Posted: May 17, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Terry A. Strine took over a pivotal political post that no one else seemed to want, becoming the chairman of the Delaware Republicans amid an uncertain time when the party dearly wants to believe it is on the rebound.

As a 65-year-old Wilmington businessman with more enthusiasm than experience in politics, Strine was handed the two-year chairmanship by acclamation at the Republican state convention Saturday morning at the Dover Sheraton Inn & Conference Center.

He has his work cut out for him, and he seemed to know it. "Tomorrow is the first day of the race for 2004," Strine said.

Strine is assuming the most visible leadership role in a party that has a lot to rebound from. After all but owning this state from 1976 through 1992 under the governorships of Pierre S. du Pont and Michael N. Castle, the Republicans saw their standing steadily erode.

They have chafed as they lost three consecutive elections for governor and a U.S. Senate seat and watched George W. Bush go to the White House with Delaware in the Democratic column. The bright spot has been the state House of Representatives, where the Republican majority swelled to 29 out of 41 members in the 2002 election, largely on a strong showing downstate.

Before Strine, a number of people with more experience took a look at the situation and said no to the chairmanship, although all gave other reasons for doing so.

J. Everett Moore Jr., the immediate past chairman, walked away unexpectedly after a single term, which he had claimed in 2001 by overthrowing Basil R. Battaglia, the chairman since 1988, and overcoming the party's customary squeamishness for power struggles. But that's how bad it was.

Moore said he left because he had accomplished his objective of opening up the party to new life and new people. The obvious choices to succeed him -- Vice Chairman John R. Matlusky, Kent County Chairman Patrick W. Murray and National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw -- decided they would rather not, all saying they could do more for the party in their current assignments.

Just in case Battaglia had thoughts about coming back -- and there were some stirrings he might -- the party leadership took care of it by referring to him as "chairman emeritus" and having Moore give him a special award, so Battaglia would know he was better off in retirement.

So it is Strine. He is the owner of a property management business with 45 employees and spent the last two years as an informal adviser to Moore. He is perhaps best-known for organizing the Republican Leadership Breakfasts, monthly meetings with featured speakers.

Strine already has weathered an early trial, following the revelation that he quietly changed his voter registration last month to a Wilmington apartment, located above his company, just in case that Chateau Country home he bought last year really was over the line in Pennsylvania. His candidacy never even stuttered because of it.

At this point, all of the party's top leadership posts belong to upstaters with Strine as chairman, Matlusky as vice chairman, Rakestraw as national committeewoman and W. Laird Stabler Jr. as national committeeman, but there has not been a peep out of the notoriously sensitive downstaters.

It seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of the question that arose when Moore, a Georgetown lawyer, took over the party -- whether anyone could manage the stamina and logistics to run the party from downstate when most Delawareans live upstate and the headquarters is in Wilmington.

As a consequence of that reality setting in, Strine's nomination took shape. His name was placed before the convention by state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, the newest star from Chateau Country, and seconded by Phyllis Byrne, the Sussex County acting chairwoman, in a marriage of the financial firepower upstate and the political muscle downstate that the party needs to thrive.

In addition to choosing a chairman, the Republicans also re-elected to two-year terms Matlusky as vice chairman, Cathy Murray as secretary and Thomas J. Shopa as treasurer. Rakestraw and Stabler serve four-year terms that are up next year.

The only intrigue at the convention was some maneuvering to get William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who is running for governor in 2004, some time in the spotlight while the party pretends not to have chosen sides between Lee and Michael D. Protack, an airline pilot.

It was accomplished when Lee took to the lectern to present Moore with a plaque in honor of his leadership. Lee also got a boost when Shopa gave his acceptance speech for treasurer while wearing a Lee campaign t-shirt.

Protack was left to seethe and to distribute a letter, which curiously compared the efforts to talk him out of the race to Bill Clinton, not exactly a nice thing to do in Republican circles. He said, "[It] is like former President Clinton giving out marriage and relationship counseling. That dog won't hunt."

The convention was over in a brief two hours. Parliamentarian Richard A. Forsten could have clocked out early without being missed.

One Republican was driven to quip, "This is Deadsville." It is believed he meant the convention, not the future of the party.