Posted: April 8, 2004
ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES IN SUSSEX COUNTY
By Celia Cohen
There could be some unexpected fallout from the election last week for a new Sussex County Democratic chair. The real winner may be state Rep. Gerald W. Hocker, the first-term Republican from Ocean View.
Hocker, a good-natured grocery store owner, had nothing personally to do with the election, of course. The voting was strictly a Democratic affair, but this was in Sussex County, where everyone and everything seem to be interconnected somehow.
That is why it ought not to be surprising that the fortunes of a Republican freshman could be boosted by an internal Democratic election that saw Lynn Mangene Betts win by a secret ballot 50-37 over Janet "Petie" Adams, not counting an inconsequential five votes for former state Rep. Charles P. West.
Hocker was elected in 2002 in his party's Sussex County landslide, which gave the Republicans seven out of the county's eight House seats and had just enough momentum to deposit him in one of them by 57 votes.
He beat Shirley A. Price, the Democratic incumbent who had represented the 38th District in the county's southeastern corner since 1996.
Of all the Democratic losses, Price's defeat was one of those that stung the most. She let it be known immediately that she would be gunning to get the seat back in 2004, and her party made it a top priority as a way of whittling away at the Republicans' 29-12 majority in the state House of Representatives.
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner especially made Price's cause her own. Speaking last year to her fellow Democrats at a dinner in Laurel, the governor declared, "We need to bring Shirley back."
It was no secret, however, that the Sussex Democrats needed new life after the shellacking they took. It was no secret, either, that a governor has ways of stepping in. Minner did.
When D. Ray Ellerman, the Sussex County Republican clerk of the peace, died last month, Minner had to appoint someone to replace him. She chose Thelma Monroe.
It was important that Monroe once had run for clerk of the peace. It was more important that Monroe was the Sussex Democratic chair who headed the party during the 2002 rout and still would be there in 2004. Instead, she was eased out, giving up the party post for the clerk of the peace, and clearing the way for someone new to be elected.
The choice came down to Lynn Betts, the chair of the 39th Representative District in western Sussex County, and Petie Adams, a former county Democratic vice chair.
Both say they are friends, but if they are, it is hard to explain about the competing dinners.
This past Saturday the Adams Democrats held a "Minner Dinner," featuring the governor, at the Bridgeville Fire Hall, and the Betts Democrats held a "Chikin & Kikin" dinner at the Roxana Fire Hall, where the sponsors appear to belong to the same school of spelling as the organizers of "Punkin' Chunkin.'"
As the "Minner Dinner" indicates, the governor favored Adams in the election for county chair, a position she acknowledged Wednesday in an interview. "I was interested in seeing someone who had knowledge of all the candidates and what's going on all over the county," Minner said. "Petie has been everywhere, and I thought she would be the logical person."
Minner made a telephone call to get some help for Adams. It went to Shirley Price. "She's the only person I called in Sussex County," Minner said.
Then Betts won, drawing critical support from Price's base in the 38th District. Price insisted afterwards it was not her fault. "I expressed to the [38th District] committee the governor's wishes," she said. "I did what the governor asked me to do. I don't have ultimate control. In a democracy, you don't."
In public Minner expressed doubts about Price's efforts -- "I didn't know exactly where she was" -- and in private she was said to express much worse.
All politics is personal. It is not rocket science to figure out there has got to be a crimp in the plans for the governor to help Price pick up those 57 votes she needs to take the seat back from Hocker.
Price suggested it would not be in Minner's interest for the plans to change. "I think politics trickle up," she said. "The governor certainly needs the 38th District. She needs our party to be united."
Minner is disinclined to tip her hand. "I've been around a long time. I've learned to roll with the punches," she said.
It is never a good idea in politics to count the votes before they are cast, any more than chickens should be counted before they hatch. Still, Gerald Hocker surely has more reason to smile today than he did a week ago.