Posted: Oct. 28, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

As if the new election season does not have enough sideshows, there were feelers extended recently to see whether Christopher A. Coons could consider bolting the Democratic Party to run for New Castle County executive as a Republican, instead.

Strange things happen in politics, but this looks like it will not be one of them. Coons would prefer to limit his switching in 2004 from New Castle County Council president after a single term to county executive.

The speculation about Coons has been rippling quietly of late in certain Republican circles as the party searches for a viable candidate for an office it last won almost 20 years ago in 1984 and did not even bother to field anyone last time against Thomas P. Gordon, the Democratic incumbent who has reached the two-term limit.

Recruiting Coons was regarded as something that could be mutually beneficial -- with the Republicans gaining a proven vote-getter and Coons escaping from a Democratic primary with Sherry L. Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, in a clash with enough bad blood already to have "Impeach Coons" t-shirts out there in the early goings.

In an interview Tuesday, Coons acknowledged there has been talk but said it was going nowhere.

"I have been approached by several leading Republicans about the possibility of switching parties. I have been too committed and too active in the Democratic Party to consider switching," Coons said.

Coons declined to out his Republican contacts by name. Republican State Chairman Terry A. Strine declined to acknowledge there even were Republican contacts. "I'm not saying it was authorized or unauthorized," Strine said.

Democratic State Chairman Richard H. Bayard did not care if the Republicans were trying to recruit from his side. "They've tried to switch a lot of people. They don't have a talent pool, and Chris Coons is a talent," he said.

The Republicans do need a candidate for county executive. To be sure, the electorate is tilted against them -- with 338,475 registered voters in 2002 split 45 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republican and 23 percent others -- and the county has run a budget surplus despite the jittery economic times, but the executive's office could be there for the taking this time because of the spectacle the Gordon administration has become.

There is the federal investigation that hangs over the government, as well as the continuing political slapstick over banishments to the Bear library, a gun raid on Freebery's house and a fender-bender in Gordon's driveway -- all this before Coons and Freebery go at it in what is expected to be an ugly primary.

Clearly this is not a year to sit out. The Republicans appear ready to drop the fig-leaf candidacy of House Speaker Terry R. Spence and find someone real to run.

A new name being mentioned is Christopher J. Castagno, the 42-year-old New Castle City Council president who recently changed his registration from independent to Republican and says he is thinking about entering the race with party encouragement.

"Terry Spence's name is still out there. As of yet he has not withdrawn it. Chris Castagno may be interested, as well," said Thomas S. Ross, the New Castle County Republican co-chairman. "We've got our work to do, but people are ready for a change."

Coons could have been a tantalizing prospect. A 40-year-old house counsel with W.L. Gore & Associates, the Newark-based science company that is his family firm, Coons even has a little elephant in his closet -- he was a Republican in college.

Still, he sent the Republicans a message earlier this month that those days were behind him when he voted in favor of a prevailing wage ordinance, a law backed by labor unions to require the county to set compensation on construction contracts at the pay earned by a majority of workers in a trade.

Republicans generally do not like prevailing wage laws, regarding them as heavy-handed government interference with employers and the free market. That should have been the last word on the Coons' recruitment drive, but in politics you never say never.

"Given a chance," Strine said, "we'll certainly discuss it further."