Posted: Nov. 11, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

William Swain Lee would like to believe the second time is the charm, as he declared his candidacy for governor Tuesday with a traditional tour through Delaware's three counties that he took in a nontraditional fashion.

Lee's route was a fish hook -- starting in Dover in Kent County, traveling north to Wilmington in New Castle County, then turning south to another New Castle County stop in Middletown before ending in Georgetown in his home county of Sussex.

It was as indirect and meandering as Lee's unorthodox pursuit of the governorship has been -- a judge who put politics behind him for more than two decades, only to be lured back to it by a fresh roar from the crowd when he presided at the sensational murder trial of Thomas J. Capano and sentenced him to death.

Lee bolted from the bench into the 2000 gubernatorial race, losing the Republican nomination to John M. Burris by a heartbreaking 46 votes, but only suspending his campaign afterwards, not really stopping it. As soon as the election was over and Democrat Ruth Ann Minner was the new governor, Lee was back at it -- and making it official today.

"My name is Bill Lee, and I want to be your governor," he said.

He had crowds of about 60 or 70 people in front of the historic Old State House on The Green in Dover and the famous statue of Caesar Rodney on its namesake square in Wilmington, before he headed toward home.

In another unconventional twist, Lee is trying to become the first candidate since the political parties began selecting their gubernatorial nominees in 1972 through primary elections, not conventions, to be elected without previous running and winning statewide.

By contrast, Minner has run and won three times statewide, twice as lieutenant governor in 1992 and 1996 and once as governor in 2000.

Lee has something that eluded him before -- the backing of party regulars. He was introduced at his various stops by Kent County Chairman Patrick W. Murray, National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw, state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart and former State Chairman J. Everett Moore Jr.

It is the sort of muscle that has all but silenced Michael D. Protack, a Yorklyn airline pilot also seeking the Republican nomination, and Attorney General M. Jane Brady, who has refused to rule it out.

Lee and Minner form an interesting pair, probably the last of their kind, gubernatorial candidates whose public life is rooted more in the 20th Century than the 21st. He is 67. She is 68. He spent 22 years on the bench from 1977 to 1999. She has put in 29 years in the state house from 1974 until today.

Lee acknowledges that Minner is ahead, even in his own polling, but predicts he can overtake her as he becomes better known and makes his case. "People have said, 'She's done better than I thought,' but that's damned with faint praise," Lee said.

Minner appears to be taking Lee seriously in return. Her campaign organization was finishing up its own polling as of Monday, on the eve of Lee's announcement.

After so many years on the bench, Lee speaks affably with the air of someone who does not expect to be contradicted. His speech made clear that he intends to run this race like a referendum on the governor.

"I'm a judge, not a politician. I spent my public career doing the right thing, without regard to wealth, power or station. Impartial justice and fairness are as essential in the governor's office as they are in the courtroom. The governor is a good politician. It's what she does for a living," Lee said.

"Folks, the governor is not a bad person. She is doing the best she can. The fault is not hers, it's ours. . . . We have come to accept mediocrity. It's time to change, not just our governor -- although I believe that's a great place to start -- but also our willingness to accept anything less that excellence. Mediocrity is not good enough. In fact, 'good' is not good enough. Delaware deserves better."

Lee charged Minner with fudging budget numbers, miscalculating tax revenues and pushing through unnecessary tax increases to create a pot of money to be doled out to further her political career. He also called her stewardship of the economy and education particularly inadequate.

His remarks found favor with his partisans.

"He was very good. He made it clear we need to accept none of the status quo," said John R. Matlusky, the Republican state vice chairman.

"Judge Lee did a wonderful job of stating what is wrong in this state. It was a beautiful speech," said Thomas S. Ross, the New Castle County Republican co-chairman.

Minner's governorship has been largely a financial tale of constantly recalculating state spending in a sputtering economy. She also has put herself on the line by taking sides in visceral debates -- enforcing a smoking ban, endorsing a gay anti-discrimination bill and committing to a buyout of the Glenville houses flooded in September by Tropical Storm Henri, none of which Lee addressed in his speech.

In a telephone interview, Minner responded to Lee herself. "I would be quite happy to debate him on my record anytime, anywhere," she said. "We are well ahead of most states. When we get ready to start campaigning, that's what I'm going to say."

Minner said she would be limiting her campaigning until the end of the 2004 legislative session in June. Meanwhile, Lee has put his battle scarf on -- literally. He campaigned in 2000 while wearing a scarf, and a plaid one was back around his neck as he declared his candidacy.

He regarded it as a good omen. "It's a merciful Lord that will make the day just cool enough so I can wear the scarf," Lee said.