Posted: Aug. 6, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Christopher A. Coons got a laugh with a quip at his campaign fund-raiser for New Castle County executive last week because of the awful possibility that it could be true. 

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a fellow Democrat, had done him the favor of introducing him, and Coons cracked, "That's probably the high point of the campaign right there.” 

Maybe it was. As matters stand now, the governor won’t even guarantee she will stick with Coons through a contest that could be one of the most hair-raising that the county, if not the entire state, ever has endured. 

Coons, the first-term County Council president, is going where others have tried and failed before. He is taking on the Gordon administration -- specifically Thomas P. Gordon, the Democratic county executive, and Sherry L. Freebery, the chief administrative officer who has teamed with Gordon since they were county police officers together, both rising to make chief. 

Two County Council members -- Republican Richard L. Abbott and Democrat J. Christopher Roberts -- bucked the Gordon administration, and now they are ex-councilmen. The Republicans could not even find a candidate against Gordon in 2000.

Although Gordon has reached the two-term limit and cannot run in 2004, Freebery can, and she intends to.

The prize, if it can be called such, is the top elected role in the most populous of Delaware's three counties with more than a half-million people, a government budget in the neighborhood of $200 million and a work force of 1,600 employees. It is a post that has never sent anyone to higher office in its 36-year history, although it did send someone to jail.

While neither Coons nor Freebery formally have declared their candidacies for the Democratic nomination, the preliminaries between them already are ugly. There have been toxic moments in the General Assembly and the County Council -- most notably the appearance of county workers wearing "Impeach Coons" t-shirts at a council meeting last month.

Not that the t-shirts were anything other than a spontaneous expression of free speech, of course. "I didn't have anything personally to do with that," Freebery said.

If there is a primary between Coons and Freebery next September, and there is no reason to think there won't be, it is hard to say who the winner's Republican opponent would be in the fall. State House Speaker Terry R. Spence is talking about running, but he has a record of premature evacuation from this and other races in past years -- meaning the Republican field for now looks about as barren as it did the last time.

As for what Coons and Freebery are getting themselves into, New Castle County government hangs in a state of tension these days, somewhere between tumult and soap opera.

To its critics, it is a police state, a Gordon and Freebery special, where disloyalty is a sin and intrigue ferments regularly. U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly has been burrowing into it since he got an opening during the last election season, when county employees performed campaign work, the legality of which is in dispute. About 200 workers by Freebery's count have received subpoenas for themselves or their files.

The turmoil goes on. Councilman Robert S. Weiner, a Republican lawyer who is no friend of the Gordon administration, found himself in legal trouble after he was accused of circulating e-mail containing restricted information about a county executive assistant. As a consequence, he lost his job with state Public Defender Lawrence M. Sullivan, a Republican lawyer who is a friend of the administration.

Freebery had her house searched by federal authorities, who turned up a bevy of guns, most of which she said belonged to her ex-husband, a one-time state police lieutenant who was also a bank robber and did time.

Just this Monday, the politically well-known sister act of Lynda R. Maloney and Maria A. Rendina resigned noisily as executive assistants, claiming mistreatment -- including a publicized exile as library aides -- for testifying truthfully before the federal grand jury looking into the county. Freebery all but called them pampered crybabies.

But enough of that, although the examples could go on. To the administration's defenders, Gordon and Freebery rode in with white hats and drained what had been a political swamp, driving out developers' influence and bringing order to land use planning, holding the line on taxes even when the economy turned unsteady, streamlining and professionalizing the government and making the county livable with parks, libraries and youth centers.

Inside the new order, the critics are regarded as swamp critters trying to get back in control.

Freebery aims her sharpest barbs at Connolly, a White House appointee who made a name for himself in the nationally known murder case against Thomas J. Capano, the well-connected lawyer who killed gubernatorial scheduler Anne Marie Fahey. Freebery considers Connolly a shill for the Republicans in lieu of a candidate.

"He is the Republicans' best hope to do something to either Tom or me and what we've accomplished," she said. "If he's looking for his next movie or his next book, imagine if he can take down two former chiefs of police."

Freebery says she will stay in the race even if Connolly's investigation leads to an indictment. "As the saying goes, you can indict a ham sandwich," she said. "I'm not going to be distracted by it. We were distracted by it at the beginning."

There seems to be an obvious question here. With so much out of kilter, why would anyone want to be county executive?

For Freebery, it seems fairly straightforward. Becoming county executive would validate the Gordon administration. Besides, the county is her milieu. Now 51, she has spent her career there as a police officer and administrator, also picking up a law degree from Widener University along the way.

The county is also something of a family vocation. Freebery's brother Joseph is a department head, and she has a nephew and a niece who work there, along with assorted cousins. Freebery said her family has a long history as police officers and priests -- "and I couldn't be a priest."

Nor has Freebery been known to walk away from a fight -- going all the way back to the shootout in 1975 when she was a 23-year-old policewoman and she shot a man through the head and killed him. He was chasing his estranged wife's boyfriend with a gun and pointed the "smoking pistol" at Freebery and another officer instead of following their order to stop, according to a vivid news account at the time.

Coons' candidacy, as he acknowledges himself, needs some explaining. As he wryly said at his fund-raiser last week, "Some of you have said to me as recently as this evening that I ought to have my head examined."

At 39, Coons is part of a class of Democrats who are early in their political careers and often mentioned as the future of the party – people like Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell, who could follow U.S. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper, if they ever get out of the way.

Coons has a Kennedy-esque attraction to public life, a Yale Law School degree and gentlemanly responsibilities as in-house counsel at the family firm -- W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., the Newark-based science company where his stepfather is the chairman and his mother is an executive. If he were to win, he would be trading Gore away for the ragged politics of the county.

Coons says it is not his head that needs examining. "I have examined my heart," he said. "I may not be going into this job with a lot of joy. In the end it's going to move us to a positive, better place."

Coons unofficially opened the campaign season with his fund-raiser, a $300-a-ticket event at the Greenville home of Wilmington lawyer Andre G. Bouchard and his wife Ann Elise. About 75 people attended, and Coons said afterwards he cleared more than $20,000 -- probably no more than a tenth of what his campaign could cost.

It is true the governor was there, but she said she was following through on a commitment she had made to Coons some time ago and it did not guarantee her support in a primary. "We'll have to deal with that when the time comes," Minner said.

Because of the fund-raiser, Freebery and Coons did not have nice things to say about the other's family connections.

Freebery said, "When your family owns the Gore company, I guess you can count on Chateau Country to be supportive."

Coons said, "The county at times has seemed like a family business. I'm a rugged nepotist. I have no problem as long as it's in the private sector."

The infighting between them already has grown serious. In the last hectic days of the General Assembly in June, a bill was introduced in the state House of Representatives to reorganize county government with the next county executive.

The bill would undo what Gordon did when he came in. Instead of appointing political directors for the departments, he locked in merit-system general managers, saying it would ensure professionalism over cronyism and also save money on expensive executive salaries.

The bill would restore the power of the next county executive to name directors, instead of leaving Gordon's general managers in charge. As House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Republican who was the chief sponsor, explained, "Elections are about the direction of government. Elections would largely be rendered meaningless because the bureaucracy would not change."

The bill was essentially a Republican initiative, growing out of discussions with Smith and Councilman Bob Weiner, but Coons signed off on it and it came to be identified with him. When it surfaced for consideration in the House, it caught Gordon and Freebery off guard.

They rushed to Dover, but before they could get there, Smith rammed the bill through the chamber, bulldozing over complaints that Gordon and Freebery were on their way and should be given the courtesy to be heard. They did arrive in time to get it stopped in the Senate, however.

The unsucessful end-run infuriated the Gordon administration and its allies on the County Council, where Democratic Councilwoman Patty W. Powell said the governor should be asked to impeach Coons. Powell had her constitutional procedures a little mixed up, but it was the sentiment that counted.

That led to those "Impeach Coons" t-shirts and also to an inescapable conclusion that this conflict between Coons and Freebery is going to be a fight to the finish.