Posted: Oct. 11, 2004
THE SECRET WEAPON OF ERNIE LOPEZ
By Celia Cohen
Ernesto B. Lopez, the Republican candidate for New Castle County Council president, is running for the first time, but he has connections that most seasoned politicians only can dream of.
The reason is Bill Roth. Also Lopez's wife Janis.
This is a story that shows why Delawareans do not get what the big deal is about six degrees of separation. There are no degrees of separation in this state -- not even between a 27-year-old, Puerto Rican-born candidate so extroverted he seems to want to shake hands with every voter in the county and a Chateau Country senator who was three times his age and so introverted he had to bring his Saint Bernard campaigning to take the curse off his shyness.
Ernie Lopez is running for an office that a Republican ought not to win. His party has not elected a council president since 1988, when Ronald Reagan still was living in the White House, and the voter registration tilts Democratic.
Still, the county is in upheaval because of a corruption scandal that the Republicans are trying to hang around the Democrats' necks, and it is in times like this that someone like Lopez sometimes can slip through -- particularly if he has a secret weapon.
What Lopez has is an expansive, everybody-loves-Ernie style that carried him inside the circle of the undiminished loyalists to five-term Republican Sen. William Victor Roth Jr., despite his defeat in 2000 and his death last December.
It is evident in the contrasting finance reports filed by Lopez and by Paul G. Clark, his Democratic opponent, in the election to succeed Christopher A. Coons, the one-term Democratic council president who is running for county executive.
Lopez has out-raised Clark, roughly $67,000 to $55,000, and Clark has fought to keep up by loaning his campaign about $20,000 out of personal funds. Meanwhile, Lopez's account was stocked with contributions from Roth's regulars -- including some ex-staffers who made good, like Pierre du Pont Hayward, now the secretary of the University of Delaware, and Alan B. Levin, now the Happy Harry's Discount Drugs czar.
It was a master's thesis that started Lopez on this path. Lopez, an admissions officer at the University of Delaware, was writing one about J. Caleb Boggs, the late Republican congressman, governor and senator. Carol E. Hoffecker, the historian who was Lopez's professor, suggested he talk to Roth, who served with Boggs in Washington.
Roth was out of the Senate at this point. Lopez's wife Janis, whose grandfather was the late state Sen. Charles E. "Pete" Hughes, had been an intern in Roth's office and belonged to a book club where the members all had ties to Roth. Janis Lopez spoke to Donna Ianire, the senator's personal secretary who really had not given up the responsibility, and a lunch was arranged.
"It was supposed to be for an hour, and the lunch was five hours long," Ianire said.
The afternoon began with lunch at Buckley's Tavern in Centreville -- "I remember he had a bowl of mushroom soup, and that was it," Lopez said -- and then turned into a ride with Lopez driving and Roth pointing out sights from his life and his political career.
Other lunches and rides followed. Roth invited Lopez to his house and taught him to play the card game of Cribbage. Roth did imitations of his wife, U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Richards Roth, needling him about his card playing, and snacked on black licorice.
"I always let him win," Lopez said.
They seemed an odd pair to hit it off. "Ernie is probably one of the most outgoing guys you would meet, but Bill Roth was shy, and he didn't like campaigning at all, so maybe opposites attract," said W. Laird Stabler Jr., the former Republican national committeeman who went way back with Roth and hosted a reception for Lopez.
Then again, maybe they were not so odd a pair. "Ernie absolutely loved it, because he was hearing all those stories for the first time, and the senator absolutely loved it, because he was telling those stories to Ernie, who was hearing them for the first time," said Verna W. Hensley, who was Roth's state director.
Roth encouraged Lopez to get into politics, something he was inclined to do, anyway. Lopez said he did not expect to run this year, but then state Rep. Timothy U. Boulden, a Newark Republican, decided not to seek re-election.
Lopez lived in the district, but so did Paul J. Pomeroy, a Republican expecting to run for County Council president. Lopez said they held a summit, just the two of them, and figured they both would be better off with Lopez going for the county office and Pomeroy for the legislature.
Lopez became a candidate, and Roth's people rallied around, providing practiced backing usually unheard-of for a novice politician. James D. Taylor Jr., a Wilmington lawyer who had worked for the senator, became the campaign manager. Ianire, the former secretary, is operating as a campaign coordinator. Three former chiefs of staff sent out a fund-raising letter.
It was not something they did lightly, not with Roth's torch still to be tended. "We have a reputation, and we can't go and back just anybody," Ianire said. "Anything I can do to help, I will, because I always thought he was there for the senator."
Lopez gets it. He remembers a Spanish expression that his mother used to tell him.
"Dime con quien andes y te dire quien eres."
It means, "Tell me who you are with, and I'll tell you who you are."