Posted: Oct. 15, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Congressman Mike Castle was upstaged Friday evening at his own "Salute," and he was a willing co-conspirator to it.

The event was the "Salute at Vicmead," a political salon that is the Delaware Republicans' premier annual event, bringing them thousands and thousands of dollars and about 300 people to a huge white party tent at the Vicmead Hunt Club amid the genteel estates surrounding Centreville.

There is good reason for the "Salute" to be held here. If Willie Sutton had been a Republican fund-raiser instead of a bank robber, he would have gone to Chateau Country -- because that is where the money is.

The main attraction -- no, it is not the fabulous raw bar or even the exclusiveness of the site -- is the promise of mingling with the Republicans' most high-ranking officeholders, who included a governor or senator in the party's heyday 20 years ago but have dwindled to Castle by now.

Castle owns Vicmead the way the Sussex County Democratic Beach Jamboree, held in late August at Cape Henlopen State Park, belongs to Sen. Joe Biden. Some of the most dramatic moments of their lives have played out at these events.

Biden chose the Jamboree to declare his candidacy for re-election in 2002, the timing of it requiring him to leave his father's deathbed and arrive by helicopter to announce under a picnic pavilion in a driving rainstorm. It was also the place he went to return to public life in 1988 after brain aneurysms nearly killed him, and he received the sort of greeting usually reserved for Olympic heroes.

Castle elevated the significance of Vicmead when he could not quite get there in 2003, caught in traffic on his way back from a congressional mission to Iraq, so he was set up by cell phone and speaker system to render a riveting and sobering assessment of a trip that included a flight on a military transport carrying flag-draped caskets home. In vivid contrast, Castle did manage to get to Vicmead last year, a la Joe Biden, for his first political event after a mini-stroke.

This time there was a not-so-sly effort to showcase not just Castle but Alan Levin of Happy Harry's fame. Levin was made the honorary chair of the event as part of the buildup that Republicans anticipate will culminate in Levin's emergence as their answer for governor to Lt. Gov. John Carney or Treasurer Jack Markell, whoever wins the Democratic primary.

It turned the evening into a "Salute" for Castle and a "Wink" for Levin.

It was classic political shtick with Castle, Levin and Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, all joining in. Rakestraw led off, introducing Levin as "the man with the worst-kept secret in Delaware."

Levin teased, "I do have an announcement to make. I'm looking for work."

Then came Castle, saying, "If you'd like to make any more formal announcements about anything and you want to talk, I'll give you the microphone right now."

It was not to be, but Levin did have some telling comments to make about Delaware's future. "No one wants a repeat of Ruth Ann Minner and her ilk, and that includes Minner II -- John -- and Minner Lite -- Jack," he said.

The Delaware Republicans certainly could use a governor. They have not elected one since Castle won two terms in 1984 and 1988. Their need for new blood was a point that Levin made, perhaps accidentally and perhaps not, while ribbing Castle about his ancestry.

Castle is a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, and as part of the entertainment, Christiana-Mill Creek Republican Chair Brian Moore roamed the grounds in a pre-Halloween costume of the early American diplomat and inventor.

"I talked to one of his relatives today -- Ben Franklin," Levin said. "Dr. Franklin reminded me, he thought that he might have served with Mike in the Continental Congress. I told him that wasn't the case, that was George Read and Caesar Rodney, although Mike came two Congresses later."

Moore's Ben Franklin paid tribute to Castle by handing out quarters from the U.S. Mint's "50 States" program, created through Castle's sponsorship. The quarters were supplied by the Republican State Committee -- a gesture that reduced the price of tickets for individuals to $174.75 and for top patrons to $2,499.75.

The quarters were not the only handout at the event. State Sen. Colin Bonini, who is talking about running for lieutenant governor, distributed souvenir emery boards pushing his candidacy.

Bonini has a habit of promoting himself for higher office in odd-numbered years without ever getting around to it. Whether or not he is serious about running this time, at least with the emery boards he is serious about filing.