Posted: June 17, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The mustache was purged. The governor close to it.

Lt. Gov. John Carney's campaign is looking for its footing in a new political age, as he wrestles with Treasurer Jack Markell over the Democratic nomination for governor.

It is a different kind of primary than Delaware ever has seen before, one that could turn on whether it is more important, say, to commandeer YouTube or the unions in the modern Democratic Party.

Carney, 52, is the pride of Claymont, a gritty, down-to-earth place where he grew up before going to Dartmouth, getting a master's degree at the University of Delaware and settling in Wilmington, where he is now, with his wife Tracey and two sons.

Claymont is the Democratic Party at the gut level, but politics in the 21st Century demands more, and Carney is at pains to straddle both worlds, tentative as a transitional candidate in an election year that has been transformed by Barack Obama and his message of change.

Parts of the past had to go, no matter how much they once meant to Carney's image.

The twentysomethings around Carney all but rolled their eyes at his Sixties mustache, so off it went last year in deference to the youth vote.

Would that it were as easy to deprogram the voters' memories of the "Minner-Carney" drumbeat pounded for eight years. The tag-team nomenclature has become -- ahem! -- inconvenient as the state grows more impatient with the final governor it elected in the 20th Century.

The fears and frustrations have gone up, as surely as the costs of gas and groceries, on account of such matters as the cancer clusters, the death spirals of the Chrysler and General Motors plants, the woebegone Indian River bridge and all those politicians dithering in Dover about wind power while the environment and energy prices are at stake.

It has forced Carney into one of the toughest acts in politics -- changing message in mid-stride. From the slogan on his yard signs, "The experience we need. A leader we trust," a backward-looking theme of the same sort that did not work for Hillary Clinton, he is transitioning to "Making Change a Reality" when he formally declares his candidacy Saturday.

Carney's campaign seems to be hoping the voters will agree to forget about Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, if it will. She is missing from the Web site's roster of 45 other officeholders whose endorsements it displays. Even the chief deputy for the New Castle County recorder of deeds has a billing.

Minner does make it into the endorsements on a campaign leaflet for Carney, but barely. She is buried in alphabetical order, "G" for governor sandwiched  between E" for electrical workers and "I" for ironworkers.

Of course, it is not helping that the Republicans and Bill Lee, their endorsed candidate who was also the 2004 gubernatorial nominee, have no intention of participating in any collective amnesia about Minner-Carney. State Rep. Greg Lavelle, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, has quipped that Lee's campaign slogan ought to be, "I told you so."

Carney hardly is jettisoning the entire political past. He makes proud references to his associations with the state's two popular Democratic senators -- as a former aide to Joe Biden and finance secretary to Tom Carper when he was the governor.

More importantly, Carney is relying on the sturdy partnership between the Democratic organization and the labor unions that has made the party dominant in Delaware since the 1990s.

In a press release in early June, the campaign touted the backing of 16 unions along with the New Castle County Democrats, the Wilmington Democrats and 20 local Democratic committees among the 41 state representative districts.

"We worked very hard for those endorsements. Our strength is our grassroots support. I think we're in a very strong position there," Carney said.

It is formidable backing. Any opponent not named Jack Markell undoubtedly would be cowed.

Markell, 47, is not doing what was done before. His roots are in Newark, the more freethinking home of the University of Delaware, before he went on to Brown University and picked up a master's degree at the University of Chicago.

While Carney took a traditional Democratic path into government, from staff to the Cabinet to elected office as lieutenant governor in 2000, Markell threw his lot in with the fledging telecommunications industry, made his fortune, got a house in Montchanin with his wife Carla and two children, and entered public life with his election as treasurer in 1998.

In the campaign for governor, Markell has ventured beyond the party structure. He has hired 16 paid campaign staffers -- Carney's campaign will not say how many it has -- and raked in the campaign contributions, beginning the year with $2.5 million to Carney's $1 million, to create his own organization with hundreds of volunteers.

Markell expects to begin a media bombardment next month with television, radio and direct mail that will continue until the primary on Sept. 9, according to Andrew Roos, the campaign manager. It is an unprecedented barrage for a primary here.

From the outside, the Republicans are watching with interest to see whether Markell's new-era approach can crack through the age-old alliance of the party and the unions. "For them, it's not Carney and Markell, it's control of the Democratic Party," Lee said.

Carney is aware he cannot afford to sit back. He is augmenting his traditional approach with new campaign techniques, too.

As of last week, he had hosted 13 dinners for voters around the state at a cost of about $500 for each session. (Never mind that Markell was there first, holding 41 pizza parties and picnics in all the representative districts when he was running for re-election in 2006.)

"This is all new to me. This is good. You get to meet a large number of people, and you don't have to knock on doors," said state Rep. John Viola, a Bear Democrat who attended Carney's dinner along with about 75 voters at the Christiana fire hall last Wednesday for baked ziti and meatballs.

The dinners are something like condo sales at resorts. People show up for a free dinner but have to sit through Carney's pitch.

Carney likes them a lot. "It gives me an opportunity to meet people one on one -- people that mostly I don't know -- and to hear what people care about," he said.

"In order to be a leader, you have to have people willing to follow. You need to know what they want. This campaign is about connecting with voters."

Markell, meanwhile, spent last week pushing farther into new political ground. He released "Blueprint for a Better Delaware," an 83-page booklet proposing policies on energy, land use, economic development, public safety, health care and education, all conscientiously documented.

Markell could be the first Delawarean to campaign for governor with footnotes.

Although he released 3,000 copies of his blueprint (also available by e-mail) with a splashy statewide tour, Markell was cheerfully realistic about its reach. "Hopefully people will read the introduction," he said.

What the booklets did accomplish, however, was letting Markell deliver the signature statement of his candidacy.

"Campaigns are not supposed to be about just slogans or bumper stickers. This campaign is about new ideas and moving the state in a new direction. Nobody has ever done anything like this before," he said.

"I'm relying on a lifetime in Delaware, 10 years of service and an army of people who want Delaware to move in a new direction."

Whatever the tactics, campaigns in this small state always will be about the personal touch.

Markell, shaking hands at the Italian Festival in Wilmington, was delighted to meet someone who shared a hospital room years ago with his father and even remembered what his medication was.

Carney was pleased that his Christiana dinner drew two women whose grandparents were such close neighbors to his own family in Claymont that his father used to hide the Christmas presents in their basement.

The Carney-Markell primary will have a lot to say about the shape of the Delaware Democratic Party. Both candidates have everything on the line.

It has prompted Carney to think back to his days as a quarterback in high school and college football games, when he decided he did not want his future dependent on how other young men performed one day a week. Instead, he has entrusted his future to what tens of thousands of people do on a given Tuesday.

"I'm not sure that was a smart tradeoff," Carney said.

In the most important way, politics will be as it always was. No matter what techniques the candidates try, the voters have the last say.