Posted: June 3, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When a politician draws a crowd, it is generally good -- unless it happens to be a crowd of opponents. This is the situation facing Donna Lee Williams, the three-term Republican insurance commissioner.

Candidates are swarming for the office as eagerly as if it were an open seat, even though Williams has no intentions of walking away from it and even though the public perception of the job is that it is as dull as, well, insurance.

The insurance commissioner's race for 2004 is currently more fluid than any other statewide contest out there -- those being for governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. representative -- and could generate primaries for both the Democrats and the Republicans.

At this point the field has four potential candidates, two from each party, and some more committed than others. The Democrats are Matthew P. Denn, the governor's legal counsel, and Karen Weldin Stewart, the 2000 candidate. The Republicans are Williams herself and Jeffrey E. Cragg, the party's New Castle County co-chairman who is still in the exploratory stages.

The reason for all the interest is both practical and political.

On the practical side, insurance happens to matter right now. The cost and quality of health care are kitchen-table concerns. Doctors are watching their colleagues from other states in open revolt over medical malpractice premiums, wondering whether it could happen here. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware is in a squeeze that could jeopardize coverage outside state borders for its 323,000 subscribers.

It has all the makings for turning a campaign into a referendum, asking voters whether an experienced officeholder has done enough or someone else deserves a try.

On the political side, Williams is showing some vulnerability. She was held to 53 percent of the vote in 2000, even though she was going for her third term against a novice candidate who was outspent by more than 2-1, about $90,000 to $41,000. Four years earlier Williams got a solid 57 percent of the vote.

In addition, Williams support has eroded among Republicans since the 2002 election. There has been a persistent murmur of discontent as Williams has stood by Jacqueline F. Brown, her chief of staff and a former party official who was said to have aided Bethany A. Hall-Long, a newly elected Democratic state representative. Brown's denials have not stilled the undercurrents.

There are already stirrings in the race -- more than any other statewide match-up except for governor, where Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat, and William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who is the Republican front-runner, are doing some early shadow-boxing. In the other two contests, there are no opponents in sight for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a six-term Republican, and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., a first-term Democrat.

In the Democratic field, it is an open secret that Denn will file his candidacy shortly after the General Assembly ends its session on June 30. Before joining the governor's staff, he was a partner with the Wilmington law firm of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor and the Democrats' state vice chairman.

Denn has lined up a campaign manager in Sylvia Dorsey, whose husband John ran for attorney general in 1998, and a campaign counsel in Michael A. Barlow, a Wilmington attorney with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.

"I've been talking to party leaders and party members about running for insurance commissioner since January. I've received a very encouraging response," Denn said.

While the governor has yet to address Denn's candidacy publicly, she certainly knows what he is doing. If Denn doesn't have an open blessing, he at least has Minner's silent benediction.

Until recently, Denn appeared to have the Democratic nomination to himself, but then Stewart re-emerged, arguing she had earned another round against Williams because of her performance in 2000 and because she is an insurance professional. Stewart has an insurance consulting firm, the Weldin Group, and worked in the Insurance Department when it was in Democratic hands.

"This is my field. There's nothing else I want to do. In order to work in my state, I have to run," Stewart said.

Stewart finished the 2000 election with a $17,000 campaign debt, owed mostly to herself. She is having a fund-raiser, scheduled for June 23 at $50 a ticket, with four hosts -- state Senate Majority Leader Harris B. McDowell III, former Wilmington Mayor William T. McLaughlin and former state Chairmen Gary E. Hindes and Samuel L. Shipley.

While candidates with debts have been known to make noises about running again, only to depart in exchange for getting the bills paid, Stewart says she isn't one of them. The money is more about the future than the past, she said.

"This is for the new campaign. Maybe some of it might [go toward the debt], but I'm not looking for it," Stewart said.

Hindes backed her up. "It's for her future run," he said. "Simple fairness says she deserves a second shot, although I like Matt very, very much. He's got a great future. I just don't think this is the race."

While the Democrats are massing, it is uncertain whether Williams will have a Republican challenger, too. Cragg, a Brandywine Hundred businessman with insurance interests, hasn't made up his mind yet.

"I'm still looking at it and looking to see how things develop," Cragg said.

As is customary, Democratic State Chairman Richard H. Bayard and Republican State Chairman Terry A. Strine both say they hope to avoid a primary. The parties have a reflexive fear of such clashes, which are regarded as counterproductive because they can be divisive and also waste time, energy and money better directed against the other party.

Still, primaries also have been known to raise name recognition and create momentum for the winner. A primary was credited with helping to elect M. Jane Brady as attorney general in 1994, when she beat fellow Republican Lawrence M. Sullivan, the state public defender, while her Democratic opponent dawdled on the sidelines.

Despite all the flurry, Williams says she is too busy these days with practical considerations to concern herself with political considerations. "We'll deal with the election when the time is appropriate," she said. "I'm going to have an opponent. That's pretty clear, and that's the way it should be. I need to worry about doing my job, not keeping my job."

This is politics, though, and there is a flip side. An officeholder who doesn't worry about keeping her job won't have to worry about doing it.