Posted: Nov. 4, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The chilling rain on Thursday was not a good omen for John C. Carney Jr., the Democrat newly re-elected as lieutenant governor.

It is not supposed to rain on Return Day, the traditional post-election celebration in Georgetown, and as the saying goes in Delaware, the lieutenant governor is supposed to be in charge of the weather.

Carney has not spent four years in political office without learning what to do with an unsavory situation. No, he did not appoint a commission to study the matter and pack it with campaign contributors. He simply dodged.

"It's a Sussex County event, and the lieutenant governor doesn't have jurisdiction today," Carney quipped.

Still, the dismal conditions were a downer, not what Carney needed on a day he wanted to show he was on his way up. Throughout the crowd there was a sprouting of stickers urging, "John Carney. Governor. 2008."

There. He said it. It was out in the open, just as everyone had suspected.

The half-truth about Return Day, the unique Delaware holiday that has been around since the early days of the Republic, is that it is a ceremony of reconciliation to close out the campaign hostilities.

The other half-truth that completes the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that Return Day is also the start of the next round of campaigning. Carney obviously had that part of politics down pat, too.

The rain was not the only dubious omen for Carney. There also was another sticker around, this one saying, "I BACK JACK Markell."

Back Jack -- but for what? A third term for state treasurer in 2006? The same office Carney wants in 2008 in a rivalry between the two Democrats? The Congress if U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a seven-term Republican, ever gets out of the way?

"Whatever you want to back me for," said a smiling Treasurer Jack A. Markell.

Points to Markell on this one. Return Day is a time for self-promotion with some humor to it, or at least slyness. "I BACK JACK" had it over Carney's bluntness.

Slyness perhaps hit its peak in another series of stickers that said, "Cook '06." That was all.

State Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Kenton Democrat who has been in the legislature since 1974, is up for election in 2006, and she was wearing one of the stickers, but so was her son Thomas J. Cook, a former election commissioner who now works in the state Finance Department.

Maybe the stickers meant Nancy Cook wanted another term, or maybe they meant it was time for Tom. They were not saying, either of them.

"I don't know what it means," shrugged John J. Viola, a Democratic state representative, and he was wearing one.

For pure humor there were the stickers for Matthew P. Denn, a Democrat two days into elected life as the new insurance commissioner. Under Denn's name on the stickers, the words "insurance commissioner" were lined out and written in their place was "for governor (2016.)" At least it seemed like pure humor.

Return Day also included an appearance by Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, often mentioned as a likely Democratic candidate for attorney general in 2006. Finally, Beau Biden took the opportunity to come clean about running.

"I'm running to keep up with my dad," he deadpanned as his father dashed through the crowd. U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a six-term Democrat, was not on the ballot this year, but he came, anyway, even though he said it was the worst Return Day weather he had seen, going back to his first time in 1972.

The customary observances went on, despite a crowd so sparse and soggy that it almost seemed there were more vendors than people, and what morose vendors they were, too.

Return Day is for "returning" to the county seat to hear the election returns, a relic from the days it was the way to find out who won.

The politicians held their parade with the winners and losers riding together in horse-drawn carriages and other antique conveyances, and the party leaders symbolically buried a hatchet in a container of sand in front of the Sussex County Courthouse on The Circle.

The first carriage was for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, soon to be a second-term Democrat, and William Swain Lee, her Republican opponent, traveling together -- sort of. Minner was in the front of the carriage on a high seat like a throne, and Lee was in the back in something of a rumble seat.

It did not seem there was much making up that was going on, not after the snippy campaign they had.

Political advertising on Lee's behalf had nailed Minner for "arrogance" and "incompetence," and he had chirped after the votes were counted that she had no mandate to govern, and she had yanked back her hand as he shook it when they ran into one another the day before the election on Market Street in Wilmington.

Minner said her hand was hurt, and she still was wearing a bandage on a couple of fingers at Return Day. No wounds healing there. This was the same governor who clumped out to a Democratic dinner on her own two feet eight days after knee replacement surgery.

The parade was drenching. "I know what a baby feels like when it needs to be changed," said state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., a Republican who rode even though he is in the middle of a four-year term.

The highlight of Return Day is always the burying of the hatchet, but this year the highlight was getting out of the rain and getting warm. Most of the political class gravitated to some Norfolk Southern train cars that were chugged into town for Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist for the railroad, and stocked with adult beverages and food.

Return Day is a time for politicians to grit their teeth and pretend that bygones are bygones, even though everyone really knows that grudges are forever, but this one was a challenge for anyone there.

That includes political writers. It is tough to get the quotes right when the raindrops make the ink run, and the pages of a reporter's notebook turn into a sodden mass of mush.

What a way to end the election season.