Posted: May 14, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Hours before an election for national committeeman, some Delaware Republicans representing their party's traditional "Big Tent" philosophy of inclusion have come up with a candidate to counter what they regard as a move to push the state GOP to the right.

The candidate is John R. Matlusky, the state vice chairman who works as the policy director for the majority Republicans in the state House of Representatives.

He will be running against Thomas H. Draper, a Rehoboth Beach businessman who hardly has been a candidate longer than Matlusky, emerging only about a week ago with a bid that surprised current National Committeeman W. Laird Stabler Jr. and prompted him to step aside.

The contest will unfold Friday evening when the state Republicans elect a national committeeman and committeewoman as part of a two-day event in Dewey Beach, to be followed by a series of votes Saturday to endorse statewide candidates.

Typically the elections for the two national committee members, unpaid officials who serve four-year terms and represent the state at the national party level, are a warm-up act for the endorsements, but not this time. Instead, they are threatening to be the main event.

Until a week ago, it did not appear there would be any changes in the two offices. Stabler was uncontested for the post he has held since 1985, and Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the national committeewoman since 1976, was expected to turn aside a challenge from Gretchen Ellixson of Brandywine Hundred.

Draper's candidacy sidelined Stabler, a respected and gentlemanly former attorney general and U.S. attorney, whose instincts are to preserve peace in the party.

It also stirred a search for an alternative candidate by some Republicans. They not only objected to the way Stabler was treated, but were concerned that Draper would team up with state Chairman Terry A. Strine, who was elected a year ago, to try to move the party rightward even though the voters here favor statewide candidates who are centrist and pragmatic.

Both Strine and Draper say they are interested in electing Republicans regardless of philosophy. As Draper put it, "I'm a conservative. I have absolutely zero ideological bent to this job."

Still, the two now face a backlash that has led to Matlusky's hurry-up candidacy, begun Thursday evening when he told others he was willing to leave the behind-the-scenes role he prefers and run for national committeeman.

Word about Matlusky was circulating Friday in fits and starts among party members as the election approached later in the evening.

Through Matlusky's legislative work, he has a record of working with a range of Republicans, from the state representatives who must survive in New Castle County, which last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988, to a new crop of Sussex County conservatives he was instrumental in electing in 2002.

There is also something generational here. Matlusky is 35, and Draper is 62. Matlusky would be the first of his generation of Republicans to assume one of the three top party posts, which are state chairman, national committeeman and national committeewoman.

"I've been asked by a lot of party leaders to step up and provide a choice. These are unique circumstances. The process has been bypassed, and that's what's giving a lot of folks some frustration. It's that frustration that found its way to my doorstep," Matlusky said.

"I have worked and elected folks across the political spectrum. It's about electing and supporting Republicans," he added.

Draper, caught as off guard by Matlusky's candidacy as Stabler was by his, was moving ahead with his own campaign. "It's a democracy," he said.