Posted: Aug. 23, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

To find out who the serious candidates are, you follow the money.

Here in the 2004 primary season, these candidates are some of the serious ones: William Swain Lee, Matthew P. Denn, Christopher A. Coons, Paul G. Clark, Penrose Hollins and Ernesto B. Lopez.

These candidates are not: Michael D. Protack, Richard J. Korn, Dianne M. Kempski and Gary L. Bowman.

Sherry L. Freebery certainly used to be and could make a comeback. Her campaign for New Castle County executive began with a gold rush, filling her campaign treasury with more than $100,000, but the money largely stopped once she was indicted in late May on federal corruption charges, even though she pleaded innocent and called the indictment politically motivated.

Freebery says she made a deliberate decision to hold off on the fund raising but now has it cranking again.

Campaign finance reports for candidates running on Primary Day, Sept. 11, were due last week to state election officials. The reports cover financial activity for 2004 from Jan. 1 through Aug. 12.

Candidates unopposed for nomination, such as Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, did not have to submit campaign finance reports. The last public accounting of their treasuries was filed at the end of 2003, letting them keep their opponents guessing until the next reports are due in early October.

Money often is called the first primary, because the spending records generally reflect breadth and depth of support or sometimes the deep pockets of a self-financing candidate. That is why it is regarded as a gauge for how seriously someone should be taken.

There are only two statewide primaries this year -- a Republican contest for governor and a Democratic election for insurance commissioner. In both cases, the money advantage belonged to the candidate with the party endorsement.

Bill Lee, the Republican Party's endorsed candidate for governor, was the class act of the entire primary field, raking in $258,107. Between last year and this one, Lee collected more than $410,000. He is going to need it -- and more. Minner, a first-term Democrat, is expected to top her 2000 campaign budget of $1.5 million as she runs for re-election.

Lee has competition for the Republican nomination, but not much of it, if the campaign finance reports for his two opponents are any indication. Mike Protack reported about $14,000 cash on hand -- a credible amount for a legislative candidate, not a gubernatorial one. David C. Graham has under $2,000 in the bank.

Matt Denn, the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate for insurance commissioner, is swamping Karen Weldin Stewart in the money race, even though she was the uncontested nominee four years ago.

Denn has raised a total of $228,852, including $105,804 in contributions this year, and has $153,882 in his treasury. Stewart began the year with a respectable $61,321 on hand, but her fund raising in 2004 dipped to $35,275, and she has only $16,843 left in the bank.

Among Stewart's expenditures, she paid herself  back $9,354 from a loan of $15,318 she made for her 2000 run. She still owes herself $5,964.

The winner of the Democratic match-up faces state Rep. David H. Ennis, the Republican candidate for insurance commissioner. Ennis does not have a primary, so his campaign finances are a mystery until October. His old legislative account only had about $100 in it at the end of 2003, so it offers no clues.

In addition to the statewide primaries, there are high-profile contests in New Castle County for executive and council president. The Democrats have races for both nominations, the Republicans for council president.

The money shows a great deal of seriousness among candidates for county executive -- including Republican Christopher J. Castagno, who filed a finance report, even though he is unopposed for the nomination and did not have to.

Castagno and two of the Democrats, Coons and Freebery, all have raised more than $100,000 in contributions collected either in 2003 or 2004. Coons led the way with $156,485, with the other two essentially in a dead heat -- $100,437 for Freebery and $100,230 for Castagno.

The three candidates were neck-and-neck in their 2004 expenses, which generally went for advertising, like campaign signs, and for fund raising. Coons spent $90,729, Freebery $85,556 and Castagno $84, 211.

Coons ended up with the most in the bank at $61,923, Freebery with $14,881 and Castagno with $16,019.

The money, however, continued to flow for Coons and Castagno up to the filing deadline, while Freebery's contributions slowed to a trickle. She said Monday it was a momentary lull -- with $20,000 in hand to show on the next report and two more fund-raisers scheduled.

Richard Korn, the third Democrat running for county executive, was left behind, making a go of his campaign largely through self-financing it with loans of almost $13,000. He is a newcomer to county politics, while Coons is the current council president and Freebery is the county's chief administrative officer.

In the showdown for the County Council presidency, three of the five candidates were competitive in their fund raising. The other two trailed badly.

On the Democratic side, Penrose Hollins and Paul G. Clark both topped $30,000 in campaign contributions, with Clark throwing in another $8,000 or so of his own money to give himself more than $40,000 to spend. Both candidates churned through just about all the money they had.

Kempski, the third Democrat in the race, had to loan herself almost $3,500 to have about $13,000 to spend. Her campaign has not demonstrated traction, not after widespread coverage that she continued to collect a government paycheck as an elected administrator even though her responsibilities all but disappeared after the General Assembly restructured the Court of Chancery.

On the Republican side, there is a huge gulf between Ernie Lopez, the endorsed candidate, and Gary L. Bowman. Lopez is relatively awash in money, collecting almost $39,000 and husbanding $24,000 of it. Bowman raised and spent about $2,000.

Lopez's list of donors shows him as the darling of the Republican establishment with contributions rolling in from various du Ponts, party officials and elected officeholders. Even U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, famous for his frugality, gave Lopez a personal check for $100.

By contrast, Bowman's most steadfast contributor in his low-budget campaign was himself. This does not bode well for Bowman.