Posted: June 24, 2003


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 years.

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. Carper.

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 budget cuts.

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."