Posted: June 4, 2004
KENT COUNTY RISING
By Celia Cohen
Myron T. Steele might not have been the happiest man in the courtroom when he was sworn in last week as Delaware's chief justice, because Edward R. "Ned" Davis was there, too.
Ned Davis waited 40 years for this day -- for the return of Kent County. Two of its own were the governor and the chief justice. Even better for Davis, they were fellow Kent County Democrats and his friends.
Davis was there the last time those two offices belonged to the state's central county. They were wrapped up in one man. Charles L. Terry Jr. was a magisterial chief justice who left the bench in 1964 when the Democrats drafted him to run for governor.
Terry won, and he hired Davis, then a 36-year-old newsman, as his press secretary, getting him into politics where he spent 16 years as the Democrats' national committeeman and now stands as one of the most influential lobbyists in Legislative Hall.
Terry was good, but this is better. "We didn't have both [offices] at the same time. Now we do," Davis said.
Since Terry, there has been a long dry spell for Kent County. The governor from Dover had started out so well, too. Backed by a Democratic legislature, Terry threw out the patronage system and put in a merit system for state employees, created Delaware Technical & Community College, reformed the Justice of the Peace Courts and modernized the New Castle County government.
Then it went south. The Republicans took over the legislature. Terry had a heart attack. He ordered the National Guard into Wilmington in the rioting after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968 and left it there so long that Delaware became a national sideshow. He lost his re-election campaign.
Kent County had no chance to recover. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1962 put the power where the population was, and New Castle County was on its way, at the expense of Kent and Sussex counties in less-populous lower Delaware.
The days in which Kent County could claim the top offices through Terry and others like J. Caleb Boggs, a Republican congressman, governor and senator, and J. Allen Frear Jr., a Democratic senator, were over.
What followed was a steady parade of upstate officeholders, Republicans like U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., Gov. Pierre S. du Pont and U.S. Rep. Michael N.Castle, and Democrats like U.S. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper.
It has taken 40 years and grit for Kent County to come back. The way New Castle County is going these days, the timing could not be better.
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who lives on the Kent side of Milford, got to where she is the hard way -- nearly 30 years of climbing from the governor's receptionist through the legislature and lieutenant governor until she was elected to the state's most coveted office in 2000.
Steele slogged his way up, too. He was not even from here, born into a military family in Massachusetts, and arriving in Dover in 1970 after law school. An early taste of public life came courtesy of a Republican in Attorney General W. Laird Stabler Jr., who made Steele a prosecutor. Before Steele went on the bench in 1988, he was a Kent County Democratic chairman, and then rose from the Superior Court to the Court of Chancery to the Supreme Court to chief justice.
Minner and Steele are not alone. These days Kent County has plenty more influence to go around. State Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Kenton Democrat, is the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, where the money decisions are made, and state Sen. John C. Still III, a Dover Republican, is the Senate minority leader.
Even Kent County lawyers are getting into the act. F. Michael Parkowski chairs the Judicial Nominating Commission, where all judges come from. Robert B. Young is the new president of the Delaware State Bar Association, an organization usually regarded as the preserve of upstate corporate lawyers.
Kent County is everywhere. "Look at that," said Minner, smiling, as if she did not know.
It all makes David S. Swayze look like one of the smartest men in Delaware. Swayze is an upstate lawyer and lobbyist, a Democrat who nevertheless was counsel to Gov. Pete du Pont. In recent years Swayze worked at some of those out-of-state law firms with offices in Wilmington, but last year he saw the light.
Swayze hooked himself up with Parkowski at the Dover law firm now known as Parkowski Guerke & Swayze. If he could not be from Kent County, at least he could join it.
"The state is in equipoise. It's the center of the state. It's the state capital," Swayze said. "The axis of power is shifting."
Kent County may not be finished yet. There is a Republican opening on the Supreme Court to be filled. Parkowski's commission will be making the recommendations. Minner will be making the appointment.
All eyes are on Superior Court President Judge Henry duPont Ridgely, a Republican from -- where else? -- Kent County. During Steele's investiture, Minner spent nearly as much time praising Ridgely as Steele.
Not even the new chief justice could resist speculating that the opening on his court could keep Kent County rising.
"Who's going to be the next justice?" Steele asked.