Posted: April 21, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The New Castle County Democrats' executive committee went behind closed doors Wednesday evening to take a secret vote endorsing Christopher A. Coons for county executive over Sherry L. Freebery.

After the secret session, the officers refused to release the tally. It was described only as an "overwhelming endorsement" by Vice Chair James F. Paoli, filling in for Chair John D. Daniello, who is hospitalized with a broken hip.

As soon as Paoli announced the outcome, Freebery and her followers, who included County Executive Thomas P. Gordon, walked out of the room in protest.

For Coons, it seemed an odd way to begin a candidacy he formally declared two days earlier by promising "ethical leadership."

The endorsement gives Coons the party's official backing in a showdown with Freebery that seems destined to last until the primary election on Sept. 11, when the voters will decide on a nominee to run against Republican Christopher J. Castagno for a four-year term. The office is open because Gordon is barred from a third term.

The Democratic executive committee postponed a vote in the three-way race for New Castle County Council president with Paul G. Clark, Penrose Hollins and Dianne M. Kempski.

The meeting, held at Democratic state headquarters in New Castle, attracted an unusually large crowd of about 90 people who looked as though they were ready for a political meeting. Their numbers were dotted with Coons' backers in white t-shirts and Freebery's in dark blue.

Both candidates were present. Coons, the County Council president who has worked within the Democratic hierarchy, went into the evening expecting to take the vote from Freebery, the chief aide in an administration that largely has distanced itself from the party.

As Coons said beforehand, "I have worked very hard to earn the endorsement."

Freebery knew it. "I'm really just trying to block one," she said.

Only the members of the executive committee, which appeared to have about 25 people in attendance, were eligible to vote. As it was about to be taken, Hollis Anglin asked for a secret session, which was approved unanimously. The committee members closeted themselves for 35 minutes to cast their ballots, and no one else, including the candidates, was allowed in.

Paoli said afterwards that some of the members "felt a little more comfortable" in private. Anglin said he called for it "for the sake of the democratic process."

Neither candidate claimed to want a closed-door vote. Freebery labeled it undemocratic, saying, "These are supposed to be open meetings, and they just went and had a secret meeting. It sure looks kind of rigged to me. It's an embarrassment to the Democratic Party."

Coons called the secret session unnecessary but said it was done that way because "there was significant concern that [the meeting] would get unruly."

Before and after the vote, however, there was not so much as a raised voice. Freebery did raise her eyebrows on the way out, but it did not seem particularly disruptive.