Posted: March 15, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The Republican State Committee dinner was supposed to be scripted, and most of it was. When the script said party rules were to be discussed at 7:20 Friday evening, they were.

Then no one less than Chairman J. Everett Moore Jr. himself shredded the script of a smooth-running operation by blindsiding his own party with a surprise announcement.

He said he was quitting.

Moore, who waged a determined fight in 2001 to wrest away the chairmanship from Basil R. Battaglia, told a crowd of about 250 thunderstruck Republicans, gathered at the Modern Maturity Center in Dover, that he was walking away after a single two-year term.

"It is now time to pass the torch. This May I shall not seek re-election as your chair," he said. It was a declaration of withdrawal so unexpected that the meeting simply broke up.

Moore's decision comes while the Delaware Republicans are girding for a major assault to try to unseat Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner when her first term is up next year. Not the standing ovation Moore received in tribute, not all the handshakes and heartfelt hugs, could cover up the situation that he has left his party scrambling for leadership at such a critical time.

"This is a bombshell," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman. "Everett has been an outstanding chairman. I am very disappointed. We'll miss him very much."

Moore, a Georgetown country lawyer with an Abraham Lincoln beard, took over the top GOP post after earlier stints as the state vice chairman and a strong record as the Sussex County chairman. He has a history of not overstaying his welcome, and he said this time was no different.

He noted he ran on a pledge of not serving more than two terms. He said he believes he has rejuvenated the party after a disastrous decade from 1990 to 2000, when the Republicans lost the governorship in three straight races and saw both U.S. Senate seats go Democratic. He pointed to the election of three new Republican state representatives in 2002 as evidence of a new, grassroots momentum.

Moore declared he had cleaned out the party cobwebs, so he could move on.

Still, state party leaders traditionally are judged by whether they win the governorship or not. No matter what Moore has done or not done, his grade is "I" for incomplete.

It is also too soon to know how the election of a new chairman or chairwoman at the Republican state convention, scheduled for May 16-17 in Dover, will affect the party -- whether it will embrace a consensus choice or fracture.

Politics abhors a power vacuum, and before all the banners were gone from the walls Friday evening, the Republicans were buzzing about who would replace Moore.

The early favorites were John R. Matlusky, the state vice chairman who has been Moore's lieutenant for the past two years, and Patrick W. Murray, the Kent County chairman who has built a crackerjack organization there.

Other names mentioned were Rakestraw, who would shift from national committeewoman, state Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III and Michael Ramone, who was a state Senate candidate in the Newark area in 2002. There even was some talk of exhuming Battaglia.

Moore's announcement was such a surprise that a lot of Republicans were not there to hear it. The night before, Executive Director Troy A. Brocco predicted that attendance would be "abysmally low," and he was right. The crowd was not even half the size of the one that turned out a month ago for Pat Murray's Lincoln Day Dinner.

National Committeeman W. Laird Stabler Jr. was traveling and missed the event. William Swain Lee, regarded as the front-runner for the gubernatorial nomination, skipped it in favor of going to North Carolina to watch his beloved Duke University, his alma mater, play basketball, although clearly he could have had his fill of March Madness, political style, right at home.

Michael D. Protack, an airline pilot who wants to run for governor, was in attendance to hear Moore step aside. Protack sent an e-mail Saturday to party members, offering to pull out of the governor's race in exchange for the state chairmanship. Counting a short-lived run for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2002, Protack was a man in search of his third office in two years.

It was surprising that Moore's announcement was so surprising. A more typical exit script in politics is for someone to inform close allies of a decision in advance, and since this is Delaware, word usually spreads rapidly from there.

Moore said he had to do it the way he did. "I was waiting to see if I was going to change my mind," he said.