Posted: Aug. 6, 2003
THIS COUNTY ISN'T BIG
ENOUGH FOR BOTH OF US
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
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
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
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
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
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
Inside the new order, the
critics are regarded as swamp critters trying to get back in
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
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
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
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
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