Posted: Oct. 15, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The governor was the latest to be tapped. Joining the vice president and both of the senators.

They were all asked to give a speech. It happens annually here in Delaware, not without a certain irony, because they are the prime of its political officeholders, and they speak in tribute to its greatest political figure never to hold office.

That would be Jim Soles, the late political science professor from the University of Delaware.

Jack Markell, the two-term Democratic governor, appeared Tuesday on the Newark campus to give the Fourth Annual James R. Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship.

It is a daunting assignment, to be called upon to keep the torch burning for Soles, who inspired a generation to public life as a professor from 1968 to 2002 and beyond until his death at 75 in 2010.

"Delivering the James Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship is sort of like giving the Mike Schmidt lecture on batting and playing third base," Markell deadpanned.

Not that Soles himself was daunting. He was a little giant with a laughing eye, an infectious love for a good story, a hearty delight in a clever putdown, deep admiration for fine bourbon, and boundless devotion to Ada Leigh Soles, his late wife who shared all of his political adventures and probably could be considered one of them by getting elected herself as a Democratic state representative.

Markell spoke before about 75 people, many of them being what he called "Soles disciples," including Len Stark, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court, Bill Chandler, previously the chancellor of the Court of Chancery, Ed Freel, a past secretary of state now with the University of Delaware, and Mike Barlow, the governor's own chief of staff.

Also Catherine Soles, one of the two Soles daughters, and the governor's mother, who realized what Markell was up against.

"She is also wondering, like, what are you going to talk about?" Markell quipped.

It was entirely fitting that Markell found himself stretching beyond his comfort zone, because that is the effect Soles had. It is what happened to Mike Cochran, who attended the speech, and figures he would never have been a partner at Richards Layton & Finger, a top law firm, but a car mechanic in Middletown if Soles had not all but dragooned him as a student into going to law school.

Markell himself fell under the Soles sphere in a roundabout way. Although he grew up in Newark, he went away to Brown University -- where a classmate was Gretchen Bauer, now the chair of the political science department here as Soles was before her -- but it was still Soles who made politics come alive for him when he was 13 years old.

It was 40 years ago, in the 1974 Watergate election, when Markell's mother and father, a university professor, hosted a little reception in their home for Soles, who was running as the Democratic candidate against Pete du Pont, the Republican congressman.

"That was my first experience in something I became very familiar with, which is coffees in people's houses to talk about campaigns," Markell said.

In retrospect, that congressional race was one of the most pivotal moments of Delaware political history. It sent du Pont, who won, onward to a remarkable governorship and Soles, who lost, back to the university. For both of them, it turned into a mission accomplished.

Soles was also always there when Markell needed advice, solicited and otherwise. As only Soles could, he once took a look at Markell's yard signs and made him change them.

Not being a constitutional scholar, Markell finessed his speech by focusing most of his remarks on education, something else Soles obviously loved.

Markell took advantage of the occasion to promote his contentious turnaround proposal for six city schools. If he sounded a lot like he was giving a stump speech, it was all right.

This was the civic experience that Soles defined, a governor making his case, as the Constitution provides, as citizenship demands.