Posted: Sept. 28, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If you flip through a local Democratic candidate's financial report, more likely than not it will list a contribution from the blandly named "Committee for a Better Future."

Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker got $600, the maximum that state law allows. So did Teresa L. Schooley, who is in a war with Republican Paul J. Pomeroy for a Newark legislative seat that the Republicans have held for 10 years. Another $600 went to state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, an up-and-comer elected in 2002 in a Rehoboth Beach district that the Republicans should have won.

The Democratic candidates know who is behind the Committee for a Better Future. This is a political action committee that might as well be called JackPAC.

It is the creation of Jack A. Markell, the personable, 43-year-old Democrat who is Delaware's two-term state treasurer today but is expected to have a better future.

Hmmm. Not that Markell was thinking about his future when he set up a treasury that could do nothing but endear him to his fellow Democrats when it comes time to elevate someone to the top tier of state politics, which currently belongs to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, all Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican.

Nothing could have been further from his mind, of course. "The genesis of it is pretty simple. It is so difficult for these candidates to raise money, so I'm trying to help these folks out. I don't think anybody is going to run because I say, I can get you $500 or $600, but it's got to be a psychological boost," Markell said.

What is most surprising about JackPAC is that no one has tried something like it on the state level before.

Political action committees, which are funds set up to raise money to turn into contributions for others, have been bit players in state politics. Typically they promote work-related interests -- MBNA, the auto workers and the trial lawyers, for example, all have PACs -- or are organized by an issue-oriented group like the National Rifle Association.

Candidates' PACs are fixtures at the national level, where would-be presidential contenders, congressional leaders and aspiring leaders use their clout to raise money to distribute so they can build even more clout.

U.S. Sen. John S. McCain, the Arizona Republican, had "Straight Talk America" for a time, and Tom Carper has "First State PAC," which sends money primarily to other Senate candidates.

The advantage in setting up a state PAC like Markell's is that Delaware law sets no limit on the size of the contributions it takes in. Contributions to candidates are under strict limits -- $1,200 for statewide campaigns and $600 for local races -- but not contributions to PACs.

The Republicans once thought about capitalizing on the no-limits law to establish PACs that would be financed by John W. Rollins Sr., the wealthy entrepreneur who died in 2000, but they never did.

Markell has gone ahead and made the most of it. Since JackPAC was started in 2002, it has raised and spent about $56,000, with $40,000 of it supplied by two sets of deep pockets.

David F. Marvin, who runs a Wilmington investment firm, and his wife have given $20,000, and so has Suzanne J. Peck, the highly regarded chief technology officer for Washington, D.C.

Markell says they are friends of his with nothing to gain. Marvin is a fellow member serving unpaid on the Cash Management Policy Board, which oversees the state's money. Peck, originally from Wilmington, knows Markell from helping him out on technology issues.

Marvin is actually a Republican who ranks right up there in terms of giving to his own party, sending $31,000 to the state GOP in the 2004 election cycle. He does seem to have a certain fondness for Democratic state treasurers, however, also donating $10,000 to the First State PAC for Carper, who used to be one.

"I think Jack Markell is a terrific guy, and I think he's going to go far in the state of Delaware in terms of higher office," Marvin said. "I'm willing to help him because Delaware on a local level operates fairly bipartisanly."

Peck, 61, a graduate of Padua Academy, still owns her childhood home and knows that Capriotti's is the place to go for turkey subs. She is a Democrat whose husband Paul is a philanthropist, and giving is what they do.

"I underwrite public executives that I think are just excellent, and I think Jack Markell is just excellent," she said. "I will happily watch as he advances, and the great thing about Delaware is that you just have to get in line."

 In addition to the contributors that JackPAC brings to Markell's sphere, it also brings in Karl Agne, a political consultant from Delaware, in a partnership that seems destined to become more prominent in years to come.

Agne, 30, is a senior adviser handling strategy and polling with Washington-based Democracy Corps, which was founded by some of the biggest names in Democratic politics -- James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum.

Agne is a graduate of Salesianum School and the College of William & Mary, and he also has a master's degree in campaign management from George Washington University. He lives in Brandywine Hundred.

Agne provides strategic advice and does fund raising for JackPAC. He has other Delaware clients, too, as the pollster for Matthew P. Denn, the Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner, and Christopher A. Coons, the Democratic candidate for county executive.

In Coons' race for the nomination, Agne already has proved his mettle. More than two months before the primary on Sept. 11, his polling showed Coons would defeat Sherry L. Freebery by 62 percent to 13 percent. Coons won the three-candidate primary 66 percent to 18 percent.

Agne mostly is consumed these days with Democracy Corps at the national level, but he regards his Delaware work as special. "I like it, and I've got a stake in it," he said.

Through JackPAC, Markell has not been afraid to take sides in primary disputes. For example, checks went out to Coons and to Denn, who beat Karen Weldin Stewart for the insurance commissioner nomination.

At other times JackPAC stays on the sidelines or avoids playing favorites.

Markell kept away from the three-way primary for New Castle County Council president with Paul G. Clark, who won, Penrose Hollins and Dianne M. Kempski.

By contrast, in the primary for Wilmington Council at large, where the top three vote-getters advanced to the general election, JackPAC "maxed out" with $600 contributions to the four major contenders -- winners Charles "Bud" Freel, Theopalis K. Gregory and Loretta Walsh and also-ran Michael J. Hare.

The value of a JackPAC check is the credibility it offers and the seed money it provides. "It takes money to raise money, particularly for a first-time candidate. It helps to have a source like that," Denn said.

Markell went with a lot of winners in the primaries, but that is only the beginning. "We'll see on Nov. 2 whether it was helpful or not," he said.

Markell is not on the ballot this year, but the JackPAC giveaways could make him a winner, too.