Posted: Oct. 10, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

On the way to the Democrats' "Belle Everett" Dinner in Kent County, some of them passed a pickup truck full of household possessions, as if the driver was getting out of town.

They thought it might have been Micheal C. Miller, a onetime Democratic congressional candidate with an approach as unusual as the spelling of his first name.

Mike Miller was the Bad Old Days. He was barely an excuse for a candidate, and not just because of his petty arrest record, but for calling Saddam Hussein a legitimate leader like George W. Bush and for putting up a sign urging people to vote -- on the wrong date.

Mike Miller recruited himself to run not once, but twice in 2000 and 2002, a hapless example of what happens when the party's strategy against someone like U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican who also has been a governor and lieutenant governor, is unconditional surrender.

All too often, the Kent County Democrats have come from that school of whistling past the campaign graveyard, hiding their eyes while county Republicans went unopposed. They were so lifeless, they could not even deliver the county for Democrats like Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who is one of them, in 2004, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2002 or U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper in 2000.

If Mike Miller or his look-alike was driving away, the Kent County Democrats have reason to hope he was taking the Bad Old Days with him, because they are determined not to be a party of lie-down-and-die in 2006.

They turned out an unusually large crowd, a sellout of 300 people, on Monday evening for their annual "Belle Everett" Dinner at the Felton Fire Hall, home of renowned fried oyster, slippery dumpling and chicken salad fare.

They also have matched the Republicans in recruitment for legislative seats --  sure, Republican Reps. Pamela J. Thornburg and Donna D. Stone are unopposed, but so are Democratic Sen. Nancy W. Cook and Rep. Bruce C. Ennis -- and they are competing for two open seats, as well.

The Democrats think their prospects are particularly promising for Robert E. Walls, running for the vacancy created by the retirement of state Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., a quirky Republican-turned-independent, in the 33rd Representative District, which stretches from Magnolia to Milford. Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican candidate, is coming off a tough primary, which he won by 25 votes.

The Kent County Democrats were feeling better than they have for a long time. "It is a good year to be a Democrat, and I think we're going to win it all," said Cook, the state senator, no doubt more optimistic than prophetic, but it was the thought that counted.

Beyond local events, the national Democratic trend contributed to the mood. Carper all but capered as he listed U.S. Senate races that could give his party the majority, lingering especially over the one in Montana, where the Democratic candidate is Jon Tester, a farmer with a neck suitable for World Wide Wrestling.

"He's built like a truck, he's got a crew cut, and I predict that half the guys in the Democratic caucus will be wearing flat tops and white t-shirts," Carper quipped.

Carper led a head table that included the rest of the Democrats' statewide ticket -- Treasurer Jack A. Markell, Dennis Spivack for the Congress, Beau Biden for attorney general, and Michael John Dalto for auditor.

What counted for Carper on this night was not just that he was a senator and ex-governor, but also a former treasurer, the glory office for the dinner. Belle Everett was a Kent County grande dame who became the first Democratic woman elected statewide as treasurer in 1958. The office also paid dividends for Markell, who was invited to be the master of ceremonies.

The Kent County Democrats have watched for some time while Delaware went increasingly Democratic without them, the results driven by New Castle County, where almost two-thirds of the voters live. Kent County's wish to follow the leader was evident because of the presence of New Castle County Democratic Chair James F. Paoli at the dinner.

It still would leave Sussex County as a Democratic headache, but one county at a time. Sussex County is so Republican, the only thing redder is those campaign signs for Republican Ferris W. Wharton for attorney general, so blood-red that they scream prosecutor.

The credit for the Kent County Democrats' emergence is going largely to Abby L. Betts, the county chair whose efforts have been so admired that the party surprised her at the dinner with a special award. Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. presented it to her, and there she stood, tearing up, with Carney on one side of her and Markell on the other.

It sent a signal that was hard to miss. Carney and Markell may be at each other's throat for governor in 2008, but nothing comes between them and a rising Democratic Party in Kent County in 2006.