, Hockessin and Pike Creek Valley. This time she carried 25 districts, sweeping upstate except for Chateau Country but losing her downstate base. From Middletown south, Minner won only two districts, one in Dover and one in Rehoboth Beach.
Lee believes he closed in on Minner by outperforming her in a series of about a dozen debates, only to be stopped when the Democrats came after him for his financial and legal problems from a 30-year-old Farmers Bank loan and a lawsuit he filed over his judicial pension.
"She never backed off the debates. We were happy she did that. She made herself the issue of the campaign, and that's when we started picking up ground. At the end, she made me the issue. The negative ads were the turning point. They were the bombs in the arsenal, and they dropped at the perfect time," Lee said.
Perhaps more significantly, it appears that Minner cost herself votes downstate by spending down her political capital on the smoking ban and House Bill 99. It is evident from an examination of House votes on those issues in 2003, as shown by a chart available by clicking here. (The uproar over the prison rape probably dragged down Minner, too, but there were no votes to track on it.)
In general, Minner carried House districts where the members, regardless of their party, agreed with her on the smoking ban and House Bill 99 and lost those where they did not. Since legislators keep themselves in office by knowing where their constituents stand, their votes mostly can be assumed to reflect the sentiment in their districts, although there are exceptions.
In addition, pro-Minner districts usually voted for John F. Kerry, the Democrat who carried the state, for president, and pro-Lee districts almost always voted to keep Republican George W. Bush in the White House.
In a noteworthy split in the Middletown area, Democratic Rep. Bethany A. Hall-Long and Republican Rep. Richard C. Cathcart both voted against Minner on the smoking ban but with her on House Bill 99, and their districts voted for Lee for governor but Kerry for president.
In the end, Minner pulled out the election. Lee attributed it to Sussex County, which he won but not as decisively as he expected. In getting to 51 percent of the statewide vote, Minner polled 56 percent in New Castle County, where the bulk of the population lives, 41 percent in Kent County and 45 percent in Sussex County.
A second term brings renewed political capital. As one Legislative Hall Democrat wittily put it, "In politics everyone wants something, and guess who you have to go to? The governor."