Posted: May 22, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

For one shining hour on Wednesday afternoon, the Delaware Republicans achieved something they long have pined for.

They looked like a party of inclusion.

In a partnership they arranged with the Wilmington Metropolitan Urban League, the Republicans co-hosted an appearance of U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige at the DuPont Nemours Building before a crowd of about 100 people who didn't look as monochromatic as, say, the U.S. Senate.

Usually when the state Republicans talk about the minority presence among them, they are discussing the political status of their state senators.

The event was billed as a session on public education reform, and to an extent it was. No one could doubt the involvement of the state's most prominent Republican, U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who is the chairman of a congressional subcommittee on education reform, or the commitment of the Urban League, a nonpartisan organization that regards education in concert with economic development as the cornerstones of progress.

Still, the sponsors weren't kidding themselves about the political implications. The Republicans were after votes that customarily go to the Democrats.

"I'm a Republican, and I'm a conservative, and I've thought for years that the city kids have not been well served by my friends to the left," said William E. Manning, a sponsor who is the president of the school board in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, which includes part of Wilmington.

"This is an opportunity for Republicans if Democrats aren't mindful," said Antoine J. "Tony" Allen, the Urban League president. "I think they [Republicans] have a problem selling their message locally, because national politics impacts perceptions, and I commend them for their effort."

Paige helped the cause with remarks that dovetailed with the Urban League's mission. "We believe education is a civil right, just like the right to vote, just like the right to be treated equally," he said.

The Republicans clearly believe they are on to something, because Paige's visit was the second high-profile effort the Bush administration has made to connect with city dwellers here on education. President George W. Bush himself was the draw for an event in April 2001 on the East Side.

Still, inroads for Republicans won't be easy in the neighborhoods in Wilmington, which delivered more than 80 percent of its vote to Albert Gore Jr. in 2000 in helping the Democratic presidential candidate carry the state. Even Mike Castle, who routinely polls upwards of 70 percent statewide, breaks even at best in the city.

The Delaware Republicans have been casting about for the means into the minority community since what was perhaps their best opportunity almost a decade ago. They recruited Margaret Rose Henry, an African-American Democrat, to run in a 1994 special election to fill a vacancy for a state Senate seat in the city, and she won.

Giddy Republicans dreamed of building on Henry's victory to capture the state Senate majority or even take over the mayor's office. Instead, Henry bolted for home in 1995, disenchanted with the Gingrich Revolution and the increasingly conservative turns it inspired.

Since that setback, the state Republicans have found few avenues of progress, making the visit from Paige as good as any place to start.

Various Democrats were on hand to see how it went, including representatives from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. As the leader of the host city, Mayor James M. Baker was there, too, to offer an official greeting.

In an offhand way Baker made the point that Republicans are welcome but not too welcome. "I should have given you a key to the city, but I didn't bring it," he said.

Far from taking offense, Paige was willing to take what he could get. "Thank you for the key to the city you're going to send me in the mail," he said.