Posted: Nov. 13, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Kent County Democrats were in such a good mood Monday evening that their annual Belle Everett Dinner at the Felton Fire Hall seemed more like stand-up comedy than political fare.

This is what comes from winning. Kent County did its part 10 days ago in a special election blowout propelling Bruce Ennis from state representative to state senator to replace the late Jim Vaughn Sr., keeping the seat Democratic in a district that also sprawls north into New Castle County.

Matt Denn, the Insurance Commissioner who is running for lieutenant governor, merrily entertained the crowd of about 175 Democrats with a tale of going door-to-door with Ennis, who announced after nearly every stop that the household, no matter how noncommittal it seemed, would vote for him. Denn took this assessment back to the staff at the campaign headquarters.

"I told them, my sense is he thinks lots and lots of people are going to vote for him, and if he's right, he's going to get like two-thirds of the vote. We all had a good laugh. He gets 68 percent. Goes to show you," Denn quipped.

The story was a crowd pleaser. Practically any mention of Ennis was a crowd pleaser. For that matter, there was hardly anything that did not please this crowd. It even awarded several rounds of applause to the meal.

This is one Delaware political event where people really do care about the food. The chicken is relegated to chicken salad, and the main course is the Felton Fire Hall's famous fried oysters and slippery dumplings. Emeril, eat your heart out.

No one wanted to spoil the atmosphere. Everybody ignored the rivalry for governor between John Carney and Jack Markell, who was the master of ceremonies. For this evening, they were just the good old lieutenant governor and the happy-go-lucky state treasurer, and they were exceedingly nice to each other.

"The lieutenant governor has been there for all the candidates, Democrats up and down the state," Markell said when he introduced Carney.

"Thank you very much, Jack, for that very generous introduction," Carney said.

Nobody seemed happier than Tom Carper. There was not a Biden in sight, with the father-the-senator and the son-the-attorney-general glued to Iowa, so Carper ruled the senatorial roost and and poked fun at presidential politics.

Carper told a story about what he said when someone demanded to know why he was speaking at a recent event in Washington. "The other 99 senators are running for president. I'm the only one in town," Carper joked.

"I like to quote John McCain, who said U.S. senators are assumed to be running for president -- unless you're in detox or under indictment."

It did not hurt the festivities that the Kent County Democrats like their chances in another special election -- the one Dec. 8 to replace Ennis in the state House of Representatives. Their candidate is Bill Carson, known as "Lumpy," a nickname given him for no particular reason in his youth by a state trooper who was a friend of his father, also a state trooper.

The Democrats have a 2,500-vote registration edge on the Republicans, whose candidate is Christine Malec, a member of the Smyrna school board, and Carson looks like another version of Vaughn and Ennis with his deep roots in the Smyrna fire company and Smyrna-Clayton Little League. He is retired from the state Transportation Department and works for Middletown.

Carson was hardly the only candidate at the dinner. There was a swarm of them -- statewide, legislative and county. Carney and Markell, competing to lead the state ticket, were joined by Denn and Ted Blunt, the Wilmington council president, both wanting the second spot for lieutenant governor. Dennis Spivack also put in an appearance, showing his interest in a reprise of his 2006 race against Mike Castle, the Republican congressman.

Belle Everett Dinners were not always so lively. The Republicans had a great run in Kent County in recent years, until the Democrats seized the momentum in the last election by picking up a state House seat and taking control of the Levy Court.

The dinner is named for Annabelle "Belle" Everett, a Democratic grande dame who lived from 1899 to 1989 and dominated county politics for decades. Kent County has a history of turning out her type, whether it was Vera Davis, her Republican contemporary, or Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and state Sen. Nancy Cook, both of whom attended the dinner.

Now someone new is making her mark. Abby Betts, the Democratic county chair, is getting much of the credit for the turnaround.

"The transformation is incredible," Markell said. "So many people thought Kent County had become this bright shade of [Republican] red next to the [Democratic] blue of New Castle County. I'll tell you what, there is nobody who played a more central role than Abby Betts."

Betts deflected the attention by getting in on the fun. "Abby couldn't be here. I'm her twin," she said.

The Republicans could be glad that Betts was kidding. The last thing they need is two of her.