Posted: June 3, 2003
INSURANCE AT A PREMIUM
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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