Posted: March 30, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As Delaware Republicans and Democrats plan for their state conventions this spring, neither party knows who will be the delegates' choice for the next state chair.

The Republicans are approaching their selection with some frustration, the result of a losing streak in statewide elections and a target that first-term Chairman Terry A. Strine artlessly painted on his own back.

The Democrats are somewhat adrift, mostly because they did not know they would need new leadership until two weeks ago when Richard H. Bayard, the chairman since 1997, surprised them by announcing that eight years was enough.

At least the Republicans know who their candidates are. They have a two-person race between Strine and Jeffrey E. Cragg, the New Castle County co-chairman, although there is nothing to prevent the field from growing.

By contrast, the Democrats have nobody and everybody for state chair. Party members actually are walking up to one another and asking if they have any interest in the job, although some people are being asked that question more than others.

Typically the party that holds the governorship defers to the governor's choice for state chair, but it does not appear to be happening in this case. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the two-term Democrat, has said emphatically that she has run her last campaign, and by all accounts she is taking a hands-off approach because she has less at stake than her fellow statewide officeholders do.

The Republicans are going first. Their state convention is scheduled for April 23 in Brandywine Hundred. Their state chair serves a two-year term.

The Democrats have scheduled their state convention for May 14 in Dover. Their state chair serves a four-year term.

It is a mark of the Republicans' discontent that two of their last three elections for chair have been contested. The party has been chafing from the increasingly Democratic leanings of the electorate at the statewide level, a trend that has cost it U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. in 2000 and four consecutive elections for governor, along with other offices.

The Republican race already has shaped up as a messy affair. Strine, a real estate investor, took over in 2003 when nobody else wanted the job, and he came to it without meaningful political experience or a a built-in base of support to sustain him.

While Strine established himself with fund-raising skills, he also damaged himself by trying to finesse both his residency (with a country estate across the line in Pennsylvania and an apartment in Wilmington) and his party credentials, claiming to be a lifelong Republican when voter records show he also has registered Democratic and independent. Nor has it helped that his family and business interests contributed to Democratic candidates in the last election.

Cragg has embarked on a laid-back campaign, doing little more than offering himself as the "Anybody but Strine" candidate, but there have been plenty of fireworks elsewhere.

In an imitation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who called Democrat John F. Kerry unfit for commander-in-chief, an anonymous group styling itself Swift Boat Republicans for Truth has attacked Strine as unfit for chairman.

Swift Boat Republicans have been quiet for a few weeks now, just in time for the Democrats to attract attention as they found out to their astonishment that they had to find a new chair.

The Democrats actually have a lot to sort out. In addition to electing a chair, they have to decide on a national committeeman, national committeewoman and perhaps a state vice chairwoman.

The national committeeman and committeewoman represent the state party on the Democratic National Committee. The Republicans also have these offices, but they held elections for them a year ago, settling tumultuous campaigns by selecting John R. Matlusky and Priscilla B. Rakestraw for four-year terms.

For the Democratic state chair, the names mentioned most often are Gary E. Hindes, who had the post for a term before Bayard came in, and Michael Houghton, a Wilmington lawyer who co-chaired Minner's campaign finance committee. Both have been asked by associates to consider it, and neither has said no.

The names of state Sen. Patricia M. Blevins, the party treasurer, and Antoine J. Allen, the past president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, also have come up. Both say it is something they might like to do someday, but now is not the time.

The Democrats' current national committee members are Bert A. Di Clemente, formerly an aide to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., and Karen L.K. Valentine, a representative of the public employees' union.

Di Clemente is stepping down, and a strong possibility to replace him is Edward J. Freel, who was a secretary of state when U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper was the governor. Valentine may face nominal opposition from Karen Weldin Stewart, a two-time candidate for insurance commissioner.

The Democrats have both a vice chairman and a vice chairwoman. While James F. Hussey Jr. is expected to remain as vice chairman, Leah Betts says she is undecided whether she will stay on a vice chairwoman. Possible replacements for her are Susan S. Edwards, a former aide to Carper, and Harriet Smith Windsor, the secretary of state for Minner.

The Democrats may have to do quite a bit of backing and filling before they settle on a new slate of officers. Unlike the Republicans, they have yet to abandon the tradition of ensuring spots for the three counties and the city.

In the current lineup for example, Bayard is from Wilmington, Di Clemente and Hussey are from New Castle County, Valentine is from Kent County, and Betts is from Sussex County.

The Democrats may not know what the results will be, but they do know how they want to get there. With their recent success at the polls, they want to elect their officers peaceably.

As one Democratic official said laughingly, "We don't want to look like the Republicans."