Posted: May 20, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

If people vote with their feet, then Gov. Ruth Ann Minner won in a walk over William Swain Lee in a very early and unscientific showdown.

Minner, the first-term Democrat running for re-election next year, and Lee, the ex-judge expected to be her Republican challenger, both spoke at the Newark Rotary Club this month, Minner on Monday evening and Lee two weeks ago on May 5.

Minner attracted a crowd of about 45 Rotarians and their guests to the Holiday Inn at Interstate 95 and Delaware 273. Lee pulled in about 25.

It was something of an indication of what Lee is up against. The governor is the governor. The Capano murder trial was four years ago.

Still, it was also an indication that Minner understands she is in a serious race with a need to stump the state a year and a half before Election Day 2004 if she is to be, not only the first woman to be Delaware's governor, but just the second Democrat to be elected to two consecutive terms here.

As if the odds were not stacked enough against a challenger, Rotary's immutable format also was a disadvantage for Lee. The club frowns on political speech-making -- which meant that Minner could defend her record because it would sound like policy, but Lee could not criticize it because it would sound like politics.

Minner gave what has become her standard address -- a discussion of the state government's financial situation in which she argues that Delaware is doing better than other states in the worst budgetary crisis for them since World War II. Lee resorted to talking about himself and his "philosophy" of government.

Minner led with a litany of the woes in some other states, as described last month by the New York Times. The layoffs and budget cuts elsewhere mean that Oklahoma teachers are filling in as janitors, Connecticut is letting prosecutors go, and Kentucky released prisoners, although some were soon right back where they came from.

By contrast, Delaware has balanced its budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. To balance the next one, expected to be about $2.4 billion, Minner is proposing a number of spending cuts and tax hikes --  such as eliminating 400 state jobs by not filling vacancies, chopping agency budgets by 3 percent and education by 1 percent, raising corporate taxes and bumping up cigarette taxes from 24 cents a pack to 50 cents, still considerably lower than the surrounding states that are about $1 a pack.

"Someone asked me the other day if I needed to take a language course, because the only word I could pronounce was 'no,'" Minner said. "I would like to see the revenue come back so that I can expand my vocabulary."

Of necessity, Lee was less specific and more personal, an upshot of both the Rotary format and his stated unwillingness to engage Minner on issues so far from the election.

He described the path that got him where he was -- Duke University, a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, an officer's commission in the Marine Corps and eventually a judgeship after finding both his marriage, which ended in divorce, and his law practice to be harder than he thought.

"It's hard to explain. I never wanted to be a judge . . . [but] I needed a way to discipline myself," Lee said.

As a former Sussex County Republican chairman, Lee missed the rush that comes with politics even as he spent 22 years on the bench. Then along came the trial of Thomas J. Capano, the well-connected lawyer who murdered the governor's scheduler, and Lee was back in the high life, his name in the papers, his face on the broadcasts. He said he had been warned the case would change his life, and although he shrugged at the time he was told, it did.

"People in politics are addicted to it. You can stay on the wagon a long time, but when you fall off . . ."

He tried running for governor in 2000, came heartbreakingly close to winning the nomination and never stopped running so he could try again in 2004.

Despite all those years on the bench, Lee painted himself to the Rotarians as an outsider. He slurred Dover as a seat of stand-pat government where the politicians lack vision and Delaware deteriorates year by year as they take care of themselves.

"Dover becomes a little club. The same lobbyists and the same interest groups are taking care of both sides of the aisle. . . . It's the way we do the business of government in Delaware -- don't rock the boat. I want to go rock the boat. I think we need it. If I make people mad, so what?" Lee said.

"I told you I wanted to blame the politicians, but the truth of the matter is, you and I are responsible. We have come to accept mediocrity."

The Rotarians, being the polite Delawareans they are, generally were leery of choosing sides after hearing both candidates. "Both of them had very valid points," one said, but John G.S. "Jack" Billingsley, a Rotarian who was a Republican legislator in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was less circumspect.

"Ruth Ann's appeal is there, I think, among ordinary people. I'd bet my money on her," Billingsley said.