Posted: Sept. 11, 2004
By Celia Cohen
Sherry L. Freebery was right. Those criminal charges were politically motivated.
They politically motivated the voters to go to the polls Saturday and knock her resoundingly out of the running for New Castle County executive in a Democratic primary, evidence that the electorate really does prefer its candidates unindicted.
The nomination went with ease to Christopher A. Coons, the County Council’s one-term Democratic president, who made ethics the centerpiece of his campaign and won a three-way race in which Freebery barely outpolled Richard J. Korn, who was never more than a vanity candidate.
The Coons-Freebery showdown was a bad-blood brawl, the political equivalent of a car wreck that had voters unable to look away, making it the showcase primary election despite two statewide races, one Republican and one Democratic, on the ballot.
In the Republican contest for governor, William Swain Lee claimed the nomination that had eluded him by an agonizing 44 votes in 2000, polling 70 percent of the vote as he swatted away inconsequential challenges from Michael D. Protack and David C. Graham.
In the Democratic contest for insurance commissioner, Matthew P. Denn upended Karen Weldin Stewart, the 2000 nominee, by outpolling her 58 percent to 42 percent.
The voting Saturday also set the field in both major parties for New Castle County Council president.
In the three-way Democratic primary, the nomination was a squeaker between Paul G. Clark and Penrose Hollins, with Clark about 150 votes ahead and Dianne M. Kempski out of the running.
In the Republican primary, first-time candidate Ernesto B. Lopez was the winner, denying Gary L. Bowman the nomination he was seeking for the third consecutive time.
Although turnout for a primary is notoriously light, this one was extraordinarily so. Unofficial returns showed 14 percent of the state’s 234,045 registered Democrats and 12 percent of the 177,399 registered Republicans going to the polls.
With only the most dedicated voters casting their ballots, it was not surprising that the results favored the candidates with party endorsements.
The Democrats delivered statewide for Denn and countywide for Coons, and the Republicans did the same for Lee and Lopez. There was no party endorsement in the Democratic race for County Council president.
The primary left some clues for what to expect on Election Day, slightly more than seven weeks away on Nov. 2.
With the endorsed candidates able to run up their tallies, both major parties are showing remarkable unity heading into the election.
Republicans billed the vote Saturday as a rehearsal for November, a dry run to show how they could get their vote out, but it demonstrated instead they have a lot of work to do if they are to overcome the Democrats’ registration edge and challenge for the key contests for governor and New Castle County executive.
Although the party came through swimmingly for its endorsed candidates, the turnout was decidedly sub-par.
Lee will be facing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat, in a state that has given a second term to all of its governors, regardless of party, every time it could in the last quarter-century, re-electing Republican Pierre S. du Pont in 1980, Republican Michael N. Castle in 1988 and Democrat Thomas R. Carper in 1996.
"We knew in the beginning our race was going to end in November," Lee told exuberant Republicans at their party's state headquarters in Wilmington. "It's time for a change in Delaware."
Coons emerged from his primary as his party’s white knight, the anti-Freebery regarded as a solid choice by his fellow Democrats to make this election the fifth time in a row they take the county executive’s post.
Coons was hailed before cheering supporters by state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and state Sen. Patricia M. Blevins as a corruption buster, and Coons declared, "Democracy worked."
Freebery blamed her loss on U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly and the federal corruption charges he filed against her, telling WILM 1450-AM radio in an interview, "When the indictments came down, I think it was a fatal blow to the campaign."
Coons polled 66 percent of the vote with Freebery getting 18 percent and Korn 16 percent.
A poor showing from Coons would have given considerable aid and comfort to the Republicans. They still are expected to mount a ferocious campaign blaming Democrat Thomas P. Gordon, the two-terms-and-out county executive, and the Democratic-controlled County Council for embarrassments in ethics as they try to elect Christopher J. Castagno, a political newcomer making a virtue out of it.
As in the race for county executive, there are no incumbents in the elections for insurance commissioner and council president. Republican Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams is leaving politics, leading to the matchup between Denn on the Democratic side and David H. Ennis on the Republican ticket. Coons’ run for county executive opened the field for Clark and Lopez.
In a confluence of history, Primary Day 2004 fell three years to the date after a New York primary was disrupted by terrorism. The only disruption here was to political careers, and that is the way it is supposed to be.