Posted: Nov. 17, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Nature has nothing on politics when it comes to abhorring a vacuum. No less than six candidates -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- are saying they want to fill the New Castle County Council president's post being vacated by Christopher A. Coons, a Democrat running next year for county executive instead.

The interested Democrats are Paul G. Clark, who ran for a council seat in 2002, Penrose Hollins, a council member since 1990, and Dianne M. Kempski, who was elected twice countywide to an outdated court position that has been phased out.

The Republicans are Paul T. Bartkowski, a Wilmington City Council member since 1996, Gary L. Bowman, who tried for the nomination four years ago, and Paul J. Pomeroy, the party's Newark Region vice chairman.

The council president in the most populous of Delaware's three counties is elected directly by the voters, not chosen by the council members themselves. Why someone would put himself or herself through the rigors of a campaign to win this seat is an open question.

As if anyone needs reminding, New Castle County has been Orwellian of late, a fiefdom of intrigue and innuendo with varying viewpoints about who is playing the part of Big Brother.

Is it Thomas P. Gordon, the two-term Democratic county executive, and his sidekick Sherry L. Freebery, who is running to replace him and keep a whip hand on the government? Or is it Colm F. Connolly, the Republican U.S. attorney who is investigating the county and wired up workers there to get the goods on the inside doings? 

Along with the political turmoil, the council is undergoing its first extensive restructuring since its creation in 1967. The council is expanding with the 2004 election from seven members to 13, its existing six districts cut in two with a council president officiating. The current council members all will keep their seats with six new members elected.

Whatever reasons the candidates for council president have for running, a secret ambition for higher office ought not to be the most burning. If Coons eventually achieves statewide prominence from a county post, he will be the first. 

A couple of council presidents – Democrat Karen E. Peterson and the late Republican Philip D. Cloutier – became state legislators, shrinking their constituencies, but political careers generally go to the county to die. Democrat Dennis E. Greenhouse, for example, was a state auditor who became a two-term county executive and was never heard from again. 

The county's voting habits and its registration appear to favor whoever emerges from the Democratic field. The Democrats last lost an election for county executive in 1984 and for council president in 1988, and the voter rolls in 2002 showed the county's 338,475 voters split 45 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

The apparent Democratic edge, however, could count for nothing -- depending on what happens with the federal investigation and with the looming Coons-Freebery grudge match, which is expected to be bloody if Freebery makes good on her intentions to run.

"Republicans don't win elections in New Castle County. Democrats lose them," cracked John D. Daniello, the Democrats' county chairman.

"The Democrats have been very helpful in throwing mud on their own candidates. There may be some movement for change," echoed Jeffrey E. Cragg, the Republicans' county co-chairman.

It is too early to forecast how the six candidates for council president will sort themselves out. Both the Democratic and Republican parties would prefer to avoid primaries that only would add to the county’s high-decibel political din, caused by all the new council seats and the possible primary between Coons and Freebery.

As Thomas S. Ross, who co-chairs the county Republicans with Cragg, put it, “Nothing would make me happier than to see us get behind one candidate. It’s more confusing to the voters if we have more than one candidate.”

The county Republicans would like to have a tidy top of the ticket to present to the electorate. More and more, it looks as though they are settling on a candidate for county executive -- Christopher J. Castagno, the New Castle City Council president who recently changed his registration from independent to Republican. Ideally he would be paired with a consensus choice for the council presidency.

The Democratic side could be even messier, because it is likely the rivalry between Coons and Freebery will have to run its course.

There is a certain symmetry to the parties' fields for council president -- with a city/suburban split on both sides.

Wilmington is home for Democrat Penrose Hollins and Republican Paul Bartkowski, while Democrat Dianne Kempski of Middleboro Crest and Republican Paul Pomeroy of Newark are banking on their appeal to the county at large. Continuing the parallels, Democrat Paul Clark of Meadowdale and Republican Gary Bowman of the Newport area are seeking comebacks from previous losses.

If the campaign season appears to be chaotic, it may be worse afterwards. Awaiting the winner will be a council with no stake at all in its president's fortunes -- the county equivalent of a lieutenant governor, as opposed to a House speaker with a power base in the majority caucus.

"Here's the good news and the bad news. You represent the whole county. Not having a majority of the legislative body behind you makes it difficult to mount any kind of sustained challenge to the executive," Coons said. "With 13 members, it's going to be harder than ever."

New Castle County Council has had four consecutive presidents who were gone after a single term. A message is probably in there somewhere.