The Endless Election

11/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

THE ENDLESS ELECTION. Sometimes an election is not over, even when it is over. Delaware is having one of them right now.

It is nothing as dramatic as the presidential election of 2000, when nobody knew who would be the next president, George Bush or Al Gore, until the Supreme Court spoke on December 12, after Veterans Day, after Thanksgiving, with the deadline for the Electoral College on December 18 drawing perilously close.

Still, it is pretty big for Delaware. The control of the state Senate in Dover hangs in the balance.

This is highly unusual. If there has been a constant in state politics, it is that the Democrats run the state Senate.

The Republicans have not won a majority of the state Senate seats since 1972, but they lost control on the very first day of the session in January 1973, when two of their own treacherously voted to put the Democrats in charge, where the Democrats have been ever since.

Irony of ironies, if the Democrats lose out now, it will not be on Election Day but in a change that comes after the session has started, just as it did 44 years ago.

The situation is due to what did happen on Election Day. While the voters here were busy doing what they seem to do best, which is rewarding Democrats – by electing John Carney as governor, Lisa Blunt Rochester as congresswoman, Bethany Hall-Long as lieutenant governor, Trini Navarro as insurance commissioner and the Democrats as the majority in both chambers of the legislature – the voters also could have planted the seeds of Democratic destruction.

The reason is the Democrats wound up with a one-seat majority in the state Senate, 11-10, when Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem, was unceremoniously ousted. (It has been not been a good run for pro tems. The last two had to be replaced after they lost, and the one before them had to be replaced after he died.)

That one-seat majority is now threatened, because there has to be a special election to replace Hall-Long, who will be giving up the balance of her four-year term as a state senator when she takes her oath in January as the new lieutenant governor.

The party that wins the special election will control the state Senate.

Even the special election, though, might not end the election season. It would continue if a state representative were to win Hall-Long’s seat, and Earl Jaques, a Democratic state representative, is a possible candidate. It would take another special election to replace him.

It means the membership of the General Assembly might not be set until deep into the spring.

First things first, though. The special election to replace Hall-Long will be the most cataclysmic since there was a special election following the death of a Democratic state representative in 1979. It flipped control of the state House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans.

History could repeat itself, first in the state House, second in the state Senate.

Hall-Long’s district runs from Newark to Middletown. It has 34,000 voters in it – 45 percent Democrats, 29 percent Republicans and 26 percent others – and if they have any idea what is coming, they will stay off the Internet, unplug their phones, seal up their mailboxes and not answer their doors.

The politicians are about to descend. If people remember the scene in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock? It is going to look something like that.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


NORMAL IS THE NEW NORMAL

11/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

NORMAL IS THE NEW NORMAL. Delaware has had its share of strange elections. A Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate protesting she was not a witch. A Democratic state senator nearly undone when the Republicans caught her husband making off with their political signs and videotaped him. A Republican candidate winning a legislative primary and then fleeing off the ballot because of an accusation of 20-year-old child sex crimes.

Not this time. While there is bedlam a-plenty in the presidential race, notably because of “Access Hollywood” and “Access Email,” it has not spilled down the ballot into Delaware. Instead, the election here is muddling along in a familiar political rut.

Got to know a governor. The voters are emphatic about this one. They simply will not elect a governor who has not already run and won statewide. They have insisted on it since 1972. This is a small state, and people like to know the governor personally, or at least think they do.

So say hello to Governor John Carney. All he has is five statewide victories behind him, namely, three as the current Democratic congressman and two as lieutenant governor. Besides, a poll conducted for the University of Delaware pegged him at 60 percent among likely voters.

Colin Bonini, a state senator who is the Republican candidate, has run but not won statewide. He lost a close race for treasurer in 2010. Not to mention the voters have not elected a Republican governor since 1988.

Sayonara, Vermont and Mississippi. Delaware does not like its politics to embarrass it. This is the main reason the voters ousted the mayor in a Democratic primary after Wilmington was derided as “Murder Town USA” and his reaction was to go into the bunker.

Here in 2016, nearly a century after women got the right to vote, it really would not do if the country elected a woman as president before Delaware broke the gender barrier in its own three-member federal delegation.

Enter Lisa Blunt Rochester, the Democratic congressional candidate. She looks like she can take care of it. The UD poll had her up, 50 percent to 28 percent, over Hans Reigle, the Republican candidate. It should also be noted that not only would Rochester be the first woman to join the Delaware delegation, but also its first African-American member.

For now, Delaware is one of three states, along with Vermont and Mississippi, never to send a woman to Capitol Hill. Vermont is in the same situation as Delaware, a little state that tends to elect its senators and representative again and again and again and again.

Mississippi will have to speak for itself.

Color wars. Normal in the General Assembly is Democratic control. This goes all the way back to 1973 in the state Senate, where the Democrats currently outnumber the Republicans by 12-9, and to 2008 in the state House of Representatives, where the Democratic margin is 25-16.

The Republicans are making an all-out effort to flip the state Senate from Democratic blue to Republican red by targeting four Democratic state senators, including Patti Blevins, the president pro tem, but the odds are long.

So there it is. Not even a whiff of an October Surprise here. Still, Election Day is so late this year, there is actually a little time for a November Surprise, although it would not be – what is the word? – normal.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


A CLEARING POLITICAL FORECAST

9/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A CLEARING POLITICAL FORECAST. The political winds are blowing, and right now the forecast is foggy, but it is expected to clear after Primary Day on Sept. 13. Once the ballots for the Democrats and the Republicans are set, a lot of the guesswork goes out of Delaware politics.

The reason is the voters here have become largely predictable on Election Day, particularly in a presidential year like 2016. The state is reliably Democratic, except in the less populous reaches of lower Delaware, which likes its politics conservative.

Nor are the voters expected to act differently this time around. All sorts of political prognostication sites, like FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot at the New York Times, predict there is more than a 90 percent chance Hillary Clinton will carry Delaware for the Democrats.

In an era of straight-ticket voting, it is likely to flow down the ballot, but for whom? The forecast for Primary Day is still tricky.

Governor. John Carney, the Democratic candidate, looks like a shoo-in to replace Jack Markell, the Democratic governor who is departing after two terms. In Carney’s previous races for congressman and lieutenant governor, he has never polled below 60 percent in a presidential election year.

What is a little less certain is who will be running for governor for the Republicans.

It is supposed to be Colin Bonini, a state senator since 1994, but he has a primary. Lacey Lafferty, a Tea Party-type who has never run for office before, is opposing him, and Bonini has acknowledged he is nervous.

Still, Bonini has solid conservative credentials, and he was out front early for Donald Trump, who won big in the Republican presidential primary back in April. It ought to be enough to carry Bonini, unless the Republican voters are really, really restless.

Congressperson. This is a race a political scientist could love. It is because of the Democratic primary, which has turned into a laboratory on whether it is better to conduct a campaign on the airwaves or the ground.

The three leading candidates are Sean Barney, a policy specialist who fought in Iraq with the Marines, Lisa Blunt Rochester, a former Cabinet officer, and Bryan Townsend, a state senator.

Barney and Rochester are using televised political spots to make their case, while Townsend is resolutely staying off the air. Instead, he is relying primarily on an organization he has built to identify his supporters and get out the vote. It is a textbook contrast.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will be favored to take over the state’s lone congressional seat from Carney, who won it in 2010.

The Republican candidate is Hans Reigle, a former small-town mayor whose modest fund raising makes it daunting for him to overcome his party’s registration deficit, which has the Republicans outnumbered by the Democrats by nearly 130,000 voters.

Lieutenant governor. Politics abhors a vacuum, and there has not been a lieutenant governor for two years, not since Matt Denn left mid-term when he was elected as the Democratic attorney general with no way to replace him. The upshot is there are seven candidates – six Democrats and one Republican – running for the office.

Although the Democratic primary is considered unpredictable, there is increasing speculation that it is Bethany Hall-Long, a state senator, who is showing some strength, mainly by collecting endorsements from the New Castle County Democrats, the building trades council and the state teachers association.

With John Carney running so strongly for governor, the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor looks like the key to getting into the office, because the voters have not elected a governor and lieutenant governor from different parties since 1984.

Insurance commissioner. Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democratic insurance commissioner, is running for her third term. Naturally she has a primary. She always does.

She squeaked through the earlier ones against multi-candidate fields, but this time she has only one opponent, namely, Trini Navarro, the New Castle County sheriff, so it is a new challenge.

The Republicans also have a primary, but it does not look like it really matters who wins. Jeff Cragg, a businessman with an insurance background, and George Parish, a former Sussex County clerk of the peace, both filed campaign finance reports showing they had under a thousand dollars in their accounts.

General Assembly. There are surprisingly few legislative primaries, even fewer that are attracting much attention. The exception is the one involving Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker.

Schwartzkopf, who used to be part of the state police brass, rattled the progressives in his Rehoboth Beach district with his support of the death penalty, although the state Supreme Court recently threw it out. He drew a challenge from Don Peterson, a retired federal worker.

Schwartzkopf has a massive campaign account with $130,000 in it. Peterson barely met the residency requirement for running. That usually would take care of things.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


HIGH SEASON FOR POLITICS

8/1/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

HIGH SEASON FOR POLITICS. Delaware is going to get a new governor, a new congressperson and a new lieutenant governor, and the insurance commissioner has three people who are after her job.

Strangely enough, there could conceivably be more turnover in statewide office on Election Day than in the entire General Assembly. All 62 members of it.

There will definitely be two new legislators because of two voluntary departures, one each from the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.

Jack Peterman, a Republican state representative, is exiting because of poor health. Karen Peterson, a Democratic state senator, is leaving just because.

Peterson, who is 66, has always called them the way she sees them, whether it was taking on a legislative culture of secrecy to open up records and proceedings, standing up to her own Catholic Church for children sexually abused by clergy, working to abolish the death penalty or feuding with highhanded leadership, so it was characteristic she would call time on herself, too.

All 41 of the state House seats and 11 of the 21 state Senate seats are up, but it would actually not be too early for most of the sitting legislators running for re-election to be giving some thought to which judge they want to swear them back in. There are that few serious challengers out there.

In the House, it is surprisingly the speaker who might have the toughest race.

Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker for two terms now, is engaged in a two-front campaign with a challenge from his left in a Democratic primary and another from his right in the general election. It is worth noting he is the only Democratic legislator left in Sussex County, which is strong Donald Trump country, although Schwartzkopf’s own coastal district generally votes Democratic for president.

Another state representative who has to be careful is Kevin Hensley, a Republican who was able to capitalize on Democratic high jinks to get elected in 2014 from what should be a Democratic district in lower New Castle County. The Democrats do have to get through a primary, however, to come up with their own candidate.

The state Senate is more of a battleground. The Republicans have made a priority out of trying to take over the chamber for the first time in 43 years, so much so that they appear to have essentially written off the state House. (The Republicans are outnumbered in the state Senate by 12-9 and in the state House by 25-16.)

The Republicans recruited candidates to run against Patti Blevins, who is the president pro tem, Harris McDowell, Dave Sokola and Bruce Ennis, but all of them are from Democratic districts that voted solidly for Barack Obama for president in 2012.

In a political age of straight-ticket voting, it is hard to envision the districts would do anything but vote for Hillary Clinton for president and for the re-election of their own state senator.

The sorting out begins in earnest in about a month on Primary Day, Sept. 13, and then races on to Election Day, Nov. 8.

For sure, there will be a new governor, because Jack Markell cannot run for a third term as the Democratic governor, and for sure, a new congressperson, because John Carney is giving up the state’s lone congressional seat to try to be the next Democratic governor, and for sure, a new lieutenant governor, because the state has not had one since Matt Denn left in mid-term to be elected the Democratic attorney general in 2014 without a constitutional way to replace him.

Carney is regarded as a runaway front-runner, but the rest is a muddle, with multiple candidates for congressperson, lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner. Still, Delaware is such a Democratic deep-blue state, the Democrats will be favored to retain all of the offices.

THE ELECTION – NOT OVER WHEN IT IS OVER? Oddly enough, the most serious turnover in the legislature could come after Election Day.

There are four state senators, all midway through four-year terms, running for higher office. Bryan Townsend is a candidate for Democratic congressman, Colin Bonini for Republican governor, Bethany Hall-Long for Democratic lieutenant governor, and Bob Marshall for Democratic mayor of Wilmington.

If they make it, they would have to be replaced through special elections.

Townsend and Hall-Long are regarded as candidates who could win. Bonini and Marshall? Not so much.  

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


CARNEY TIME BOMBS

7/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

CARNEY TIME BOMBS. Jack Markell just put in his last June 30th as the Democratic two-term governor, now that the Delaware General Assembly has finally quit Legislative Hall in Dover after an all-night session, but what is Markell leaving behind?

There is not much mystery about who is supposed to replace Markell. It is John Carney, the Democratic congressman who lost to Markell in the primary for governor in 2008 but has his chance now. Carney and Markell are rivals turned steadfast allies, like a Delaware version of Clinton and Obama. Except no e-mail server.

Transitions between governors can be tricky.

When Mike Castle and Tom Carper were swapping jobs, the Republican governor becoming the congressman and the Democratic congressman becoming the governor after the 1992 election, there were Democrats who were suspicious Castle had set what they were calling “Carper Time Bombs,” namely, craftily concealed problems or deferred decisions that would blow up on Carper. (Not that there really were any.)

Markell is approaching the end of his governorship with a sense of accomplishment – “I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made. Eight years is a good number, and I think it’s a good thing to have term limits. It’s not enough time to do everything I want, but it’s enough time to do a lot” – but also with what could be “Carney Time Bombs” out there.

The difference is, Markell has done everything but send up red flares and erect flashing neon signs to warn about those Carney Time Bombs. 

“My hope is I will have made it easier for the next governor to get something done,” Markell said.

Markell did not exactly have a serene governorship. He was inaugurated to the grimness of the Great Recession and the death throes of the Chrysler plant in Newark, the General Motors plant in Newport and the oil refinery in Delaware City.

He out-wrestled hulking budget deficits, saved the oil refinery, and cheered the reincarnation of the Chrysler plant as the University of Delaware’s STAR campus for Science, Technology & Advanced Research, although the General Motors plant sits idle after its embarrassing cameo as the Fisker auto plant that never was. Not to forget a final reckoning for a diminished DuPont Co. and its castoff sibling Chemours is yet to come.

Markell has cast himself as a prudent steward, arguing that the budget, priced at more than $4 billion for the first time, has actually gone down, when inflation and population growth are taken into account, and so has the number of state workers, even if the Republicans counter the state still spends too much.

Markell would have done more if he could. Instead, there are the Carney Time Bombs.

Give Markell credit for trying, but could not get the legislature to brake the spending for state workers’ health care or for a subsidy given to people over 65 for school taxes.     

Also unresolved: A proposal from the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission to redraw school district boundaries and provide more for low-income students, along with the attendant costs.

“I’m hopeful that proposals we have made will set the stage for reforms, because without change, we cannot afford other key investments,” Markell said.

Memo to Carney: Better bring a bomb squad.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


STATE OF THE STATEWIDE RACES

6/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

STATE OF THE STATEWIDE RACES. The Republicans were acting like they had pulled one over on the Democrats in the presidential primary, because the Republican turnout looked so much better than the Democrats, but really, it was the same old story.

The Republicans got out 38 percent of their voters, while the Democrats got out 30 percent of theirs, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton carried Delaware in the presidential primary on April 26, but what of it?

In raw numbers, the Democrats skunked the Republicans, as usual, because there are so many more Democratic than Republican voters. Out of nearly 164,000 voters who went to the polls, there were roughly 94,000 Democrats and 70,000 Republicans – which meant the primary electorate was 57 percent Democratic and 43 percent Republican. 

Gee, those numbers look a lot like what happened in the U.S. Senate race in 2014, when Chris Coons, the Democratic senator, outpolled Kevin Wade, the Republican candidate, by 56 percent to 42 percent. It also looked a lot like the presidential race in 2012, when Barack Obama carried Delaware over Mitt Romney by 57 percent to 40 percent.

It goes to show the Democrats are as well-situated as ever in 2016 for the top statewide elections for governor and congressperson. Both are open races because Jack Markell is barred from running for a third term as the Democratic governor, and John Carney is running to make a switch from Democratic congressman to governor.

As John Daniello, the Democratic Party chair, is fond of saying about state politics, “Republicans don’t win elections. Democrats lose them.”

Not when there are 127,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote.

Governor. Even a crooked fortuneteller with a cracked crystal ball could not get this race wrong. 

John Carney has everything going for him in what would be his sixth statewide win, after three for the state’s lone congressional seat and two for lieutenant governor. His only hiccup was a loss eight years ago in the gubernatorial primary that set up Markell to be the governor.

Carney has more than voter registration on his side. He has campaign contributions galore. He also has history. Not only have the voters gone with the Democratic candidate in six straight gubernatorial elections, but they emphatically insist on electing someone they already know. For nearly half a century, no candidate has been elected governor without having already run and won statewide.

That would be Carney. The Republicans are expected to go with Colin Bonini, a state senator who has run statewide but not won. He lost an election for treasurer in 2010.

Carney also has the blessing of Joe Biden. A little vice presidential magic can never hurt, especially when it was his own son who was supposed to be the next governor.

Congressperson. There is nothing like an open congressional seat to get a scrum of candidates, and no wonder. Being elected the congressperson from Delaware is about as close as it gets in this country to being elected to a public office for life.

The only way a Delawarean has left the congressional seat in the last 50 years is voluntarily, not counting the one glaring exception that proves the rule. Tom Evans, a three-term Republican congressman, lost in 1976 because of a sex scandal.

Everyone else since 1966 – Bill Roth, Pete du Pont, Tom Carper, Mike Castle and John Carney – left by choice, all of them to run for another office. Roth was elected as a Republican senator, du Pont as a Republican governor, and Carper as a Democratic governor. Castle ran for senator, only to lose what is arguably the most famous Republican primary in state history to Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell.

Once the vanity candidates and also-rans are sorted out of the congressional field, there are four candidates worth tracking: Sean Barney, the Democratic candidate for treasurer in 2014; Lisa Blunt Rochester, once a Cabinet member for two Democratic governors; Bryan Townsend, a Democratic state senator; and Hans Reigle, a Republican who used to be a small-town mayor.

Naturally the key to the election is shaping up to be the Democratic primary, and none of the candidates in it are being the least bit subtle about the way they are trying to win votes.

Rochester is campaigning to make history as the first member of Delaware’s federal delegation to be neither male nor white. Barney is talking about his commitment to country and the way he enlisted in the Marines after Sept. 11 and took a bullet in the neck in Iraq. Townsend is banking on his political base, which is centered in Newark.

It will be up to the voters to decide which approach resonates the most – demographic, patriotic or geographic?    

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


TALKING ‘BOUT A NEW GENERATION

5/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

TALKING ‘BOUT A NEW GENERATION. The Republicans are turning to the Millennials in their drive to take over the state Senate, but really, what other choice is there?

The Republicans have been forced to give up on the Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1945) to get them to the majority. Also the Baby Boom (born 1946 to 1964.) Also Generation X (born 1965 to 1980.)

By process of elimination and possibly prayer, the Republicans are left to count on the Millennials (born 1981 to 2000), as they come of voting age.

Time and the generations have marched by, constantly leaving the Republicans mired in the minority of the state Senate for 43 years, ever since the first legislative day in 1973. It is a date that shall live in legislative infamy. 

At the opening of the Delaware General Assembly way back then, the Republicans were betrayed by their own – two state senators who switched allegiance to vote with the Democrats and put them in charge. So it has stayed to this very day.

The Democratic majority is down to two seats these days – they outnumber the Republicans in the 21-member chamber by 12-9 – so the Republicans are figuring on going for it.

The idea is to meld partisan politics with generational change.

The Republicans have enlisted four Millennials to run against longtime Democratic state senators. The contrast is sort of unmissable. Not all of the Millennials, with birthdays between 1981 and 1985, were even born when their opponents started showing up in Dover.

“We have been conscientiously and specifically looking for candidates. These four came along. It certainly is where the world is going,” said Charlie Copeland, the Republican state chair who used to be a state senator himself.

The problem for the Republicans is all of their Millennial candidates are running in Democratic districts. Not only that, the 2016 election is a presidential year when the Democrats can count on their more casual voters to turn out.

Even so, the Republicans are going after some big names.

There in none more prominent than Patti Blevins, who is the Democratic president pro tem, a Baby Boomer first elected in 1990. The Republican candidate taking her on is Anthony Delcollo, a lawyer who coincidentally works at the same law firm as Charlie Copeland’s wife.

With the Republicans so pointedly playing generational politics, they probably would have been remiss not to recruit an opponent for Harris McDowell, the Democratic state senator who has set a record by lasting for 40 years in the upper chamber.

McDowell, the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, comes out of the Silent Generation. His Republican opponent is James Spadola, a police officer who is so Millennial, he once went viral with a video showing him in uniform with a sign offering free hugs as a gesture of law enforcement outreach.

Naturally there is also a challenger for Bruce Ennis, the Democratic state senator who is the chamber’s oldest member at 77, coming out of the Silent Generation. Ennis got to Dover as a state representative in 1982, when the Republican candidate running against him was not much more than a babe in arms, namely, Carl Pace, a Millennial born in 1983, now the owner of a business that trades in guns, gold and T-shirts.

The Republicans just recently found someone to run against Dave Sokola, the Democratic state senator who co-chairs the Bond Bill Committee, the joint panel that drafts the state’s construction budget. Sokola, a Baby Boomer first elected in 1990, picked up a challenge from Meredith Chapman, a Republican Millennial with a job anyone in her generation could love. She is a social media manager for the University of Delaware.

With the same sort of Millennial propensity for speed-surfing the Web, Chapman has done it in politics. She has been a Democrat, an unaffiliated voter and a Republican only at the end of February, although she says she has been a moderate throughout. She was a press aide to Mike Castle when he was the Republican congressman. She was the campaign manager for Chip Flowers, the Democratic state treasurer who did himself in and bolted not only out of office after a single term, but out of Delaware.

The Republicans, by the way, are showing no signs of making any moves in the state House of Representatives, where the Democrats are in charge by 25-16. As of early May, the Republicans have candidates running against two Democratic state representatives. Two!

So it is the state Senate or bust.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


UNFRIENDLY FIRE

4/1/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

UNFRIENDLY FIRE. If any legislators should be safe in their home districts, it makes sense to think it would be the ones in charge of the Delaware General Assembly.

That would be wrong.

Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem in the state Senate, and Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker in the state House of Representatives, are both engaged in rearguard actions as they run for re-election in 2016. Schwartzkopf is even fighting on two fronts.

The days are gone when the leadership’s home was a castle. Like Richard Cordrey’s was. He spent 14 years as the Democratic pro tem and had one token Republican opponent all that time, before he retired peaceably in 1996. Oh, a Libertarian made a couple of runs at him, but really.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the nature of the job,” Schwartzkopf said recently, “but we are basically the target.”

They are that. Two of the last three legislators to be the speaker or pro tem had their political lives come to an untimely end.

Tony DeLuca, the Democratic pro tem before Blevins, was taken out in a primary after he did himself in, more or less, with a prickly you-wanna-make-sumthin’-of-it style. Terry Spence, a Republican speaker, was existing on borrowed time in a Democratic district, anyway, and fell in the Democratic takeover of the state House in 2008. Only Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker between Spence and Schwartzkopf, left on his own terms through voluntary retirement.

Not that Blevins and Schwartzkopf were unprepared for what was coming. Blevins had put away $70,000 in her campaign account, and Schwartzkopf stockpiled $88,000 in his. This would be decent seed money for a low-level statewide race, let alone a legislative campaign.

Blevins’ situation is democracy at work. The Republicans are making a push for the state Senate, where they are outnumbered by 12-9, so they wanted to have a candidate to distract her from helping out her caucus mates, as she always does.

Besides, the Republicans are hoping Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are leading indicators it will be a throw-the-bums-out election, so why not get behind Anthony Delcollo, a lawyer willing to take on Blevins? Especially since he works in the same law firm as the wife of Charlie Copeland, the Republican state chair who was once a state senator himself.

Still, the district’s registration is 2-1, Democrat over Republican. It means Delcollo is a decided underdog. The last time Blevins had a Republican challenger, she trounced him with 61 percent of the vote.

Schwartzkopf’s circumstances are different. He is being whipsawed by ideological and partisan grounds.

Schwartzkopf found himself in a Democratic primary largely because of the death penalty. Schwartzkopf, who used to be a state police commander, is for keeping it. Don Peterson, a retired federal worker running against him, is for repealing it.

The state House voted earlier this year to defeat a repeal bill, which the state Senate had already passed and the governor said he would sign into law. For now, the status of the death penalty lies with the state Supreme Court, which has been asked to decide if it is constitutional in light of a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The disarray of a Democratic primary was not an opportunity the Republicans were likely to pass up, and they did not. James DeMartino, a lawyer, will be waiting on the Republican ballot line when the primary is over.

Actually, the Republicans ought to be fielding a candidate, anyway, because Schwartzkopf is the only Democratic legislator still standing south of Dover in the more conservative reaches of this otherwise moderate-inclined state.

“I’m at risk, being in Sussex County,” Schwartzkopf said.

Still, Schwartzopf himself custom-designed his district, located in the beach area of Sussex County, when he was in charge of redistricting for the state House Democrats at the beginning of the decade. As evidence he knew what he was doing, the district was the only one in Sussex to vote for Barack Obama for president.

As the saying goes, a man is not a hero to his valet. Nor is a legislative leader back home.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


THE IRON ISLE

3/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

THE IRON AISLE. Not even the Iron Curtain in Europe has anything on the Iron Aisle in Dover.

That would be the divide keeping the Democrats on the majority side and the Republicans on the minority side in the state Senate in the Delaware General Assembly.

The Iron Curtain preoccupied the world for 43 years from Winston Churchill’s speech in 1946 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Iron Aisle has lasted for 43 years -- and counting.

The Iron Aisle materialized in January 1973 when two state senators double-crossed their fellow Republicans and started voting with the Democrats to form a majority. It was one of the most treacherous acts in Legislative Hall history, and 21 elections later, it has yet to be undone.

It was so long ago, it is not even politics, but history.

Never mind. The state Republicans are trying to make it politics again. They intend to make the 2016 election about the state Senate.

“Our objective is simple. We plan to take back the Senate,” said Charlie Copeland, the Republican state chair who used to be a state senator himself.

The state Senate has 21 members with the Democrats outnumbering the Republicans by 12-9, so it would take a net shift of two seats to switch control.

(It should not go unnoticed that nobody is talking about a tug-of-war for the state House of Representatives, even though it has had some give-and-take over the years for the majority. It would take a more daunting swing of five seats in the 41-member chamber to dislodge the Democratic majority, which currently is in charge by 25-16.)

The Republicans are returning to their playbook for something that already allowed them to pick up a state Senate seat, namely, age.

The Republicans took out Bob Venables, a Democrat who was the oldest state senator at 81, in the last election in 2014. This time they are going after Bruce Ennis, the oldest Democratic state senator who will be 77 on Election Day, and Harris McDowell, the second oldest Democratic state senator who will be 76.

 

As if to make the point, the Republican candidates against both of them are Millennials.

Ennis has a race with Carl Pace, a businessman who trades in guns, gold and t-shirts, in a district that straddles New Castle County and Kent County. McDowell is up against James Spadola, a Newark police officer, in a district that stretches from Wilmington to Claymont.

To bedevil the Democrats even more, the Republicans have a candidate running against Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem, in a district that takes in Elsmere and its environs. It is serious Democratic territory, but the Republicans want to make Blevins pay attention to her own campaign against Anthony Delcollo, a lawyer who is another one of those Republican Millennials, at the expense of aiding fellow Democrats, as is her practice.

Not that the Democrats are taking this lying down.

“I’d like us to get back up to 13. I think that’s a better number,” Blevins said.

The Democrats have a playbook of their own to draw from, and they are. Their plan is to use voter registration numbers to their own advantage.

When the Democrats thought the Republicans might be getting too close in 2012, they set their sights on a heavily Democratic district that was represented by Dori Connor, a Republican state senator, and wrested it away, when Nicole Poore won in a blowout.

The Democrats are trying for a repeat in this election by running a candidate against Cathy Cloutier, a Republican state senator who lives in a Democratic-trending area in Brandywine Hundred. The Democrats’ candidate is Denise Bowers, who used to be a Wilmington police officer.

There is something else Connor and Cloutier have in common beyond a Democratic bulls-eye. Both of them got to Legislative Hall by being elected to succeed their husbands, who died in office.

Just some political irony to go along with the Iron Aisle.  

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


FOUR HORSEMEN OF POLITICS

2/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

FOUR HORSEMEN OF POLITICS. Before the Delaware General Assembly could make it through January, it had to get through Four Horsemen, namely, fire, snowstorm, deficit and death.

It did. Then it cleared out of Dover until March to find comfort in Four Holidays, namely, Groundhog Day, Ronald Reagan Day, Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day, and leave Legislative Hall for the rest of the winter to the green-eyeshade crowd on the Joint Finance Committee for budget hearings.

The Flame Horseman. The legislature has had to withstand many threats in its day, but becoming homeless was not supposed to be one of them. It could have happened, though, because of a fire that broke out in October, while the legislature was out for the year, on the north side of Legislative Hall where the House of Representatives is.

Capitol Police officers and maintenance workers fended off calamity with fire extinguishers until the Dover fire company got there to take over. Legislative Hall was still standing.

The White Horseman. Not only was Legislative Hall open, it stayed that way for the entire January session despite a walloping nor-easter.

It was helpful that the brunt of it fell on a Saturday, but it was even better that state highway workers efficiently got the roads cleared, unlike their ragged counterparts in other states. This was a double relief, because it meant legislators did not have to worry about getting to Dover, nor did they have to field peevish constituent calls about unplowed roads while stuck at home themselves.

The Red Horseman. A snowstorm was not all that threatened to bury Legislative Hall. As the 2016 session approached, there was trepidation about a deficit projected for the next fiscal year at considerably upwards of $100 million.

Then a new revenue estimate saved the day. There still could be some nipping and tucking necessary for a budget expected to be about $4 billion, but nothing like the bloodletting that was feared. This is not to say there is not still some nervousness, particularly about financial fallout from the disappearing act the DuPont Co. is pulling.

The Pale Horseman. After the fire, after the snowstorm, after the deficit scare, the legislature was left to consider death, in this instance in the form of legislation to repeal the death penalty.

The Senate had already passed a repeal bill for the second legislative term in a row, but the House was resisting. After nearly a year of frustration and pressure, the bill was released from committee and brought to the floor, only to be defeated.

The advocates for repeal expect to try again, even if they will be hard-pressed to find the three votes they need to get to 21 votes, which constitutes a simple majority in the 41-member chamber.

In the meantime, the state’s existing death penalty law is under constitutional assault because of a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out Florida’s law, which is not identical to Delaware’s but has similarities. A judicial review is being conducted. It could be that the state courts get rid of the death penalty, even if the legislature does not.

Before the gavels fell for the winter break, Legislative Hall took time on the last day of the January session to honor the Capitol Police, maintenance staff and highway crew that contended with the fire and the snowstorm.

It was probably a good idea to wait that long. Enough had already happened. No sense jinxing the place.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


WHAT HAPPENED IN 2015 DOES NOT STAY IN 2015.

1/1/2016

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

WHAT HAPPENED IN 2015 DOES NOT STAY IN 2015. Janus, the mythological god who had January named for him, is known as the god of doorways, but he could easily moonlight as the god of politics. 

By looking backwards and forwards between 2015 and 2016, Janus is the doorway connecting the first and second sessions of the two-year term of the Delaware General Assembly and also the off-year and election year of the campaign cycle. 

There is a lot to connect. 

Pete Schwartzkopf and the Deathly Penalty. The 2015 legislative session ended six months ago in exhausted cacophony. There were Democrats fighting with Democrats, and Democrats forging odd alliances with Republicans, and in the eye of it all was Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives. 

Schwartzkopf found himself trying to fly without a left wing. He was short of votes for the budget bill because of a rebellion from soak-the-rich and anti-charter-school Democrats. He was embroiled in a long-running feud with Democrats determined to repeal the death penalty, which Schwarzkopf, an ex-commander with the state police, wants to keep.

Schwartzkopf got the budget bill passed with an end-run, making a deal for Republican votes by coming up with money for state troopers and farmland preservation as sweetener, but the yelping from the outsmarted Democratic holdouts could reverberate into the 2016 session, once the legislators return to Dover on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

Legislation ending capital punishment has been around for two terms now, and in each one it has gotten through the Senate, only to languish in a House committee. The pro-repeal side wants a vote. It is led by Karen Peterson, a Democratic senator whose wife was fired from a part-time job as a House aide when Schwartzkopf became the speaker, so the conflict is not only policy-provoked but personal.

It is also contagious. It has spilled into Schwartzkopf’s home district in coastal Sussex County and manifested itself in mutterings about a primary. Never mind that Schwartzkopf is the sole Democratic legislator elected from the state’s more conservative reaches south of Dover.

Although Schwartzkopf is in his second term as the speaker, he has yet to consolidate his power. He could be looking at a rocky session and a trying election. What a deathly penalty to pay.

Candidate Roulette. By the end of 2015, there were 21 candidates angling for statewide office in the 2016 election.

Most of them in this deep-blue Democratic state are Democrats (one for governor, six for the congressional seat, six for lieutenant governor and three for insurance commissioner), a handful are Republicans (two for governor, two for the congressional seat, zero for lieutenant governor and one for insurance commissioner), and all but one are unproven statewide.

The proven is John Carney, the Democratic congressman running for governor.

The unproven realistically has to include Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democratic insurance commissioner who sidestepped into office twice by coming out on top of multi-candidate primaries, the first with 42 percent of the vote and the second with 33 percent, and relying on the upsweep of the Democratic vote in presidential election years to carry her the rest of the way.

Stewart is looking at another perilous primary in 2016 with major opposition coming from Trini Navarro, the New Castle County sheriff, who has navigated his way through a Democratic primary before. Navarro got where he is by taking out a sitting sheriff with 28 years of experience in 2010.

Otherwise, the statewide races are populated by legislators, local officeholders, rookies and retreads – which is to say, they are mostly messy to predict, except for noting the Democrats could eventually sweep all of them, but beyond Carney, which Democrats?

Janus will have a lot to look back at.         

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


MEET THE NEXT LEGISLATURE, SAME AS THIS LEGISLATURE?

12/1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

MEET THE NEXT LEGISLATURE, SAME AS THIS LEGISLATURE? By this time next year, there will be a new legislature in place, but it might be hard to tell.

A third of the legislators are new since the district lines were redrawn before the 2012 election, but turnover in 2016? Probably not so much. Maybe electoral exhaustion has set in.

The early indications are there actually could be less churn in legislative office between 2014 and 2016 election than in statewide office or judicial office. Never mind it is the legislative branch that is supposed to be the one most susceptible to the whims of the voters.

Delaware is guaranteed to have new officeholders in a third of its nine statewide offices, because there are open races for governor, lieutenant governor and the congressional seat next year.

Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, will be gone after hitting his two-term limit. Matt Denn, who was the Democratic lieutenant governor, has been out of there since he was elected attorney general in 2014, and there was no way in the constitution to replace him. John Carney, the Democratic congressman, is running for governor.

The judiciary has been about as settled as a pile of jumping beans ever since Myron Steele stepped down as the chief justice. Steele’s departure set off a cascade of gubernatorial appointments and senatorial confirmations. Since 2014, it amounts to a quarter of the state’s 58 judges.

Meanwhile, with so much focus on the presidential and statewide races in 2016, it looks like a lot of legislators are going to be able to get away with hunkering down and sitting tight.

Within the General Assembly, all 41 state representatives will be up for new two-year terms and 11 of the 21 state senators will be up for new four-year terms.

The only legislator leaving for sure at this point is Bryon Short, a Democratic state representative who is running in a primary for the congressional seat.

Every election, though, has a way of sorting the legislators into three categories. The ones who are coming back. The ones who know they are not coming back. The ones who do not know it.

There can be all sorts of reasons for the ones who do not know they are not coming back.

One danger sign is a close race in the election before. It could signal trouble for, say, Rich Collins and Kevin Hensley, rookie Republican state representatives who both won with 52 percent of the vote, and for Dave Lawson, a Republican state senator who squeaked into office twice, the first time with 52 percent in 2010 when the Tea Party swept him in and the second time with 51 percent in 2012 against Katie Cooke, a Democrat expected to run again.

Another danger sign is age. The two oldest legislators fell in 2014, when Bob Venables, a Democratic state senator, aged out at 81 and Don Blakey, a Republican state representative, did the same at 78.

The ballot on Election Day 2016 could have ten legislators at least 70 years old on it, including four state senators (Bruce Ennis, Dave McBride and Harris McDowell for the Democrats and Dave Lawson for the Republicans) and six state representatives (Stephanie Bolden, J.J. Johnson and John Kowalko for the Democrats and Harvey Kenton, Joe Miro and Kevin Peterman for the Republicans.)

Still another danger sign for a handful of legislators is the increasing prevalence of straight-ticket voting. The days are gone when the Delaware electorate used to happily hopscotch its way down the ballot, typically to the benefit of sitting legislators.

Instead, the voters’ leanings have become a likely predictor of their vote for president and for legislator. For example, in the last presidential election in 2012, the only state representatives to buck the pattern were Joe Miro and Mike Ramone, Republican state representatives whose districts voted for Obama, and John Atkins, a Democratic state representative whose district went for Romney, although it turned out to be a last hurrah for Atkins, who lost in 2014.

In this deeply blue Democratic state, the straight-ticket voting also has a halo effect for the Democrats and their designs for staying in the majority, where they have been in the state Senate since 1973 and the state House of Representatives since 2008.

The Democrats currently outnumber the Republicans in the state Senate by 12-9 and the state House by 25-16.

That said, there actually could be nervous times post-election about the state Senate, where the Democrats could defend every incumbent and still wind up down a seat, if the next lieutenant governor should turn out to be Bethany Hall-Long, a Democratic state senator running mid-term for the office with a decent shot at winning.

That would cut the Democratic majority to 11 state senators, a bare minimum, with a special election to determine who would replace Hall-Long.

What, a special election that could put the Republicans within one vote of the majority? Forget about whatever happens with the 2016 legislative races, this would be suspense. 

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


OUT BUT NOT DOWN

11/1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

OUT BUT NOT DOWN.  The historians obviously did not have Joe Biden in mind when they named his contemporaries the “Silent Generation.”

It was an age group that was not supposed to have the opportunity to make itself heard, caught as it was between the Greatest Generation, which saved the world, and the Baby Boom, which remade it. Never mind. No way was Joe Biden ever going quietly.

When Biden took himself out of the presidential race in late October, he even said it himself.

“While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent,” Biden said.

Most memorably, he called for “a moonshot in this country to cure cancer.”

The Silent Generation was born between 1925 and 1945, with Biden coming near the end in 1942. Putting the nomenclature aside, he was not alone among the “Silent Ones” here at home in roaring his way into Delaware political lore, not with the likes of Pete du Pont and Mike Castle also making their mark. 

Still, Biden stands apart – as a transcendent vice president who was also elected seven times to the U.S. Senate, more than any other Delawarean, although he did not serve out the last term, since he appeared simultaneously on the 2008 ballot for senator and the Democratic presidential ticket with Barack Obama.

It is, as Biden himself might say, a BFD, and it puts him right up there, riding off into Delaware history, with Caesar Rodney.

NOTE: Friends of The Byrd Group LLC might be interested to know of an ironic connection from long ago. Biden made his first foray into politics for a New Castle County Council seat in 1970, and he got going by elbowing aside another candidate to win the endorsement of the local Democratic committee for himself.

The candidate Biden outpolled? Helen Byrd, mother of Bob Byrd and grandmother of Rebecca.

THE YEAR OF THE WOMAN? As the 21st Century approached, women were holding their own in state politics. They occupied four out of nine statewide offices.

Ruth Ann Minner was the Democratic lieutenant governor. Jane Brady was the Republican attorney general. Janet Rzewnicki was the Republican treasurer. Donna Lee Williams was the Republican insurance commissioner.

While Minner went on to be elected governor in 2000 and 2004, other women trying to make it in statewide politics nevertheless faded back, until the only one in office today is Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democratic insurance commissioner.

That could change.

In the early stages for the 2016 open races for the congressional seat and lieutenant governor, the candidates who appear to be leading the way are women.

The congressional field was shaken up in late October by the entry of Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat who was not only a Cabinet officer for two governors but also comes from a family well-known in the state’s political circles.

Blunt Rochester was a labor secretary when Tom Carper was the Democratic governor and personnel director when Minner was. Ted Blunt, her father, used to be the Democratic president of the Wilmington Council, and Marla Blunt-Carter, her sister, was once an aide in Biden’s Senate office and the state director for Obama-Biden.

In a show of instant viability, Blunt Rochester was encouraged to run by EMILY’s List, the national organization that backs pro-choice Democratic women for office by carrying out the pledge implicit in its name – Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise.)

If elected, Blunt Rochester would be the first woman in Delaware’s three-member federal delegation, as well as the first African-American.

Other Democratic candidates for the congressional seat are Bryon Short, a state representative, and Bryan Townsend, a state senator. Sean Barney, the 2014 candidate for state treasurer, is also considering it.

The Republicans have Rose Izzo, their 2014 candidate, and Hans Reigle, a past mayor of Wyoming.

In a crowded field for lieutenant governor with six candidates, all Democrats, the ones getting the most attention are the three women who are running, namely, Sherry Dorsey Walker, who is a Wilmington councilwoman, Bethany Hall-Long, who is a state senator, and Kathy McGuiness, who is a Rehoboth Beach commissioner.

For a woman interested in public office, it makes sense not to let an election that could have Hillary Clinton in it go by. Those pantsuits might have coattails.

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


POP GO THE CANDIDATES

10/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

POP GO THE CANDIDATES. John Carney was the bottleneck. Until the official word came that he wanted to be the next Democratic governor of Delaware, the campaigning for the 2016 election here was mostly an exercise in hurry-up-and-wait.

Carney had his reasons to delay, even if it was all but inevitable he would run once Beau Biden was gone. He waited for a season of mourning to pass from Memorial Day until after Labor Day. He waited until he caught up with Joe Biden to ask for his political blessing, which he got. He waited until he was on the mend from hip surgery.

 “I’ve got a hip and a half at the moment,” Carney quipped.

For a front-runner for governor, a hip and a half is enough to stump on. Carney declared his intentions on Sept. 16, and in no time at all, there were candidates who were jostling to replace him as congressman and candidates who wanted to run with him for lieutenant governor chasing after him like groupies.

It took a while, but state politics has candidates popping out all over.

GOVERNOR. Carney could not beat Jack Markell in the Democratic primary for governor in 2008, but he could wait him out. With a comeback as congressman and a constitutional ban on a third term for Markell, the open race for governor is regarded as Carney’s to lose.

The state has not elected a Republican for governor since 1988, nor has it voted in someone who has not previously run and won statewide since 1968.

It makes for a daunting situation for Colin Bonini, a state senator who is the Republicans’ leading candidate for governor. Not to mention he has to get by a primary with a Tea Party candidate first

CONGRESSIONAL SEAT. When it comes to an opening, the state’s lone congressional seat is right up there with federal judges, popes and the divine right of kings. This will be only the fourth time in 40 years there is no sitting congressman running for re-election.

It is not surprising there is a scramble to fill the seat, but it is surprising the field is so thin on political credentials.

The Democrats have a state senator (Bryan Townsend) and a state representative (Bryon Short) running for sure, as well as a failed candidate for treasurer (Sean Barney) apparently giving it some thought. The Republicans have a former small-town mayor (Hans Reigle.)

If any race could be big-footed, this is it. But is anyone out there?

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR. In another indication of Carney’s strength, the Democrats have five candidates already running for lieutenant governor and a sixth expected, while the Republicans have none.

There is an obvious reason why so many people want to run with Carney. The voters have not elected a governor and a lieutenant governor from different parties since 1984.

The problem with the Democratic field as it is currently constituted is the candidates have the look of people who would be very attractive material for state legislator. All of them are or were county officials (Brad Eaby, Greg Fuller and Ciro Poppiti III) or city officials (Kathy McGuiness and Sherry Dorsey Walker.)

Bethany Hall-Long, a state senator, is playing coy, but it is supposed to be only a matter of time before she gets in. As a legislator since 2002 and a nursing professor at the University of Delaware, Hall-Long knows the ways of state government, but she has vulnerabilities.

It could be noted in a Democratic primary Hall-Long voted against abolishing the death penalty. It could also be noted she was barely re-elected in 2014, after her husband became the laughingstock of the campaign season when he was caught on videotape making off with Republican signs.  

The next lieutenant governor will be replacing nobody. Matt Denn abandoned the office to get himself elected as the Democratic attorney general, back when it appeared Beau Biden would be blocking his way to governor.

INSURANCE COMMISSIONER. Karen Weldin Stewart managed to keep herself in office in 2012 by coming out tops in a multi-candidate Democratic primary with 33 percent of the vote and then riding the Democrats’ considerable registration edge the rest of the way. It could happen again.  

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


SWAP STOP

9/1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

SWAP STOP. There will not be an encore of one of the most famous trades in Delaware politics, when the governor became the congressman and the congressman became the governor, even though the rare alignment that could allow it has reappeared.

Jack Markell, as the Democratic governor, is about to join the class of people constitutionally ineligible to run for governor, namely, two-term governors and convicted felons. John Carney, as the Democratic congressman, is expected to announce for governor any day now.

They could have done what Mike Castle and Tom Carper did.

It was 1992. Castle was the Republican governor, about to bang into the constitutional wall against a run for a third term. Carper was the Democratic congressman. With the voters as willing co-conspirators, they swapped places.

It was a switch at the time that worked out fine. Castle stayed a congressman for the next 18 years, until the Tea Party and Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell brought him down in 2010 in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. Carper did two terms as governor before he went to the U.S. Senate in 2000, and he is still there.

Carney looks willing to let history repeat, but not Markell. He has ruled out a race for congressman.

“Not happening,” Markell said.

Markell did not say what would be happening, instead. Angling to be a Cabinet secretary if a Democrat is elected president? Running for senator in 2018 if Carper hangs it up at 71 years old? Awaiting developments?

Whatever, Markell made his intentions clear for the 2016 election when he spoke to a crowd at the Sussex County Democratic Jamboree, held Aug. 29 at Cape Henlopen State Park.

“I will not be on the ballot. I appreciate there was no applause when I said that,” Markell quipped.

FUN RUN. Other states have resign-to-run laws, making officeholders quit if they decide mid-term to run for another office. Delaware does not, and it appears to be tempting three state senators to run statewide in 2016, while they are safely in the middle of four-year terms.

In other words, without resign-to-run, it is a fun run.

Colin Bonini, a Republican state senator, has already set up a campaign organization so he can run for governor, although the more it looks like John Carney will be the Democrats’ candidate, the less even Bonini likes his own chances.

After all, this is a Democratic state that has already elected Carney statewide five times, twice for lieutenant governor and three times for congressman.

“John’s close to being one of those guys you’re used to voting for,” Bonini said.

Never mind. It would not be the first time Bonini had a fun run, so he is used to it. He fell back on his state Senate seat after faltering in a race for state treasurer in 2010.

Beyond Bonini, there is another state senator whose political calculations about running mid-term for statewide office involve John Carney.

Bryan Townsend, a Democratic state senator, is well-known to be interested in the congressional seat, but he is stuck in political limbo as long as Carney bides his time. All Townsend can do is play coy, saying, “2016 is a critical year, both nationally and here in the state, and I look forward to being part of the process.”

Bethany Hall-Long, another Democratic state senator, is also being mentioned for a fun run, and it is not a stretch to say that John Carney is part of her thinking, too, because she is supposed to be interested in lieutenant governor. It goes without saying it could be nice to run with Carney at the top of the gubernatorial ticket.

If any of the state senators were to win statewide, they would be replaced by special election.

In contrast to the state senators, there is Bryon Short, a Democratic state representative who has made noises about the congressional seat, but it could cost him. Like all state representatives, his term is up every two years.

If Short loses, it would not be a fun run, but a done run. 

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 

 


HURRY UP AND WAIT

8/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

HURRY UP AND WAIT. Some candidacies explode on the political scene. Others are more existential, and Delaware is twisting slowly because of one of them right now. For governor, no less. 

“Explode” is what Matt Denn did. As the Democratic lieutenant governor, he expected to be running for governor in 2016, only to be big-footed when Beau Biden, a fellow Democrat, declared he wanted to run. That was the Thursday before Easter in 2014. 

By Monday morning, Denn was waiting at the election office door to file for attorney general, the post that Biden was vacating and Denn would indeed win. It was the soonest Denn could do it, because the election office closed on Good Friday for the Easter weekend. That is about as fast as a candidate can blast. 

“Existential” is what John Carney is doing. It has been practically an article of faith among Democrats that Carney, the three-term congressman, should be their candidate for governor if Biden could not be. 

It has been two months since the memorial ceremonies for Biden, and although decency demanded a respectable pause for mourning, that time has passed, still without a peep from Carney.

There has been nothing definitive from Tom Gordon, either, but the more he waits, the more it appears he plans to run for re-election as New Castle County’s Democratic executive and not for governor.

Politics is not known for patience. Carney has taken so long that Jack Markell, the two-term Democratic governor who cannot run again, got tired of waiting and offered various news outlets an existential endorsement of Carney’s existential candidacy.

Politics got a kick out of what Denn did. Not so much Carney. Sooner or later, it is all but certain Carney will declare for governor, but until then, it is classic existentialism with the essence of a candidacy but not the existence of one.

For now, this is a candidacy only a philosopher could love.

ELECTION EXTRA. Sometime next month, most likely on Saturday, September 12, amid the bustle of Labor Day, the start of school and football season, and the Jewish High Holy Days, the state will be squeezing in a special election.

Mike Barbieri, a Democratic state representative from a Newark-Christiana district since 2008, is giving up the seat to become a division director in the state Health & Human Services Department. He is a social worker by training, complete with a doctorate.

Whatever happens with the election, the Democrats will keep their majority in the state House of Representatives, where they outnumbered the Republicans by 25-16 before Barbieri exited, but what is at stake is the super-majority that lets the Democrats pass tax bills without Republican votes.

It might be insider politics, but it matters, and it had Charlie Copeland, the Republican state chair, dramatically declaring at a party meeting, “In the special election, the super-majority hangs in the balance.”

The parties have chosen their candidates. The Democrats are going with David Bentz, a legislative aide, and the Republicans with Eileen O’Shaughnessy-Coleman, a special-education advocate.

The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, but strange things have been known to happen in special elections if the voters are aggrieved because they think they have been left in the lurch – as they were here, with Barbieri leaving them for greener pastures. A lot greener.

Like $100,000-a-year greener. That is the difference between the annual paycheck of $44,000 Barbieri collected in the legislative branch and the new one of $144,000 he will be getting in the executive branch.

As the political saying goes, follow the money. Barbieri did.

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


THE BIG BANG

7/1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

THE BIG BANG. In seven years and counting as the Democratic governor, Jack Markell declared he had never seen such travails as the 2015 version of the Delaware General Assembly.

“This was definitely the craziest session,” Markell said.

The governor spoke at the back end of an all-nighter that began on June 30th and brought the legislative year to a close. Not a pretty one, but a close, and not one that anyone had been entirely sure would get there 

“Coming into today, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Markell said.

Ever since the legislature convened in January, there was disorder and chaos. The prime cause was a crippling revenue crunch, and legislators being legislators, they procrastinated and left the bills for the state’s operating and construction budgets underfinanced and formless until the very last day.

Then it all popped. Like the Big Bang that created the universe, the legislative cosmos came into order in a burst of deal-making, the heated session cooled down, and in a matter of four hours, the money bills – along with a critical measure to pay for roadwork by raising various motor vehicle-related fees – were passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor as the day dawned and birds chirped on the morning of July 1st.

“We were up against a pretty hard deadline,” Markell said.

“People from both parties stepping up in a very significant way. The give-and-take and the back-and-forth Saturday, Sunday, Monday, today, there was a lot.”

The Legislative Big Bang was set off when both parties came to the cold hard realization about what they had to do if they were to pass the bill to pay for the roadwork, and they had to do it, because that bill emerged as the key to everything else.

Everyone knew the roadwork was desperately needed, nor would the transportation secretary let anyone forget it, as she spent a great deal of the session carrying around a concrete chunk that had fallen off I-495 last summer.

The Democrats control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but the bill required a super-majority to pass because it raised fees, and it could not get through the Senate without at least one Republican vote, which the Republicans were not about to give away for nothing.

The Republicans wanted the Democrats to commit to restructuring the prevailing wage system, which sets the pay scale on public works projects and is forever dear to the hearts of the Democrats’ friends in the labor unions.

Both sides did what they hated to do. The Democrats gulped and voted for the prevailing wage bill, so much for the labor unions, and the Republicans grimaced and supplied a surplus of three Senate votes to raise fees, perish the thought.

The Republican votes came from Gary Simpson, the minority leader, Greg Lavelle, the minority whip, and Ernie Lopez. What a surprise, none of them are up for election until 2018.

Other obstacles melted away when the legislature raided a pot of money from legal settlements, rather than ax the budget line for state troopers assigned to Sussex County or cut grants-in-aid that go to fire companies, senior centers and other mom-and-apple-pie charitable causes.

It is not good policy to pay for recurring budget items with one-time money, but it is one of those things. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and legislators gotta grab.

Nevertheless, there were still some sourpusses. Twelve legislators voted against the budget – six House Democrats, three House Republicans and three Senate Republicans. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

They formed an odd assortment of some of the legislature’s most conservative and most liberal members, not quite as if Vladimir Putin and Pussy Riot became allies, but along those lines.

Never mind. There were plenty of votes to pass the budget bill. The governor added his signature, and it was evening and it was morning, a legislative day, and everyone went home.  

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


DELAWARE THEN, DELAWARE NOW, DELAWARE FOREVER

6/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

DELAWARE THEN, DELAWARE NOW, DELAWARE FOREVER. This state spent the last month deciding that all things considered, it would rather be what it is. 

For a couple of centuries now, Better Living Through DuPont might as well have been the state slogan, whether the company was manufacturing gunpowder in its early days to blow things up or Spandex in its glory days to hold things together. 

DuPont might not be what it used to be, but never mind. When Nelson Peltz, the corporate stalker from the Trian Management hedge fund, brought on a proxy fight, it quickly became clear the company was still regarded as a proxy for the whole state. 

Delaware rallied around. When the votes were counted and the challenge beaten back, the governor and the entire congressional delegation put out statements of congratulations, and Ellen Kullman, as the company CEO, bestrode the state like a colossus. 

It probably could not have been said better than it was in a song sung at the Gridiron, the annual political roast, to the tune of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita, with the proxy vote approaching and Kullman herself sitting at a table front and center. Part of it went:

 

Don’t cry for me Nelson Peltz

We’ve tightened all our belts

Please do not forget

Our Ellen’s got a set

She’s shown the moxie

She’s got my proxy 


As much as the state regards itself as the home of DuPont, it also thinks of itself as the home of something else. Tax-free shopping. 

A sales tax here would be like an Eleventh Plague. Locusts, boils, darkness and pennies on a box of birthday cake candles. 

The point was made anew by the Advisory Council on Revenues, created by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, by executive order in January, because the economy was looking up but state revenues were not.

The council reported back last month. It came up with ideas involving the personal income tax, property taxes, gross receipts tax and various other taxes, but it knew it could not even think about a sales tax. 

“It’s part of our legacy. It’s part of our heritage,” said Ken Simpler, the Republican state treasurer who sat on the council. 

That was that. 

Another enduring element in Delaware is the Bidens, 45 years and counting since Joe Biden was elected to the New Castle County Council with the expectation that Beau Biden would be there to carry on for years and years longer in a Democratic family dynasty. 

The next election in 2016 was supposed to be the handoff with Joe Biden exiting as vice president and Beau Biden running for governor. 

It was not to be. In a crushing turn of events, Beau Biden died May 30 from brain cancer at the age of 46 and sent Delaware into a shell-shocked state of deep mourning. 

Of all people, Beau Biden himself would have known what to make of this. He had a favorite expression, namely, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” 

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


DEATH AND TAXES

5/1/15

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

DEATH AND TAXES. The only certainty in Legislative Hall is the Delaware General Assembly is going to have to deal with death and taxes.

The debate about death – specifically a bill that would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison – has led to fissures among the Democrats, the majority party in both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives in Dover.

The prime sponsor of the repeal bill is Karen Peterson, a Democratic state senator. The prime opponent is Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker, who also happens to be a retired state police commander, and police are the driving force against the bill.

As of now, the legislature is following the same course it did in its last term. What happened then was the state Senate voted for repeal by a bare majority, only to see the bill land in the unfriendly state House Judiciary Committee and never come out.

As the speaker, Schwartzkopf appoints the committees, of course. It does not seem like a coincidence the Judiciary Committee is chaired by Larry Mitchell, a Democratic state representative who used to be a county cop. 

There is enough bad blood between the two sides for open talk about a direct challenge to the speaker by trying to circumvent legislative protocol, either by petitioning the bill out of committee or by voting to suspend the rules.

It probably does not help that the one of the first things Schwartzkopf did, when he became the speaker in 2012, was fire Vikki Bandy, who is married to Peterson, from her job as a part-time legislative aide. No good can come out of messing with spouses.

The debate about taxes has been brought on by a revenue shortfall that will not quit.

The legislature is awaiting a report from the Advisory Council on Revenues, created by executive order to take a look at what should be done in the long term. In the meantime, the legislative leadership from both parties is discussing what has to be done in the short term.

This is pragmatic politics. Then there is knee-jerk politics. It comes courtesy of the Republican state senators, who are calling for a council on state spending.

Funny, it sure seems like there has always been one of those. It is called the Joint Finance Committee. It drafts the state budget every year.

Interestingly, the one officeholder who is not overly concerned about the money is a Republican. It is Ken Simpler, the new state treasurer.

Before Simpler went into politics, he was an investment manager, accustomed to dealing with billions of dollars.

In a newsletter Simpler circulated in late April, he wrote about the decline in the state’s revenue projections, declaring, “Any government that can’t figure out how to address a 0.5 percent budget shortfall has bigger problems.”  

JACK MARKELL’S EVIL TWIN. Who knew that Gentleman Jack Markell, the genial governor, harbored an evil twin?

He goes by the name Bad-Ass Jack. He wears a bad-ass leather jacket. He smokes a bad-ass cigarette. He has a bad-ass attitude.

Bad-Ass Jack showed up for the first time about a year ago at the First State Gridiron Dinner & Show, an annual roast featuring Delaware’s political elite at the Riverfront in Wilmington, where tradition calls for the governor to get the last word.

 

Instead of Gentleman Jack, it was Bad-Ass Jack who stomped onto the stage. It went so well that Bad-Ass Jack was back again this year, the governor giving way to his inner South Park.

Bad-Ass Jack had something to say about nearly everything going on in Delaware politics.

The Democratic presidential race? Bad-Ass Jack said he is such a bad-ass, he got himself a tramp stamp about it.

“A tattoo right above your ass. Mine says, ‘Ridin’ with Biden.’”

The administration’s proposal to cut the senior property tax credit?

“They accuse Jack Markell of hating seniors. Does Jack Markell hate seniors? Of course not. Does Bad-Ass Jack? Damn right he does. . . . If DEFAC [revenue estimate] goes down any more, my next proposal is to put a sales tax on canes. And Metamucil. And the early bird special at Arner’s.”

Fellow Democrats in the legislature? Bad-Ass Jack took on Val Longhurst, the House’s Democratic majority leader, who has stiff-armed the governor on his proposals for a gas tax, a clean water fee, and health care costs for state workers.

“What’s her deal? She made cycling the state sport last year. Maybe we should have made the state sport something Val enjoys more. Hitting people in the kneecap with a pipe.”

 This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


GOVERNOR ROULETTE

4/1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

GOVERNOR ROULETTE. Delawareans generally have a good idea who their next governor is going to be. Not right now, though.

Not since the Democrats and Republicans went to primaries, instead of conventions, for nominating their candidates for governor more than 40 years ago has there been this kind of uncertainty.

Naturally there is a reason the 2016 election at this point looks like governor roulette.

Two words. Beau Biden.

It has been a year since Biden destabilized state politics by declaring he would not run for re-election as the Democratic attorney general in 2014 but for governor in 2016. Ever since then, there has been incessant speculation about whether he meant what he said or said what he did as a way to ease himself out of politics because of health concerns related to a “small lesion,” removed in 2013 at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.

Whatever, it has frozen gubernatorial politics. If Biden runs, he would be a campaign juggernaut as not only the son of the vice president, but a political figure in his own right as a two-time statewide winner for attorney general to whom contributions and sympathy would flow generously. He would be immensely favored. But if Biden does not run . . .

The race for governor would not be like anything the voters have gotten used to.

It would be nothing like the last time the governorship was open in 2008, when people knew, they just knew, it would be either Jack or John, one or the other, and it was. Once the Democratic primary played out, Jack Markell went on to become the governor, and John Carney resurrected his political career two years later by getting himself elected congressman.

Nor will it be like the time the governor’s office was open before that, when it looked like Ruth Ann Minner would propel herself from the Democratic lieutenant governor to governor in 2000. There was some question whether Delaware was ready for a woman to be the governor, but really, Minner had a structural advantage to neutralize it.

Minner was someone who had already run and won statewide, and nobody gets elected governor anymore who has not.

Before that, it was a cinch that Mike Castle as the Republican governor and Tom Carper as the Democratic congressman would switch jobs, and before that, Castle was positioned to go from lieutenant governor to governor and see? Delawareans have gotten used to having a good idea who their next governor is going to be.

With so much unsettled, there is something of a shadow campaign going on. Possible candidates are quietly putting themselves in or taking themselves out in the event Biden does not run.

RUNNING FOR NOW:

-- Beau Biden

--Colin Bonini, a Republican state senator who has a habit of trying for statewide office in the middle of his term so he does not have to forfeit his seat

--Lacey Lafferty, a Tea Party Republican, ex-trooper and model who cannot be dismissed, because her allies took over the Sussex County Republican Party

RUNNING MAYBE LATER:

--John Carney, the Democratic congressman

--Tom Gordon, the New Castle County Democratic executive

NOT RUNNING:

Matt Denn, the Democratic attorney general

Ken Simpler, the Republican state treasurer

Greg Lavelle, the state Senate’s Republican minority leader

For now, though, it is all about waiting for Beau.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


DON’T TAX YOU, DON’T TAX ME

3/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

“DON’T TAX YOU, DON’T TAX ME.” There was once a chair of the Senate Finance Committee named Russell Long, a Louisiana Democrat, who used to have a saying, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”

It might as well be the motto of the Delaware General Assembly.

For the second session in a row, the legislature is stiff-arming Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, when he proposes fixes for state spending.

Last year Markell asked for a 10-cent-a-gallon hike in the gas tax for roadwork projects. It went nowhere. Not even the need to shut down I-495 in early June before it fell down changed minds.

Markell argued, “There is nothing about infrastructure that is partisan.”

He was right. Everybody hated it.

Valerie Longhurst, the House’s Democratic majority leader, shot down the gas tax immediately after it was announced. Bethany Hall-Long, a Democratic senator, bannered her campaign Web site: “No gas tax. No way. Not on my watch.”

With Democratic friends like these, who needs Republican enemies?

This year Markell dared to take on a mushrooming tax break. The subject is politically-charged enough, but it was compounded because it was one for the retirement set. Next to veterans, retirees rank right up there on the sacred political scale, considerably ahead of women and children. Besides, retirees vote.

Markell suggested lowering a cap from $500 to $250 for an annual subsidy for people 65 or older for school property taxes. Its cost has nearly tripled since it was instituted – from $8.7 million in 2001 to a projected $24 million in 2015 and on up to $46 million in another 10 years in 2025.

Within days, all 25 of the Republican legislators signed a letter against it. They called it a “tax on some of our most vulnerable residents.”

Not all of Markell’s revenue ideas through the years have been dead on arrival. He did find the occasional fellow behind the tree, notably through a tax on higher-income Delawareans and fees for businesses.

Still, it is no way to run a state. A new bipartisan revenue committee was set up earlier this year to examine the revenue structure. Its report is due in the spring.

Nothing is certain, however, not in a country founded upon a resentment of taxes. The threat to the power structure has mutated, but it is still there.

Taxation without representation may no longer be tyranny, but taxation with representation can be political suicide.

FUTURE SHOCK. Physics has its uncertainty principle, knowing what it cannot know about the subatomic world. Delaware also has its own uncertainly principle.

The future is no sure thing. Not in state politics or state institutions. It is strange and unsettling, and where it stops, nobody knows.

After a generation of a largely predictable succession of governors, the election of a new one in 2016, as Markell bumps up against the two-term limit, is a mystery – until and unless Beau Biden shows he has recovered from the medical setbacks he experienced while he was the Democratic attorney general to wage a vigorous campaign.

In just about a year, the major courts that are the underpinnings of all those corporate dollars that flow here have been entrusted to new leadership – Leo Strine Jr. on the Supreme Court, Andy Bouchard on the Court of Chancery, and Jan Jurden on the Superior Court.

Changes in collegiate circles are also in fashion. Patrick Harker, the president at the University of Delaware since 2007, abruptly announced he is decamping to run the Federal Reserve in Philadelphia. The university’s search for his replacement should only go better than the recent one at Delaware Tech, which fumbled by initially passing over Mark Brainard, an in-house administrator regarded as a logical choice, only to turn to him in the end.

The DuPont Company, practically synonymous with Delaware, is being menaced in an existential showdown with Nelson Peltz, the assertive investor. This, after the company spun off some of its operations into Chemours and split itself with all the shock of an atom blowing apart.

There and elsewhere around Delaware, it is the uncertainly principle come to life.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


YOU DO NOT EMBARRASS THE ELECTORATE

2/1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

“YOU DO NOT EMBARRASS THE ELECTORATE.” Jim Soles, the late great political scientist from the University of Delaware, used to have a saying, “In Delaware politics, you do not embarrass the electorate. The people who do that have all been defeated.”

The city of Wilmington has become an embarrassment. Who might pay for it politically is still off in the distance, because the next city elections are not until 2016, but in the meantime, the violence in the city has become the only thing people are talking about.

Getting called “Murder Town USA” by Newsweek magazine can have that effect.

In reaction, there was a rush last month by government officials at all levels to zero in on the wanton violence that has made Wilmington one of the most dangerous small cities in the country.

It began with Matt Denn, literally as soon as he took his oath as the Democratic attorney general. He meaningfully had his swearing-in ceremony at a Police Athletic League in one of the gritty parts of the city and announced he was already working on a state grant to have state troopers and New Castle County police officers join the city patrols.

“It is time to get some things done,” Denn said. “We will be judged by our actions.”

Denn followed up two weeks later with another initiative, with the specifics to be worked out with the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, to provide $36 million in assistance to high-poverty and high-crime neighborhoods from money available in a settlement from the banks involved in the financial crisis of the Great Recession.

Next came the feds, designating Wilmington and the surrounding area as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and setting up a task force to provide policing.

The state and the county collaborated to create a commission on public safety strategies for the city, its seriousness made clear by the attention Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, gave to it in his State of the State speech.

“The city has a significant problem with violent crime, and what we are seeing today is unacceptable,” Markell said.

A resolution in favor of the commission zoomed through the legislature with the sponsorship of all 62 members. This was noteworthy.

In the political split dating back to Time Immemorial between country and city, there is almost nothing about Wilmington that can unite the legislature, but there it was, a unanimous stand because of the violence.

Nobody wanted anything to do with an embarrassment to the electorate.

THE POLITICS OF GEOGRAPHY. Look no further than the makeup of the new General Assembly to show how true it is that the farther south it goes in the state, the more conservative it gets.

Up north in Wilmington, the legislative delegation is a Republican wipeout:

7 Democrats, 0 Republicans

Also up north in suburban New Castle County, it is nearly so:

23 Democrats, 6 Republicans

In the middle in Kent County, the legislators are an even split:

6 Democrats, 6 Republicans

Down south in Sussex County, it is a Democratic wasteland:

1 Democrat, 13 Republicans

The moral of this political story – upstate rules, so the Democrats in Dover do, too.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


STUFF IS ROTTEN IN THE CITY OF WILMINGTON

1/2015

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

STUFF IS ROTTEN IN THE CITY OF WILMINGTON. These are the days Wilmington went from being known as the Corporate Capital to the Corpse Capital.

In a span of 13 days of bad luck, the city was gut-punched twice.

The first blow came from Newsweek magazine. It slapped Wilmington with the name “Murder Town USA,” because unrelenting violence has made it one of the most dangerous small cities in the country. Wilmington has about 71,000 people, or it does until the thugs reload.

The follow-up slam was delivered by the DuPont Co., the mainstay of the city since it set up its headquarters on Rodney Square in 1802. The company announced it was decamping to the suburbs and leaving behind a spinoff called Chemours, which may or may not stay. This is so inconceivable, it is like the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City, minus the terrorism.

Wilmington has not been laid so low since the city became a national laughingstock after the 1968 riots, when Governor Charles Terry left the National Guard on the streets so long, it turned into the longest military occupation in the country since the Civil War.

The rest of the state generally prefers to treat Wilmington like the little man who is not there, but really. The state might not want to live with Wilmington, but it cannot live without it.

The feds have already taken notice of the city’s plight, namely with special recuperative programs involving the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Prevention & Control, and state efforts are following. The city’s economy is a priority for Alan Levin, the director of the Delaware Development Office, as is its crime for Matt Denn, the new Democratic attorney general.

How ironic to think DuPont in its earliest days was a gunpowder company. Gunpowder made Wilmington, and now gunpowder is unmaking it.

ONWARD LIBERAL SOLDIERS. The Delaware Democrats lost a little in the 2014 election, when the Republicans won the race for state treasurer and flipped three legislative seats, but it does not look like enough of a setback to keep another round of social legislation out of the General Assembly.

After losing a seat in the state Senate, the Democrats still outnumber the Republicans by 12-9. The Democrats’ margin over the Republicans in the state House of Representatives, where the Democrats dropped two seats, is 25-16.

It may mean new revenues are out, unless the Democrats get creative, because the Republicans now have a super-minority in the Senate to stop any tax bills, which require a three-fifth vote.

In the last session, the Democrats passed gay marriage, transgender rights, gun legislation and a hike in the minimum wage to enact the most liberal agenda since the 1960s.

In the new session, they can be expected to introduce bills to abolish the death penalty and decriminalize marijuana, both of which did not make it through the last session.

Funny thing about the loss of those three Democratic seats in the death penalty debate. They were all held by Democrats who were against repeal. It cost the proponents nothing.

What the proponents need is a way around Pete Schwartzkopf, the speaker, and Valerie Longhurst, the House majority leader, who want to keep the death penalty. That certainly complicates it.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


GEOGRAPHY IS DESTINY

12/1/14

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

GEOGRAPHY IS DESTINY. Party registration is supposed to be the best way to predict how people will vote, but in Delaware? Better make it geography.

From north to south, the state is a rolling rainbow of voting patterns, from Democratic blue upstate in New Castle County to Republican red downstate in Sussex County and a purplish mix in the middle in lower New Castle County/Kent County.

It was reflected in the statewide elections. It was reflected in the legislative races, too.

The Democrats won three statewide offices in 2014 with Chris Coons for senator, John Carney for congressman and Matt Denn for insurance commissioner. All of them carried New Castle County, none of them carried Sussex County, and only Denn carried Kent County, although Carney came close, losing by 77 votes.

The Republicans took two statewide offices with Ken Simpler for treasurer and Tom Wagner for auditor. The voting patterns repeated in reverse, as both of them lost New Castle County but ran up their numbers to win in Kent County and Sussex County.

The two Republicans finished with almost identical totals – with Simpler tallying 123,105 votes statewide and Wagner 123,100 votes statewide. There have not been outcomes this close since the parties were buying votes in the days of paper ballots.

The General Assembly has distributed itself in the same colorful way.

The Democrats can attribute their majorities in the state Senate and state House of Representatives to their strong showing in 2014 in New Castle County, where almost 60 percent of the population is.

The new state Senate: 12 Democrats and 9 Republicans. The state House: 25 Democrats and 16 Republicans.

The political/geographical line of demarcation for the 62 legislators falls at about Dover, the state capital in the middle of the state.

There are only seven Republican legislators from districts north of Dover, two in the state Senate and five in the state House.

There is only a single Democratic legislator below Dover. It is Pete Schwartzkopf, a Sussex Countian who is the speaker.

Sussex may like its legislators Republican, but it knows enough not to toss out the speaker.

LOCKED-IN LEADERSHIP. The new legislature will have the old leadership.

All four caucuses met in November and voted to stick with what they had:

The state Senate – Patti Blevins as the Democratic president pro tem; Dave McBride as the Democratic majority leader; Margaret Rose Henry as the Democratic majority whip; Gary Simpson as the Republican minority leader; and Greg Lavelle as the Republican minority whip.

The state House – Pete Schwartzkopf as the Democratic speaker; Valerie Longhurst as the Democratic majority leader; John Viola as the Democratic majority whip; Dan Short as the Republican minority leader; and Debbie Hudson as the Republican minority whip.

The voters took it upon themselves to make one change, however. The state Senate lost its president with Matt Denn leaving midway through his term as the Democratic lieutenant governor to move to attorney general.

The state constitution decrees a missing lieutenant governor is not to be replaced. No Denn, no lieutenant governor, no state Senate president with the power to vote as a tiebreaker.

In the event of a tie, it will have to be broken the old-fashioned way. Cut a deal.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


THE RISE OF THE SUPER-MINORITY

11/5/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

THE RISE OF THE SUPER-MINORITY.  The Delaware Republicans won a big one on Election Day. No, not the state treasurer’s race that gave them their first new statewide officeholder in 20 years. Bigger.

The Republicans flipped a seat in the state Senate to their side of the aisle and shaved the Democratic majority by one – just enough to have the votes to stop any tax bills, which require a three-fifths super-majority to be approved.

It raises the Republicans from a minority that was all but irrelevant to a super-minority that can make itself matter as an anti-tax party capable of killing new taxes.

The Republicans did it by ousting Bob Venables, a Sussex County Democrat who had been a state senator since 1988, and installing Bryant Richardson, a local newspaper publisher.

The new Senate will have 12 Democrats and 9 Republicans. It takes 13 votes to get a tax bill through the chamber.

Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, was not on the ballot this Election Day, but the loss of that single state Senate seat was enough to make a loser out of him, anyway.

THE SIX-YEAR ITCH STRIKES AGAIN. By the sixth year of two-term presidents, the thrill is gone and the election is typically so troublesome for their party, it has come to be recognized as a political phenomenon called the Six-Year Itch.

The Democrats’ losses were so huge around the country that this one probably could be called the Six-Year Rash.

By comparison, the Democratic losses in Delaware were more modest.

It was evidence the Democrats are seriously entrenched here, but also evidence the Republicans are finally showing some signs of recovery from the disastrous Tea Party candidacy of Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell for the Senate in 2010.

The Democrats won the top-tier races with Chris Coons re-elected as senator, John Carney re-elected as the state’s lone congressman, and Matt Denn elected as attorney general, mid-way through his second term as lieutenant governor.

The Republicans got in on the spoils of the Six-Year Itch by re-electing Tom Wagner, the 25-year state auditor, and by taking an open race for state treasurer with Ken Simpler, a chief financial officer and investment manager who won with a common-sense campaign proposing “a finance guy for a finance job.”

It was the first time the Republicans elected someone new to statewide office since 1994. With Wagner and Simpler, the party now has two.

In the General Assembly, the Republicans picked up three seats – the crucial one on the state Senate and another two in the state House of Representatives to trim the Democratic majority there to 25-16.

Another casualty of the Six-Year Itch was voter participation. With turnout in Delaware at a ghastly 36 percent, it was the lowest recorded since the state set up its voter registration system in 1955.

In other words, people were so dissatisfied they voted with their rumps. They would not get off them to go to the polls.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 


THE PIT OR THE PENDULUM?

9/1/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

THE PIT OR THE PENDULUM? The 2014 campaign season is building toward an election that Edgar Allan Poe could love.

The 2010 and 2012 elections in Delaware bestowed eight out of the nine statewide offices on the Democrats, everything but the meager pickings of auditor, and left the Republicans in a state of Poe-like horror on the verge of irrelevancy.

The 2014 election could tell a tale of the Republicans’ future. It could be the pit, leaving them in a political abyss with no statewide officeholders at all, or it could be the pendulum, a turning point that has the voters starting to swing back to splitting their ticket the way they used to.

The Republicans could get an assist from the “Six-Year Itch,” an oft-repeated political phenomenon that has the party of the president losing seats midway through a second term.

Any gains the Republicans may make will be modest. They have all but written off the top of the ticket as out of reach. The Democrats have three proven candidates leading their slate, as well as a 125,000-voter registration edge over the Republicans.

Chris Coons, the Democratic senator, and John Carney, the Democratic congressman, sit high up on the “safe” lists of the political forecasts, as they run for re-election against little-known Republicans.

In the open race for attorney general, where the Democratic candidate is Matt Denn, the current lieutenant governor, the Republicans once upon a time had thoughts of contesting it by criticizing Denn for having no prosecutorial experience, but they ended up with a candidate of their own who did not have any, either, so that was that.

From there, the Democratic votes could trickle down, or else it could get downright tricky.

The Republicans are heavily invested in the treasurer’s race. Their candidate is Ken Simpler, who is running on his resume as a “numbers guy” with experience as a financial officer and investment manager. He has already brought joy to the party establishment by turning back Sher Valenzuela, a Tea Party Republican, in the primary.

The opportunity is there for the taking. It is an open race because Chip Flowers, the Democratic treasurer, went rogue in office and figured it would be better not only to get out of politics, but out of the state.

The Democratic candidate is Sean Barney, a “policy guy” who is a past aide to both Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and Tom Carper, the Democratic senator, although he may be better known for enlisting in the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and taking a bullet in the neck in Iraq.

It will be up to the voters to decide if Flowers left the office too toxic to give to another Democrat running against a viable Republican candidate.

As for the race for state auditor, Tom Wagner has hung onto it for the Republicans through good times and bad for 25 years, always without raising much money and sometimes just by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin.

The Democrats figured they had a serious challenger in Brenda Mayrack, a lawyer who was once their party’s executive director, but Wagner has not given the voters a reason to throw him out.

Simpler and Wagner could give the Republicans a lift. Alternatively, the party could be shut out of statewide office, and it would be Edgar Allan Poe all over again with the raven croaking to the Republicans “nevermore.”

TAXATION WITHOUT REPUBLICAN REPRESENTATION. The Democratic majorities in the General Assembly – 13-8 in the Senate and 27-14 in the House of Representatives – look so secure that the Republicans appear to have but a modest goal in mind.

If they could pick up one Senate seat and three House seats, they would have the votes in both chambers to stop any tax bills, which require a three-fifths majority to pass.

It would be a stretch for the Republicans to get there.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


BALLOT BINGO

8/1/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

BALLOT BINGO. There was once a Delaware secretary of state named Glenn Kenton, who used to say an election was 90 percent over when the names went on the ballot.

Little did he know.

Deciding who would appear on the ballot turned out to be all-consuming in the Democratic primary for state treasurer. As a matter of fact, it was settled that way.

Who knew the state was going to have a wild game of ballot bingo, as candidates’ names tumbled in and out, like so many game pieces?

It began at the filing deadline early last month with candidates galore ready to run for state treasurer. This was only to be expected, considering that Chip Flowers, the Democratic treasurer, had made a hash of his term.

His office was beset with travel, credit card and personnel issues. He lost an unseemly power struggle for control of the state’s $2 billion investment portfolio. He feuded with the governor, the legislature, Cabinet secretaries and his own party.

Flowers drew a strong primary challenge from Sean Barney, a past aide to both Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and Tom Carper, the Democratic senator, and also a war hero in his own right as a Marine who enlisted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and took a bullet in the neck in Iraq.

The Republicans assumed they were going with Ken Simpler, an investment manager and chief financial officer, only to have an 11th-hour surprise filing from Sher Valenzuela, a Tea Party candidate who ran for lieutenant governor in 2012.

Not that the ballot was set even yet.

It finally came out that Flowers, as long suspected, did go to a New England Patriots football game in 2011 with Erika Benner, then the deputy treasurer, who charged the tickets to her state credit card, an expense she eventually repaid.

There is not much left to a candidacy if the “candid” part takes a hit. With a little more than three weeks to go until Primary Day on Sept. 9, Flowers announced he would be getting out of state politics and moving to Massachusetts.

All that was left was for Flowers to officially withdraw. He delayed . . . and delayed . . . and delayed . . . until it was looking like Flowers was going to pull out of the primary the way Putin was pulling out of Ukraine.

When Flowers finally did turn in his withdrawal form, he post-dated it for a week until Aug. 28 at 4 p.m. Then the day before it was to take effect, he posted on Twitter that he would have a statement to make the next afternoon. 

Inquiring minds fretted to know, would Flowers try to withdraw his withdrawal? 

He did not. Instead, Flowers issued a self-laudatory statement in the fine old political tradition of declaring victory and getting out. 

THE OLD SWITCHEROO. There was also another now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t candidacy, this one for a legislative race.

Becky Walker, a two-term Democratic representative, waited until two days after the filing deadline to quit the field. She blamed complications with her job, but the timing was suspicious.

If Walker had departed before the deadline, it would have given other Democrats a chance to file and compete for the nomination in a primary. This way it was up to the party to name her replacement, and surprise, surprise, Walker wanted the nod to go to Jason Hortiz, a Bank of America marketing representative, and he got it.

This could have been a little too cute. The Republicans have a respectable candidate in Kevin Hensley, who has a real estate business, and although the Democrats have a 10-point registration edge over the Republicans, 42 percent to 32 percent, there was a Republican representative as recently as 2010 in this district, situated in New Castle County below the canal.

It is not nice to fool with the voters. They are famous for rejecting candidates who have been forced on them. At the very least, a district that should have been solid for the Democrats has been put in play.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


MISCHIEF DAY

7/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

BALLOT BINGO. There was once a Delaware secretary of state named Glenn Kenton, who used to say an election was 90 percent over when the names went on the ballot.

Little did he know.

Deciding who would appear on the ballot turned out to be all-consuming in the Democratic primary for state treasurer. As a matter of fact, it was settled that way.

Who knew the state was going to have a wild game of ballot bingo, as candidates’ names tumbled in and out, like so many game pieces?

It began at the filing deadline early last month with candidates galore ready to run for state treasurer. This was only to be expected, considering that Chip Flowers, the Democratic treasurer, had made a hash of his term.

His office was beset with travel, credit card and personnel issues. He lost an unseemly power struggle for control of the state’s $2 billion investment portfolio. He feuded with the governor, the legislature, Cabinet secretaries and his own party.

Flowers drew a strong primary challenge from Sean Barney, a past aide to both Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and Tom Carper, the Democratic senator, and also a war hero in his own right as a Marine who enlisted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and took a bullet in the neck in Iraq.

The Republicans assumed they were going with Ken Simpler, an investment manager and chief financial officer, only to have an 11th-hour surprise filing from Sher Valenzuela, a Tea Party candidate who ran for lieutenant governor in 2012.

Not that the ballot was set even yet.

It finally came out that Flowers, as long suspected, did go to a New England Patriots football game in 2011 with Erika Benner, then the deputy treasurer, who charged the tickets to her state credit card, an expense she eventually repaid.

There is not much left to a candidacy if the “candid” part takes a hit. With a little more than three weeks to go until Primary Day on Sept. 9, Flowers announced he would be getting out of state politics and moving to Massachusetts.

All that was left was for Flowers to officially withdraw. He delayed . . . and delayed . . . and delayed . . . until it was looking like Flowers was going to pull out of the primary the way Putin was pulling out of Ukraine.

When Flowers finally did turn in his withdrawal form, he post-dated it for a week until Aug. 28 at 4 p.m. Then the day before it was to take effect, he posted on Twitter that he would have a statement to make the next afternoon.

Inquiring minds fretted to know, would Flowers try to withdraw his withdrawal?

He did not. Instead, Flowers issued a self-laudatory statement in the fine old political tradition of declaring victory and getting out.

THE OLD SWITCHEROO. There was also another now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t candidacy, this one for a legislative race.

Becky Walker, a two-term Democratic representative, waited until two days after the filing deadline to quit the field. She blamed complications with her job, but the timing was suspicious.

If Walker had departed before the deadline, it would have given other Democrats a chance to file and compete for the nomination in a primary. This way it was up to the party to name her replacement, and surprise, surprise, Walker wanted the nod to go to Jason Hortiz, a Bank of America marketing representative, and he got it.

This could have been a little too cute. The Republicans have a respectable candidate in Kevin Hensley, who has a real estate business, and although the Democrats have a 10-point registration edge over the Republicans, 42 percent to 32 percent, there was a Republican representative as recently as 2010 in this district, situated in New Castle County below the canal.

It is not nice to fool with the voters. They are famous for rejecting candidates who have been forced on them. At the very least, a district that should have been solid for the Democrats has been put in play.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


THAT’S A WRAP

6/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Legislative Hall cleared out sometime after four in the morning on July 1 to bring the two-year term of the Delaware General Assembly to a close.

It was a split personality of a session.

The first year followed a big Democratic election in 2012, and the atmosphere in Dover in 2013 was retro Sixties with a liberal legislative agenda that looked like something out of the Age of Aquarius.

Bills on gay marriage, transgender rights, background checks on private gun sales and the extension of a tax on the highest income bracket (anything above $60,000 a year) all made it into law.

The second year in 2014 was not the Age of Aquarius, but the Age of Austerity. Money was a problem, both in the appropriating of it and the asking for it. The money committees, crafting the operating and construction budgets, were forced to wrestle with too many demands and too few dollars.

Legislators with election-year jitters shied violently away from proposals made by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, for a 10-cent-a-gallon tax hike at the gas pump and a new fee to clean up the waterways. They did agree on higher weekend highway tolls and business taxes, both presumed to pinch out-of-staters more than Delawareans.

Amid all the cutbacks, legislation providing $10 million in relief for the casinos, beset by increased competition, still squeezed through, no small accomplishment with the speaker and the majority leader in the House of Representatives set against it.

The bloom was definitely off the liberal legislative agenda, though. A minimum-wage hike was enacted, but bills about decriminalizing marijuana, allowing election-day registration and abolishing the death penalty did not.

Politics is every bit as much the national pastime as baseball is, and the backers of the failed legislation ended the session with the same eternal cry. Wait ‘til next year!

BLUE, BLUE, THE STATE IS BLUE. Simple arithmetic dominates statewide elections, and it is this – there are almost 125,000 more Democratic voters than Republican voters.

With the governor a Democrat, the congressional delegation all-Democratic, eight of the nine statewide officials Democrats, and the legislature under a Democratic majority, Delaware has become arguably the most Democratic blue state in the country.

This is without even mentioning it has Democratic bragging rights as the home of the vice president.

 

With the filing deadline approaching on July 8, the Republicans are barely putting up a fight. Here is all there is at the top of the ballot:

-- Chris Coons, the Democratic senator, has attracted only a Republican vanity candidate by the name of Carl Smink, who is not only obscure but apparently determined to remain so, considering that his filing does not give a telephone number or e-mail address, and his Web site says only it is “currently under construction.”

-- John Carney, the Democratic congressman, has drawn Rose Izzo, a perennial Republican congressional candidate who has never emerged from a primary but could this time, by default.    

-- Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor running mid-term for attorney general, is being challenged by a walk-on Republican candidate named Ted Kittila, a lawyer.

The other statewide races are decidedly more robust with Chip Flowers, the Democratic treasurer, and Tom Wagner, the Republican auditor, both fighting for their political lives.

Flowers has spent his first term feuding with other Democrats and suffering from slapdash personnel and travel issues in the office. He is dealing with a two-front assault with Democratic primary opposition from Sean Barney, a past gubernatorial and senatorial aide who took a bullet in the neck as a Marine in the Iraq war, and Republican opposition from Ken Simpler, a chief financial officer and investment manager.

Wagner, the last Republican in statewide office, is battling both the registration odds and a motivated Democratic opponent who just has to dispose of a nuisance primary first. Brenda Mayrack, a lawyer with a practice in audit defense, is making the most of her political background as a past executive director for the state Democrats, as she is campaigning aggressively and fund raising furiously.

 The election season looks like it will leave Delaware with a political oddity, that is to say, one statewide officeholder short.

There is no way under the state constitution to fill a vacancy for lieutenant governor. With Denn running for attorney general, the legislature made a half-hearted try to craft a constitutional amendment but could not agree on a replacement method, gubernatorial appointment or special election, and gave up.

No Denn, no lieutenant governor.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


DEAD POLITICS SOCIETY

5/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

It says something about the woebegone state of Delaware politics that the judiciary is more interesting than the election season is.

Without judicial openings, Republicans would hardly be filing for anything. The Republicans can have confidence going for judgeships, because the state constitution requires the court system to be politically balanced.

This means the Republicans have to get half the judicial openings, even if the governor who does the nominating is a Democrat and the Senate that does the confirming has a Democratic majority.

Look at Ferris Wharton. He made a name for himself as a deputy attorney general prosecuting Tom Capano, the wealthy and well-connected lawyer who killed Anne Marie Fahey, the scheduler for Tom Carper when the Democratic senator was the governor.

Wharton was the Republican candidate for attorney general in 2006 and lost to Beau Biden, who was running for office for the first time. No shame in that. It was a Democratic year, Biden shared the most famous Democratic name in state politics, even if his father was still a senator two years away from vice president, and Wharton polled a respectable 47 percent of the vote.

Wharton would have made an attractive candidate for attorney general this year. Biden had unexpectedly pulled out, declaring he would take a pass on this election in favor of running for governor in 2016, so it was an open race.

Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor who was angling for governor in 2016, wanted no parts of a primary against Biden. Instead, Denn opted to run for attorney general. Denn is a fine candidate who has won statewide three times, once for insurance commissioner and twice for lieutenant governor, but he is not Beau Biden.

Wharton was not even tempted. There was a Republican judgeship open. He applied for it and got the nomination. It seems he liked his odds better against 12 other Republican candidates for judge than against one Democratic candidate for attorney general.

This is what happens in a state with 124,000 more Democratic than Republican voters.

Wharton is hardly the only Republican to leave his party high and dry. Not only have the Republicans failed to recruit a candidate against Denn, they have not put up anybody against Chris Coons, the Democratic senator, or John Carney, the Democratic congressman. The filing deadline is a little more than a month away.

It means the state looks like it is getting more turnover at the top of judiciary than at the top of the ticket, and frankly, there was more intrigue there, too, when Leo Strine Jr. emerged from a field of four finalists in January to become the chief justice and Andy Bouchard eclipsed one other applicant in April to become the chancellor, leading the Court of Chancery with its storied docket of corporate law.

Just the Republicans’ luck. The requirement for judicial political balance gave the advantage to the Democrats for chief justice and chancellor.

The Republicans are insisting they do not mind punting on this election season with the goal of husbanding their resources toward a future comeback.

Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, was having none of it. He had a devastating reply, even if it meant poking fun at the standout disappointment of his own administration, the collapse of the plans for Fisker to revitalize the idle General Motors plant near Newport.

 

In witty remarks at the Gridiron, the annual political roast in May, the governor cracked, “The Republicans don’t have candidates for the big seats. Their state party director said they have a ‘long-term view’ of rebuilding the party. Yeh, like I have a ‘long-term view’ of building electric cars at Boxwood Road.”

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.

 

 


POLITICS IN MOTION

April 2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Beau Biden blew up Delaware politics in April, or maybe not.

Biden dropped a bombshell with a press release, entirely unexpected, to say he would not run for a third term as the Democratic attorney general in 2014 but for governor in 2016, when Jack Markell reaches his two-term constitutional limit as the Democratic governor.

Both parties were shell-shocked, but the first impression was the Republicans might have the advantage. They quickly focused on recruiting Colm Connolly, the former prosecutor of Tom Capano fame, while the Democrats saw the most famous name in state politics disappearing from their ticket.

Still, this is Delaware, one of the deepest blue states in the nation. It did not take long for the momentum to swing back to the Democrats. 

Within days Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, filed for attorney general, and within weeks Connolly turned down the Republicans.

For now at least, Denn joins an all-unopposed top of the Democratic ticket, along with Chris Coons, the first-term senator, and John Carney, the second-term congressman.

GOT THE REGISTRATION BLUES. The Republicans have crossed into a new frontier, one they would rather not explore.

In New Castle County, where more than 60 percent of the voters live, the number of Republican voters now trails the number of “other” voters, the ones not affiliated with either major party.

The Republicans quietly slipped into third place in the March registration figures. As of April 1, the county had 331 more others than Republicans – 93,221 other voters to 92,890 Republican voters. Percentage-wise, New Castle County is 52 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican and 24 percent other.

The breakdown statewide shows almost half of the 636,135 voters are Democrats – 48 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican and 24 percent other.

Altogether there are nearly 124,000 more Democratic than Republican voters statewide. That is a daunting number for a Republican Party trying to make a comeback.

AN OPEN QUESTION. A quirk in the state constitution could leave Delaware without a lieutenant governor, if Matt Denn is elected attorney general.

Denn is in the middle of a four-year term, after he was re-elected in 2012, and there is no provision in the constitution for filling a vacancy in the office.

Without Denn, it would reshuffle the gubernatorial line of succession, which normally moves from the governor to lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, Senate president pro tem and House speaker.

It would also leave the Board of Pardons a member short of its customary contingent of the lieutenant governor, chancellor, secretary of state, treasurer and auditor, and the state Senate would be without the lieutenant governor as its presiding officer, although it does have the president pro tem to take over.

The General Assembly could come up with a constitutional amendment providing for a replacement, but no consensus has emerged on how to do it. Gubernatorial appointment? Special election? Just leave it the way it is?

Interestingly, it was no oversight in the constitution for the office to be left unfilled. The delegates who drafted the Constitution of 1897 meant for it to be that way.

As one of them said, “I do not see that there is a particle of necessity for the election of a lieutenant governor in case of the office becoming vacant.”

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


TO RUN OR NOT TO RUN?

3/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The question of whether to try for statewide office can turn on any number of reasons. Formidable opposition. Futility in fund raising. Family considerations. Fear of failure.

Colin Bonini may be the first to be knocked out by legislation.

Bonini, a Republican state senator since 1994, really wants to run for state treasurer this year. He did it in 2010 and can make a credible case he fell short with 49 percent of the vote because Christine O’Donnell was casting evil spells on the rest of the Republican statewide candidates from the top of the ticket.

Bonini was in the middle of his term back then, so he was able to run without forfeiting his legislative office, but both his Senate seat and treasurer are up in 2014.

He gave considerable thought to finessing the situation by running for both offices at the same time. As if Delaware could not get along without him.

It looked like Bonini could do it, though, because there was nothing in the law to prevent it. The law prohibits holding two offices, but not running for two offices. As a matter of fact, a couple of Libertarian candidates filed double candidacies in 2012, not that anybody much noticed. They were Libertarians, after all.

Enter the General Assembly and a bill that would restrict a candidate to running with only one party for only one state or local office. The House of Representatives stuck it to Bonini by passing the bill 41-0. The Senate passed it, too, but largely on a party line vote with Bonini’s Republican caucus mates sticking with him. Now only the governor’s signature is needed to make it law.

Not that the treasurer’s race is not already bubbling with candidates. Chip Flowers, the first-term Democrat, instantly seemed to forget that his election with 51 percent would make him a target the next time around, anyway. Instead, he compounded his vulnerability by displaying a sloppy management style and feuding furiously with his fellow Democrats.

Flowers has declared for re-election, but even without Bonini, he has a Democratic primary opponent in Sean Barney, previously a gubernatorial aide to Jack Markell and a senatorial aide to Tom Carper, and a Republican opponent in Ken Simpler Jr., a money manager and chief financial officer.

Bonini has given himself until April 30 to decide what to do. In the meantime, he is taking personally the legislation that proclaimed the principle of one-candidate-one-party-one-office.

“I am very flattered,” Bonini said, although he did not sound it. He sounded put out.

ONE AT A TIME. The legislature has its limits on how much it wants to curtail candidacies. Delaware does not have a resign-to-run law, which forces candidates to give up their current office if they want to run mid-term for a different one.

It is the way Bonini could run risk-free for treasurer the last time. It is also the way Jack Markell got himself elected the Democratic governor halfway through a term as treasurer in 2008.

It is also complicating matters for a couple of sitting senators.

Bob Marshall, a Democratic senator, has a primary challenge from Sherry Dorsey Walker, midway through her first term as a Wilmington councilwoman, and Bryan Townsend, another Democratic senator, is expecting one from Dave Tackett, a 10-year New Castle County councilman in the middle of a term.

That is the way it is. Double candidacies, no. Serial candidacies, yes.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


BEAU BIDEN 2.0

2/2014

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Everything in Delaware seemed frozen in February. Except politics. It thawed.

The reason was a statement from one of the doctors who saw Beau Biden at MD Anderson, the renowned cancer center in Houston. The doctor gave Biden a “clean bill of health.”

Politics was paralyzed after Biden had his health scare in January, and not just for the 2014 election, when he was supposed to be running for a third term as the Democratic attorney general. It extended all the way to 2016.

The Republicans could not put together a statewide slate for 2014 without knowing if Biden would be on the ballot. Without Biden, the Republicans expected they would have Colm Connolly, the former hard-charging prosecutor, as their candidate for attorney general, someone they could construct a ticket around. As it was, they did not have anyone for senator, representative or attorney general. But they did not know.

The Democrats were expecting Biden to run for governor in 2016. Without him, they could turn to someone like John Carney, the congressman, or Matt Denn, the lieutenant governor. But they did not know.

Now it looks like Biden is set to run for re-election and prime himself for the open race for governor, when Jack Markell reaches the constitutional limit as a two-term Democrat.

Not that Biden’s re-emergence has made much difference for the Republicans. They did not have a statewide slate before, and they are so depleted, they do not have one now. But they could.

A NOTE FROM THE DOCTOR. The statement from MD Anderson about Biden was issued on Feb. 24. It was from W.K. Alfred Yung, the chair of the Department of Neuro-Oncology. Here it is in its entirety:

“On August 20th, 2013, an MD Anderson team saw Beau Biden to remove a small lesion. The procedure went flawlessly and the entire lesion was removed. He was discharged 36 hours later, with no restrictions on his activities.

“On September 4th, 2013, Mr. Biden resumed his normal schedule.

“On November 11th, 2013, I conducted a follow-up exam and was very pleased to give Mr. Biden a clean bill of health.”

There was no explanation from Biden’s campaign why it took three months to get the statement out and leave state politics hanging in the meantime.

A MILLION DOLLAR MESSAGE. Nothing says “candidate for governor” like raising a million dollars, and it is what Biden did in 2013.

He collected $1.3 million for his re-election campaign and another $162,175 for his PAC.

Money poured in from all over. It came from former Senate colleagues of his father’s, like Chris Dodd, a Democratic ex-senator from Connecticut, and Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican ex-senator from New York. It came from Ellen Kullman, the CEO of DuPont, and from du Ponts themselves, better known for giving to Republicans.

There was even a $1,200 contribution from Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s daughter. From the child of one vice president to another.

This column is posted with the permission of Delaware Grapevine. It may not be copied or transmitted without the approval of The Byrd Group LLC and Delaware Grapevine.


APRIL FOOLS

4/1/2013

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Today is April Fools' Day, the only holiday named for politicians.

Here are some ways to help them live up to the billing. As if politicians needed help to be fools.

1. Tell Tom Carper, the Democratic senator who calls himself a recovering governor, the two-term limit has been lifted. Watch him pitch a tent outside the state election department to be first in line to file for governor in 2016.

2. Tell Joe Biden that Hillary Clinton has decided to spend the rest of her life in a nunnery.

3. Tell Chip Flowers, the Democratic state treasurer, that people really do care what he says, and his Report on the Delaware State Treasury has gone viral.

4. Tell Tom Gordon, New Castle County's Democratic executive, that PSY is making a new music video called "Gordon Style." Sherry Freebery will star.

5. Tell Jeff Christopher, the Republican sheriff in Sussex County, his office is being added to the First State National Monument as a relic of the 18th Century, where he can have powers of arrest.

6. Tell the state Republicans that Elena Delle Donne wants to be their next candidate for governor.


DUPONT COMPANY ENDORSES SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

3/29/2013

By: Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When Joe Biden came out for same-sex marriage, even the president listened. Some voices from Delaware are just louder than others.

Another one of those voices belongs to DuPont. The company announced Monday in a press release it supports legislation, expected to be introduced in the coming weeks, to legalize same-sex marriage here.

The pronouncement came and went with surprisingly little fanfare. It was extra surprising since the entire country spent the early part of the week focusing on marriage because of the two cases before the Supreme Court, and it would seem  natural to make it part of the discussion.

Also because this is the staid old DuPont Co., after all, the essence of the Delaware establishment.

Either DuPont is not what it used to be, or same-sex marriage is going from heated to ho-hum.

Still, it is hard to think of splashier names in Delaware than Joe Biden or DuPont. Except maybe Elena Delle Donne?

"The DuPont Co. carries a big name in the state. It may not be as powerful as it once was, but it sends a big message out to the rest of the business community," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker in the state House of Representatives.

"It's a good win for DuPont. It's a good win for the marriage equality people."

DuPont is the latest in a series of endorsements being rolled out by Equality Delaware, the key organization in the state behind the same-sex marriage movement, as it looks to build momentum for legislative approval two years after its successful drive to legalize civil unions.

Other backers include Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and Chris Coons, the Democratic senator, as well as Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general and vice presidential son, and the Delaware NAACP.

Oh, and also the Delaware AFL-CIO, the state building trades council and the local branches of the public employees union and the commercial office cleaners union. DuPont and labor on the same side. How often does that happen?

Although DuPont was not one of the 200-plus companies that signed friend-of-the-court briefs for the Supreme Court cases, dealing with a California ban on same-sex marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, it has adopted an official position in favor of same-sex marriage.

DuPont believes it makes for a better workplace, as it explained Monday in its press release.

"We firmly believe our commitment to diversity and respect attracts talented individuals with like values, and that creates a more innovative culture, enabling us to produce more and better solutions for the challenges facing our world," Benito Cachinero-Sanchez, a senior vice president for DuPont Human Resources, said in the press release.

In other words, DuPont believes the company itself will prosper if its workers are secure in their lives. Better chemistry through living.