Posted: Feb. 13, 2004
POLITICAL TEA LEAVES IN NEW
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
When the Delaware Democrats
gathered 10 days ago for their presidential primary returns, it was
worth noting who was the party's designated master of ceremonies,
shepherding the various campaign representatives to the microphone
at the appropriate time.
The role went to Christopher
A. Coons, the New Castle County Council president. In presidential
politics, Coons was a neutral choice because he stayed clear of
endorsing anyone. In local politics, however, he was not.
Coons is running for New
Castle County executive, engaged in what is anticipated to be a
bruiser of a primary with Sherry L. Freebery, the chief
administrative officer for current County Executive Thomas P.
Gordon, a Democrat who has reached the two-term limit.
Political parties pretend
not to take sides in primaries, at least not before someone secures
an endorsement by a vote of a convention, committee or other
vehicle, but they do send signals -- like showcasing Coons during
In the early days of the
campaign season, New Castle County politics is a cornucopia of
winks, nudges and knowing smiles, as both the Democrats and the
Republicans try to sort out competing candidacies for county
executive, council president or both.
In this age of
freewheeling primaries, a candidate preferred by the party insiders,
subtly or otherwise, is not guaranteed the nomination, but it helps
more often than not.
The Democrats not only have
Coons and Freebery squaring off for county executive, but also a
potential three-way primary for council president with former county
Adjustment Board Vice President Paul G. Clark, Councilman Penrose
Hollins and Register in Chancery Dianne M. Kempski.
The Republicans presently
have a single entrant for county executive in New Castle City
Council President Christopher J. Castagno, and here the party is
hinting strongly no one else ought to get in. They have two candidates
for council president in Gary L. Bowman, who lost a primary for the
post in 2000, and Ernesto B. Lopez, a political
This is a time for paying
attention not to what is being said, but what is being done. Ask a
party leader about the conflicts, and the answer will be a practice
Here is John D. Daniello,
the Democrats' county chairman, who said, "I'm trying to find out
just how serious all of them are and what are our alternatives.
Where I can clear up a primary, I'll do it."
It went likewise with Thomas
S. Ross, the Republicans' county co-chairman, who said, "We have
exciting candidates who are in tune with New Castle County. We're
hoping we can avoid a primary."
Never mind. For better clues
to the candidates' standing, there are such things as their
visibility at party functions, the attendance at their own events
and campaign finance reports.
In the Coons-Freebery
showdown, it is an open secret that Coons is the Democratic
establishment's favorite son and Freebery is the lone ranger. Not
only was Coons prominent on the recent Primary Night, but Gov. Ruth
Ann Minner attended his first fund-raiser last summer.
The governor insisted her
presence was not an endorsement -- certainly no more than the
appearance by U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. before about 500 Democrats at
a political rally for John F. Kerry.
Coons' campaign finance
report for 2003 is fat with telling contributions, while Freebery's
filing is threadbare, showing only a single entry of about $3,100
from her own pocket for bumper stickers and other campaign
paraphernalia. She says her fund raising has yet to begin.
Coons' report comes across
as a message meant to be read beyond his fellow Democrats to
Republicans and the voters at large, signaling a broad base. He is
the only countywide candidate from either party to work seriously on a war
chest so far by collecting nearly $69,000 in contributions and ending the year with
almost $65,000 in the bank.
His donors include state
Cabinet officers like Finance Secretary David W. Singleton and
Health & Social Services Secretary Vincent P. Meconi, labor unions
like the New Castle County Emergency Services Employees and the
Delaware Building Trades, and company chiefs like Charles O. "Chad"
Holliday Jr. of DuPont, Bruce L. Hammonds of MBNA and Ted T. Cecala
of Wilmington Trust.
Wilmington Mayor James M.
Baker's campaign sent a check. State Democratic Chairman Richard H.
Bayard did not, but his wife Josephine did.
The clues are murkier in the
Democrats' council president primary, which has been slower to
unfold. Clark, Hollins and Kempski collected no contributions
whatsoever last year, and Kempski was the only one officially to
declare her candidacy, which she did on Monday. Clark plans to hold
his first major event -- a fund raiser -- next month, and Hollins
expects to announce formally in April.
While it remains to be seen
what sort of crowds Clark and Hollins draw, Kempski's announcement
was thin in Democratic leadership, except for a show of
near-solidarity from her four fellow county row officers, all
Democrats. Three of them came -- Recorder of Deeds Michael
Kozikowski, who is Kempski's brother, Clerk of the Peace Kenneth W.
Boulden Jr. and Sheriff Michael P. Walsh. The fourth, Register of
Wills Diane Clarke Streett, was elsewhere -- a prior commitment, she
On the Republican side,
there is a certain buoyancy that comes from watching the congestion
in the Democratic field, as well as from waiting for a break in U.S.
Attorney Colm F. Connolly's long-running investigation that has left
both the Gordon administration and the county electorate in a
The Republicans have not won
elections for county executive or council president since the 1980s,
and they trail in voter registration, which is 45 percent Democratic
and 32 percent Republican in a total of 339,390 voters.
With an eye toward
capitalizing on the unrest, the Republican leadership is leaving
little doubt it would like to field a ticket of Castagno and Lopez,
doing what it can to scare off any challengers to Castagno and
leaving Bowman out in the cold.
publicly was pumped up last weekend by U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle
at a well-attended Lincoln Day dinner in Dover. His 2003 campaign
finance report shows $12,750 in seed money coming in from party
stalwarts like state Chairman Terry A. Strine, county Co-Chairman
Tom Ross, former Secretary of State Glenn C. Kenton and state Rep.
Deborah D. Hudson's campaign.
The party cannot be quite so
obvious about Lopez, who is an admissions officer at the University
of Delaware, but an organization is being assembled for him largely
out of the network of the late U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. The
campaign manager is to be James D. Taylor Jr., a Wilmington lawyer
whose colleagues at Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling include William
E. Manning, who was part of Roth's kitchen cabinet, and Richard A.
Forsten, counsel to the state Republican Party.
Lopez is so new to the race
that he has yet to file a statement of candidacy or begin fund
raising, but Bowman hardly is farther ahead. His campaign finance
report shows him with $303 in the bank.
Where candidates stand also
can be gleaned from where they are situated. In the Democratic race
for county executive, there are indications that Coons may sub-lease
space in state headquarters in New Castle.
In contrast, Freebery is
setting up shop in Newport in the same office complex that state
headquarters recently left behind. There must be symbolism in that
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