Posted: Nov. 9, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Never in the history of the keyboard has the space bar been used for such devilish wit.

"ALEX PIRES" was shifted to "AL EXPIRES" . . . on Nov. 6, 2012.

As politics goes today, it probably should have been on Twitter, but it was for the 200th Return Day, a throwback to the horse-and-carriage days of the Republic, so it was on a political sticker. Tom Carper's campaign was suspected but denied all knowledge.

Nothing says "Delaware" like Return Day, a celebration of small-state politics. Like a tiny Brigadoon, it rises every two years on the Thursday after the election in Georgetown, the Sussex County seat, to bring together everyone from the twice-elected vice president of the United States to an also-ran for county council.

If truth be known, there are two parallel Return Days.

There is the Return Day the people watch, the one commemorating the era when people had to "return" to their county seats to learn the election results. In its modern form, the festivities are centered on The Circle, in front of the Sussex County Courthouse, where a hatchet is buried after a small-town parade brings the winners and the losers riding together in antique carriages and cars.

This parade of peace-making, so heart-warming to see, is so searing to the candidates who were beating each other's brains out just two days earlier that Joe Biden once called it "the most brutal ceremony thought up by rational man."

There are limits, of course. Tom Carper, the Democratic standard-bearer who triumphantly won a record 13th statewide race as a treasurer, congressman, governor and now three-term senator, walked the parade route with Kevin Wade, his Republican opponent, but not with "AL EXPIRES."

Pires, who ran on the Independent Party ticket, rode farther back along the route by himself, like a candidate punished by the electorate with 4 percent of the vote and sent to sit in a corner for a campaign beyond the state bounds.

The other Return Day goes on behind the courthouse, where the politicians make their way and the adult beverages are in ample supply.

Their host was the unsinkable Nancy Cook, the queen of Legislative Hall as a Democratic state senator for 37 years, eight months and 17 days, as she was reminding people, until she lost in 2010. It is a Senate record that began with a special election in 1974, although it will not stand too much longer with Harris McDowell, a Democratic senator from Wilmington, bearing down on it.

The politicians drifted back and forth between Cook's outdoor salon and another reception hosted in a tent a couple of blocks away by Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, a law firm that made its mark in Return Day lore two years ago not only by offering an elaborate spread but by distributing umbrellas against a dreadful downpour.

What a mingle it was. There were Jack Markell and Matt Denn, re-elected as the Democratic governor and lieutenant governor, the past and present congressional delegation, including Mike Castle, the Republican ex-congressman and ex-governor, Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general, legislators, Cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, operatives, aides and a stray judge or so.

There were winners who had been losers, like Ernie Lopez, elected a state senator from Sussex County after losing for New Castle County Council president, and losers who had been winners, like Tom Kovach, the Republican with the follow-the-bouncing-ball candidacy, winning a legislative seat, losing a legislative seat, winning as council president and losing for congressman.

Return Day signifies the eternal nature of politics, a circle of resolutions, reversals and redemptions. It is a time for ending campaigns and for playfully striking up new ones.

The political stickers generally tell that tale, none better than the one pointing Denn toward the governor's race in 2016. It showed a scribble across "Matt Denn 2016" and a scrawl of words reading, "Who cares?? Have another drink!"

For Chris Coons, the Democratic senator who is up in 2014, there were humdrum stickers with his name and office on it. For Beau Biden, also up in 2014, there were stickers reminiscent of his father, the ones that said simply Joe, but also cleverly cryptic about his plans. It just said Beau.

Sometimes what is not there is as telling as what is there. Return Day lacked a sticker declaring, "Tom Carper 2018." Is that an expiration date, too?