Posted: Oct. 11, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Mike Castle did not spend eight years as governor without figuring out how to pass along the tough stuff to the chief of staff.

In an embarrassment of riches, Castle had five chiefs to choose from Thursday.

Castle, who was the Republican governor from 1985 to 1993 and then Delaware's lone congressman until 2011, was the guest moderator at the Wilmington Rotary Club for a panel discussion with chiefs of staff for the last five governors.

There were: Dave Swayze for Pete du Pont, the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985; Mike Ratchford for Castle; Jeff Bullock for Tom Carper, the Democratic governor from 1993 to 2001; Mark Brainard for Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor from 2001 to 2009; and Tom McGonigle for Jack Markell, the Democratic governor since 2009.

The session, presented to about 150 people at the Hotel du Pont, was the brainstorm of Mike Arrington, the Rotary Club's program director, who had an obvious inspiration for thinking it up. He is Swayze's law partner.

Castle clearly still had his governor's chops as he lobbed questions for the chiefs to answer. "If I don't get a volunteer, I'm going to call on somebody," he quipped.

No worries. Like any crackerjack chief, they all sprang at Castle's summons.

Before the chiefs got to some wonderful storytelling, they gave their take on their job description, calling it essentially an endless barrage of complications and decision-making on the fly.

(A chief who could not be there -- the late Dick Evans for du Pont -- used to have a favorite expression as best-laid plans went awry. "O.B.E., overtaken by events," he would say.)

Bullock, currently the secretary of state for Markell, said Carper used to kid him that the chief of staff was more powerful than the governor, and there was something to it, as the chief called the shots during the daily grind.

"There's a lot of policy that gets made in the moment," Bullock said.

Castle asked for a funny story and got one from Swayze about an in-house crisis when the governor's secretary was getting married.

It seems the secretary wanted to book the bridal suite at the Greenbrier, the historic resort in West Virginia, only to be told it was unavailable. She said something to du Pont, who said something to Swayze, and eventually it led to a conference call involving du Pont and Jay Rockefeller, then the governor of West Virginia, and their chiefs of staff.

With a du Pont and a Rockefeller on the line, the obvious solution was proposed.

"Let's buy the sucker," Rockefeller said, and although it did not need to go that far, the Greenbrier was persuaded to come around.

Castle asked for a poignant memory, and McGonigle answered with an untold tale during the scary early months of Markell's governorship, as the economy was tanking and the revenue projections dropped and dropped and dropped.

When a new projection came in, showing the state would be down another $300 million, it was McGonigle who had to call the governor and tell him. There they were, discussing the shortfall and contemplating a new round of ever more painful budget cuts, just as Markell's father, who had fallen ill on a cruise, died.

"That was a dark moment," McGonigle said.

When Castle asked about gubernatorial hobbies or diversions, it was his own chief of staff who came through. In retrospect, Castle may have wished Ratchford had not.

Ratchford reminded everyone that Castle was a bachelor for seven and half years of his governorship, as his courtship of Jane, his wife-to-be, came in fits and starts.

"When you weren't seeing Jane, you were one crabby governor," Ratchford said.

These chiefs plainly had mastered the art of making a governor look good. Even Brainard, and he had Minner.

In a discussion of the byplay between policy and politics, Brainard reflected on Minner's commitment to the smoking ban. As taken for granted as it is today, it was radioactive politics when she pushed for it, so much so that a bunch of legislators warned her it would get her defeated for a second term (and it very nearly did.)

"Wow, what a great legacy," Minner said.