Posted: Feb. 13, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Someone dug up some 20-year-old dirt on state Republican Chairman Terry A. Strine, and the campaign for the party chairmanship turned nasty right out of the chute.

Strine is running for a second two-year term in April at the Republican state convention. He has one recently-declared opponent in Jeffrey E. Cragg, the New Castle County co-chairman, and he is leading a party that is groping for a way to reverse its decline at the polls.

Strine was blindsided Saturday evening at the Kent County Lincoln Day dinner in Dover at the Sheraton Inn & Conference Center. During a cocktail reception, before any of the 400 or so event-goers were seated at the tables, someone put a hit piece on the chairs.

It was a photocopy of a 1982 newspaper story from the Sunday News Journal. The front-page account was an expose of Strine's business practices in real estate.

Strine was profiting from his dealings with families who had fallen behind on their mortgages and were in danger of losing their homes. In exchange for paying off the families' debts, Strine took over the ownership of their houses for only a small outlay on his part and also collected rent from them as their new landlord.

Before the Republicans got to their seats, the photocopies disappeared, and only a handful of people even knew about them. "I think some little elves picked it up," Strine said.

It was not elves. It was his allies. "They were picked up with the concurrence of the Kent County Republican leadership. It didn't belong at a function like this," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman who is doubling as Strine's campaign manager.

There was nothing on the photocopies to indicate who distributed them. Cragg said he had never seen the newspaper story before and was not behind it.

If Strine considered the hit piece out of bounds, Cragg also was bothered by something he considered out of bounds -- state Republican staff members wearing Strine's political stickers as they mingled with the dinner crowd. He complained that headquarters' personnel ought to be neutral in a party contest.

This is the strained way it is for a party out of power and unsure how to get it back. The signs were everywhere. The head table was a shrunken shadow of its glory days from the early 1980s when the Republicans held seven of the nine statewide offices. Now it has three -- U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, Attorney General M. Jane Brady and Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr.

Castle still is drawing 70 percent, give or take, on Election Day, but the fear was in the air as Brady and Wagner made remarks pleading for support in 2006 for what Wagner called "the two watchdog offices."

Brady could face Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son, with a seasoned and well-financed political operation behind him. No Democrat has stepped forward yet for auditor.

"We're the two statewide officials left. We need you to keep us there," Brady said.

"I've always prided myself on not raising a lot of money, not spending a lot of money. Times have changed," said Wagner, asking the crowd to practice "tithing for the religion of good government."

This is a party with a lot of mending to do. The fissures run so deep that even feel-good awards can rub the wrong way. There is no love lost between state Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III and Sen. Colin R.J. Bonini, a pair of Kent County legislators, and it showed.

When Still was recognized at the dinner as the Kent County Republicans' "Elected Official of the Year," Bonini casually walked out.