Posted: June 2, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

New Castle County is not Philadelphia, where Mayor John F. Street was propelled to re-election last year on the news that federal agents had bugged his office.

It is not Boston, where legendary Mayor James M. Curley went to jail in a corruption scandal in the 1940s, continuing to collect his paycheck, until his congressional pals got him a pardon and he returned triumphantly to city hall.

The county is a place where the voters are unhappy if the politics run amok.

The voters had a serious taste of it almost 30 years ago, when a federal investigation brought down Melvin A. Slawik Sr., the Democratic county executive, and he did time. They took the county away from the Democrats for the next three administrations.

The voters got antsy again in the 1980s, snappish over congestion and nervous that the builders might be having their way with Republican County Executive Rita Justice's administration. They became even testier when they found out Justice had shaved two years off her birthday and pretended to be a Delaware native, when she was really a coal miner's daughter from Kentucky.

It is not nice to fool the voters. They washed Justice out of office in 1988 and have not elected a Republican administration since.

If there was ever a time to wonder if the voters will be in the mood again to throw the bums out, it is now.

Nothing fixates the electorate like a jawbreaker indictment in a political scandal. It alleges a fishy $2 million loan, sexual escapades, illegal electioneering and cover-ups, among other suspected wrongdoings attributed to Thomas P. Gordon, the two-term Democratic county executive, and to Sherry L. Freebery, the chief administrative officer who is running to succeed him.

"It will certainly have an impact on the campaign for county executive," said James R. Soles, a political science professor retired from the University of Delaware.

The indictment was announced last week by U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly, who appears to be doing for government corruption what he once did for murder in making it the talk of the town, although he probably will discover there are more books and movies in sensational crime than scurrilous politics.

Connolly says he can prove that Gordon and Freebery turned the county into an "enterprise" for racketeering. His accusation amounts to a criminal variation of a familiar theme.

For nearly eight years now, Gordon and Freebery have dealt with complaints that they operated the county like an old-fashioned political machine, a couple of ex-police chiefs dispensing favors and fear, and they have defended themselves with their record on taxes, land use, parks and libraries. They have yet to plead to the federal charges.

The indictment will play out in both the courtroom and the campaign, but with the case not expected to come to trial before next year, the early action will be the ballot box, not the jury box. The primary election is Sept. 11, a little more than three months away, and the general election is Nov. 2.

Freebery has the unenviable task of fighting a three-front war, taking fire not only from Connolly but from County Council President Christopher A. Coons, who is running against her in the primary for the Democratic nomination, and from Christopher J. Castagno, the Republican candidate.

Not even Napoleon could manage two fronts, let alone three. No matter what eventually happens in court, the chances for Freebery's political survival are plummeting. Political machines are something else that deteriorate from the top down.

Democratic Party leaders are unsure how to analyze the fallout for their party. Gordon and Freebery have had little use for it, beyond needing a vehicle to get on the ballot, and they have cultivated both Democrats and Republicans as allies, but the voters may not care.

Richard H. Bayard, the state chairman, insists his party will escape a backlash, but John D. Daniello, the county chairman, is not so sure.

Daniello is particularly concerned for Chris Coons, the endorsed candidate for county executive, even though there is little love lost between Coons and the administration. In shows of independence, Coons has made ethics a centerpiece of his campaign and convened the County Council in emergency session to cut powers for Gordon and Freebery.

"The guy who shouldn't be taking a hit but is taking a hit is Coons," Daniello said.

Bayard is more optimistic. "The voters are smart enough not to unfairly tag the party in a situation that was a quest for personal power, not party advantage. They can easily see the indictment alleges illegal politicking for Republican and Democratic candidates. The purpose was to secure friendly pro-administration votes on council, regardless of party," he said.

For the first time since the 1980s, the Republicans are perking up, sensing an opening that may let them capitalize the same way their party did against Mel Slawik and the Democrats did against Rita Justice.

Thomas S. Ross, the Republican county co-chairman, says there has been a surge of interest and support for Castagno, the candidate for county executive. Although Castango is relatively unknown to the voters, the Republicans are banking that it could be an advantage. It is not accidental that Castagno's campaign slogan is "a fresh start."

Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, believes the party is in the best position in years to overcome the Democrats' edge in voter registration, particularly because the county executive, the council president and the council majority all are Democratic.

"The Republican Party is united, both for the opportunity and the candidate. The question is, do these allegations cause a wave of revulsion in the voters against not only the people charged but the people on the council who stood idly by and either did nothing or assisted?"  Rakestraw said.

Did anyone mention that Colm Connolly is a Republican, too?