Posted: Nov. 5, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner hoofed into the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the Delaware Democratic Party's premier event, Tuesday night on her own two feet -- no walker, no crutches, not even a cane, eight days after replacement surgery on her left knee.

She appeared to be moving sturdily but slowly, listing only a little, although she did not travel farther than the length of the head table. It was placed on the stage of the Rollins Center Ballroom in the Dover Downs Hotel & Conference Center, and Minner entered stage right from the wings.

This was the governor's night. Not only would she be running for re-election to the state's most coveted office exactly a year later, but she was hailed for a recovery that party leaders said reinforced her campaign slogan of "tough times, tough choices, tough governor."

"We assumed she wouldn't make [the dinner]," said Democratic State Chairman Richard H. Bayard. "She's tough in overcoming anything that life throws at her."

Minner's presence also was heightened by the absence of U.S. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper, both unable to leave Washington in time for the dinner.

In their place, the Democrats showcased Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell and New Castle County Council President Christopher A. Coons -- all regarded as rising talent behind the senators and the governor.

Party officials said they sold about 1,000 tickets at $35 for individuals or $1,500 for event sponsors.

Beyond the interest in the governor's left knee, there was a mild rustling over the upcoming presidential primary on Feb. 3, when Delaware joins six other states in voting a week after New Hampshire leads off.

U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the 2000 vice presidential nominee from Connecticut, has paid more attention to Delaware than any of the nine Democratic candidates who want to take on President George W. Bush and the Republicans, and his campaign did it again at the dinner.

Hadassah Lieberman, the candidate's wife, attended and was introduced to the crowd, although not asked to speak. Other candidates -- retired General Wesley K. Clark, former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry -- sent staffers who barely attracted notice in an indication that Delaware has yet to get the hang of this primary business.

"I'm here to meet as many people as I can," Hadassah Lieberman told reporters in an impromptu press conference before the dinner. "We love Delaware."

Although Delaware Democrats face what could be some ugly dissention in the 2004 election season, it was muted on this night. Karen E. Peterson, the state senator who is considering a primary against Minner, did not attend, nor did Sherry L. Freebery, the New Castle County chief administrative officer who could run against Coons, although County Executive Thomas P. Gordon was there.

Matthew P. Denn and Karen Weldin Stewart, rivals for insurance commissioner, quietly worked the crowd in their bid for the nomination to take on Donna Lee Williams, the Republican incumbent.

The evening included an emotional recognition of John P. "Pat" Healy, the Democrats' late state vice chairman who was killed at age 52 in an auto accident in June. He was named the posthumous winner of the Alexis I. du Pont Bayard Award for service to the party. In addition, the Democrats created a John Patrick Healy Extraordinary Volunteer Award and gave it to Michael A. Begatto, the immediate past president of the Delaware AFL-CIO.

"Pat Healy was a very special Democrat and a very special person," Carney said. "Pat Healy was one of a kind."

For the most part, though, the event seemed to be more "general hospital" than "general election" with all the interest in Minner's knee. The governor's 25-minute address, delivered as she stood, was as much a medical update as a political update.

She said she went home to Milford three days after her surgery and stopped taking pain medication after four days.

After discussing that recovery, however, Minner turned to the recovery of the party's get-out-the-vote drive, which did not measure up to the Republicans' effort in 2002, when the Democrats turned out 45 percent of their registered voters and the Republicans turned out 50 percent of theirs. Because the Democrats outnumber the Republicans, there were more Democrats going to the polls, but it was a wakeup call nevertheless.

"We can't be satisfied doing it the way we've done it in the past. We've got to take a lesson from what they did," Minner said. "We have to start weeks ahead, months ahead. Maybe we should just start tonight."

 Minner promised that she and her knee would be up to it. "It's going to be our goal to absolutely kick butt," she said.