Posted: June 24, 2003
GOVERNOR'S RACE, INSIDE AND
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
When William Swain Lee ran for governor the
first time, one of his early acts was to plant himself in Rodney
Square in Wilmington and rail against the powers he found there.
In sight of the statue of Caesar Rodney, that
intrepid Delawarean who rode for revolution against British royalty,
Lee took on the state's commercial aristocracy from the DuPont Co.
and MBNA America, patrons of his opponent in the 2000 Republican
primary for governor.
Lee was making his stand as The Outsider.
Never mind that Lee was a member of the court
for more than 20 years. Never mind that he had been a Sussex County
Republican chairman before that. Never mind the Ivy League law
school in his background and family ties to Delaware going back 300
It nearly worked. Lee came within 46 votes of
winning the primary against John M. Burris, decidedly the insider as
the party's endorsed candidate and the ex-president of the Delaware
State Chamber of Commerce.
This time Lee is at it again. In a move
reminiscent of his Rodney Square rebellion, Lee went to Dover last
week to carry his campaign to Legislative Hall, the very temple of
insiderdom, to protest against taxes and cronyism.
It was an all-American outsider classic. The
only thing Lee was missing was a tri-cornered hat or perhaps some
tea to dump into the St. Jones River.
Never mind this time that Lee is the candidate
of choice of the Republican establishment. Never mind he has the
backing of Chateau Country gentry like former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont
and National Committeeman W. Laird Stabler Jr.
Lee intends to cast Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the
first-term Democrat, as the Ultimate Insider and run against her and
the fine feathered nest the politicians have made for themselves in
the state capital.
"Dover is an insiders' town, where political
maneuvering is the name of the game. The governor has been most
adept at political maneuvering. She's certainly not a visionary.
What she is, is a damn good politician," Lee said.
Not that Lee has any choice but to run as an
outsider. He cannot win the insider's game, running on a record and
experience. Still, he has his work cut out for him.
The truth about Delaware politics is that it
is almost impossible to dislodge an insider. Minner is striving to
become the fourth two-term governor in a row, a streak that began
with Pete du Pont, first elected in 1976. Sure, Republican William
V. Roth Jr. lost his U.S. Senate seat in 2000, but only on his sixth
try and only to another insider, two-term Democratic Gov. Thomas R.
The attitude in Minner's camp is, let Lee try.
The mood there is mighty fine, now that the governor and the
legislature appear to have preserved state finances for another year
with a mammoth money package that is roughly half taxes and half
If the finances are safe, so the thinking
goes, then Minner is, too. "She just got $300 million to beat the
hell out of Bill Lee," one Democrat said merrily.
What an artful $300 million it was, too --
with little disruption to the state work force or services and
little dipping into taxpayers' pockets. The tax hikes were crafted
in such a way that one state finance official said they could be
considered "voluntary," falling on corporations, casinos and
smokers. Minner already has lost the smoker vote, anyway.
Interestingly there was a split in Lee's ranks
about whether his march to Dover was a good idea or not.
There was a certain concern that he would look
weak if he could not peel Republican votes from the tax package, as
in all likelihood he could not -- nor did he. It let Michael D.
Protack, his afterthought of a Republican primary opponent, snipe,
"If someone who wants to be governor can't sway his own party
caucus, then just how effective a leader is he?"
Lee knew what he was doing, though. As the
political scientists teach, politicians get beaten for being on the
wrong side, not the losing side. If Lee believes his campaign of
running against Dover, the way Ronald Reagan ran against Washington,
will resonate with the voters, then he lost nothing by storming the
gates and being turned away.
"I thought it went well in that I delivered
the message," Lee said.
Lee did have some allies. He was in league
with a core group of Republicans -- about eight representatives and
four senators -- who went with their party's anti-tax mantra instead
of Legislative Hall's bipartisan budget-balancing manifesto. Lee's
most outspoken compatriot was Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., who has
made a career out of refusing to be pigeonholed.
"There wasn't a question that Bill Oberle had
spoken against it, and some of the Sussex County rookies were
against it, and they're all mine," Lee said.
Other politics also were at play. It did not
go unnoticed how diligently House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a
Brandywine Hundred Republican with solid conservative credentials,
worked to pass the tax package, the speculation being that if Minner
is re-elected in 2004, Smith could be in position to run for
governor himself in 2008.
Nor did it go unnoticed that one of the
anti-tax votes belonged to state Sen. Catherine L. Cloutier, a
Brandywine Hundred Republican regarded as a top prospect to run for
lieutenant governor with Lee.
While Lee played the outsider at Legislative
Hall, the insiders' party rolled on -- so much so that Minner, who
came in with a reputation for partisanship, has many reasons to be
thankful for Republicans. She has built her image on them.
It was Republicans who gave her political
cover on taxes. It was Republicans who sponsored the smoking ban
that made her appear to be a tough governor. It was a Republican who
sponsored the gay anti-discrimination bill that made her appear to
be a compassionate governor.
When Minner signed the tax package into law,
she invited a bunch of Republican legislators to her office for the
ceremony, and so many came that they outnumbered the Democrats --
six Republicans to three Democrats.
Everyone was jovial. Rep. Joseph G. DiPinto,
the Wilmington Republican who co-chairs the budget-writing Joint
Finance Committee, spotted two jars that Minner keeps on her desk,
one labeled "Miracles" and the other labeled "Rainy Day Fund." He
opened "Miracles" and shook it, but nothing came out.
"The miracles I've used up," Minner said.
"Just don't touch the 'Rainy Day Fund.'"
Minner's quip was on the mark. She needs a
balanced budget to get re-elected. Legislators do, too. That's why
they all came together inside Legislative Hall and stitched up the
state finances in a non-election year.
That's also why Bill Lee is left with running
against Dover after delivering a last rebuke to his fellow
Republicans. He told them, "Maybe you ought to be more concerned
with electing a Republican governor than electing yourselves."
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