Posted: March 30, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner put on her glasses with a professorial air Saturday evening and gave the Sussex County Democrats a remedial course in Politics 101.

They needed it. They were bushwhacked, paddy-whacked and just plain whacked on Election Day 2002, when the Sussex Republicans pulled off the best get-out-the-vote drive in the state, the climax of which was the defeat of two Democratic state representatives.

"They did a better job last year than we did," Minner said. "We have to get ourselves ready. We know the kind of organization the other side has."

The governor, a first-term Democrat, was giving the keynote address at the "Minner Dinner," a political fund-raiser held by the Western Sussex Democratic Club and the Sussex County Women's Democratic Club at the Laurel Fire Hall. It was attended by about 275 people with tickets going for $25 each.

The "Minner Dinner" came at a customary turning point in the political calendar. Springtime after an election typically is the season when the losing party faces the truth about itself.

The Republicans did it two years ago, after they had lost U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. and the governorship in 2000. The upshot was the Republicans reinvigorated themselves by turning to J. Everett Moore Jr. as the new state chairman after he pointedly warned them, "People don't know the party is still alive."

 Now it is the Democrats who are trying to come back. There are more of them in Delaware than there are Republicans -- out of 519,816 registered voters on Election Day last year, 43 percent were Democrat and 34 percent were Republican -- but the Democrats were out-hustled.

It was particularly noticeable in Sussex County. The registration there is nearly even, with Democrats holding a negligible 1,500-voter edge, but the Sussex Republicans got 57 percent of their voters to the polls in 2002, while the Democrats got out 51 percent of theirs.

There is a message there not just for the Democratic Party, but for Minner herself. A downstater from Milford, she is seeing Republicans make inroads in her base as she prepares to run for re-election in 2004. Furthermore, her opponent is likely to be Sussex County Republican William Swain Lee, a retired judge now practicing law again.

While Minner carried all three counties in 2000, there have been warning signs for Democrats in other showcase races. Democrat Thomas R. Carper moved from governor to the U.S. Senate in 2000 on the more populous vote upstate in New Castle County, while losing both Kent County and Sussex County to Roth. In the 2002 election, Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. coasted to a sixth term in the U.S. Senate while failing to carry Kent County and winning Sussex County by a slim 1,500 votes.

Put those results together with the talk that Minner has hurt herself downstate by championing the smoking ban, and it was no wonder that she was working the room at the "Minner Dinner" like a state representative, which she once was.

When the doors opened, Minner was already there to greet the crowd, and later she circulated among the long cafeteria-style tables. This was no aloof governor. She even poked fun at herself during her speech.

"I think of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner," Minner said. "I'm not sure I'm worthy of a dinner. Maybe a brunch or something."

The wounds of the Sussex County Democrats in 2002 were not entirely self-inflicted. The election was the first one after redistricting, when the General Assembly redraws its district lines once a decade to account for population shifts, and it had an effect.

In the Senate, where the majority Democrats designed the maps, the Sussex Democrats kept three out of four Senate districts. In the House of Representatives, where the Republicans were in control and fixed the boundaries, the Sussex Democrats were left with only one out of eight seats.

The near-sweep claimed two House incumbents. Democrat John R. Schroeder lost to Republican Joseph W. Booth by 44 votes, and Democrat Shirley A. Price lost to Republican Gerald W. Hocker by 57 votes. Price is planning to run again in 2004.

One bright spot for the Democrats was Peter C. Schwartzkopf, who overcame a Republican registration edge in a new district to win. He did it by putting together a strong organization and capitalizing on some bad blood left over from a Republican primary that caused a split in the ranks.

"We need to keep Pete. We need to bring Shirley back," Minner said.

Minner was not giving away party secrets in her speech. Yes, she did know who was listening. State Rep. Clifford G. "Biff" Lee, the Republican majority whip, was in the hall. He has been a Laurel firefighter for 31 years and was there to help serve the meal.

Only in Delaware does the Democratic governor go to a Democratic dinner and get escorted to the front of the buffet line by a Republican legislator.

Lee took the opportunity to shake some hands among the dinner-goers. Delaware is sometimes said to have three political parties -- Democrats, Republicans and Sussex County.

Just not on Election Day. That's what Minner's speech was all about.