Posted: Nov. 17, 2003
CANDIDATES RUSH IN FOR COUNTY
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
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countywide to an outdated court position that has been phased out.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
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'
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
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.
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