Posted: Dec. 8, 2007
DECK THE HALLS WITH ANOTHER DEMOCRAT
By Celia Cohen
A pocketful of Kent County voters interrupted their holiday planning long enough Saturday to gift-wrap a special election for the Democrats in the state House of Representatives.
William J. Carson Jr. kept a seat Democratic with an easy win against Republican Christine Malec in the 28th Representative District, located in the northeastern corner of the county with its heart in Smyrna, the home base for both candidates.
Carson outpolled Malec 67 percent to 33 percent for the right to take over from Bruce C. Ennis, a fellow Democrat who moved from the House to the Senate by winning a special election last month to replace James T. Vaughn Sr., the late Democratic state senator.
Ennis was alongside Carson as the Democrats celebrated at a makeshift headquarters in Smyrna on Union Street and got a laugh for handing over one of Malec's campaign signs as a souvenir.
Carson, a retired state transportation employee now working for Middletown, singled out Ennis and Vaughn especially as he thanked a crowd of supporters. "It was a wonderful group effort," he said. "One of my best friends in the world is not here, but I know he's looking down on us -- Jim Vaughn. He's got a beer in his hand, and he's smiling."
The outcome was never really in doubt. Carson banked on a considerable registration advantage for the Democrats, almost 2,500 voters more than the Republicans, as well as prominent family and community ties that carried him at a time when people were too distracted by the holiday season to pay much attention to learning about candidates in an isolated special election.
Carson does not represent a changing of the guard but a keeping of the guard by a constituency known for loyalty to its lawmakers. Vaughn served for 27 years, re-elected last year even though he was too sick from throat cancer and pneumonia ever to return to Legislative Hall in Dover, and Ennis occupied his House seat for 25 years.
Carson is Vaughn’s godson, and his wife Betty is the adopted daughter of Ennis’ brother. Carson shared a background in the Smyrna fire company with Ennis and the Smyrna-Clayton Little League with Vaughn. He was well-known in the community by his childhood nickname of "Lumpy."
Malec, a member of the Smyrna school board, is a partner in her family business of Town & Country Power Equipment, which served as her headquarters for the day. She told her supporters the campaign was a positive experience, even though it did not work out.
The Democrats were expected to win ever since Ennis rolled up huge numbers in his old district while taking the Senate seat. The Democrats cheerily took advantage of Ennis’ strength by fashioning campaign literature for Carson with pictures of the two of them shaking hands.
The Republicans signaled doubts about their own chances when their pre-election finance report showed they had raised only $10,000 with eight days to go, a sum that amounted to financial starvation. Earlier this year, a favored Republican candidate raked in $68,000 in a similar time frame for a House special election in Brandywine Hundred -- and lost. Carson took in $24,000 by the 8-day report, although his full treasury by the time of the election was said to be about $42,000.
The disparity was on display at one of the polling places at Smyrna High School. State Rep. John J. Viola, a Democrat promoting Carson, was armed with glossy campaign fliers to give to the voters, while state Rep. Nick T. Manolakos, a Republican stumping for Malec, could offer only black and white business cards saying, “Please vote Christine Malec.”
By mid-afternoon, the Democrats were ahead of the Republicans in getting their voters to the polls with the help of a massive operation using 140 labor union members – even more than the party had available for Ennis. The Republicans were doing what they could, but they were outgunned.
“The people we’ve identified as her supporters are getting out,” said John R. Matlusky, the Republican national committeeman.
The Democrats were sounding as relaxed as a party could be amid the jumble of a special election. “We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re still trying to get the vote out. We just sent out a second shift of volunteers, and we’re going to push until the end,” said Erik J. Schramm, the campaign manager for Carson.
The turnout was thin -- about 18 percent in a district with nearly 12,800 voters. Carson won 12 out of 14 election districts, losing one where the voting was so minuscule that only three people went to the polls and broke 2-1 for Malec.
The voting brought to an end a string of special elections that exhausted both the Democrats and the Republicans in what was supposed to be an off-year and also darkened the aura of Republican superiority in them. The Republicans earned that reputation by winning special elections that were supposed to go to the Democrats.
This year the Republicans kept a Levy Court seat in Kent County and a House seat in Sussex County, and the Democrats retained the seats vacated by Vaughn and Ennis, but the race that altered the political balance was the one for the representative district in Brandywine Hundred. The Democrats snatched it away in an upset.
It left the Democrats with a House seat they never expected to have and put them in an improved position for one of their major goals in 2008 – overturning the Republican majority, now at a margin of 22-19, after more than two decades out of power.
No one seemed happier about those circumstances than state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader who would be in line to become speaker in a turnover.
"When the Democratic Party is united like we were today or like we were a month ago in the Senate race, it's difficult for the Republicans to win," Gilligan said. "If we stay united for the next year, we hope to have a very successful election in 2008."