Posted: Dec. 22, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Chris Coons was out of the race for attorney general before he was in it.

Coons, the New Castle County executive, made a round of calls to fellow Democrats in the last several days to tell them he was giving up his idea of running for attorney general midway through his second term.

Like "Balloon Boy" in Colorado, it was a campaign that never got off the ground.

Not that there has been much of a trajectory anywhere for the 2010 election for Delaware's attorney general, the slowest contest to take shape on the statewide ballot. There are candidates already committed for senator, congressman, auditor, even a logjam for treasurer, but for attorney general?

It is a messy situation. No one dares to make a move unless Beau Biden releases custody and declares for his father-the-Democratic-vice-president's old Senate seat. Nothing can paralyze politics like a misplaced injection of Beau-tox.

The upshot is, the politicking has been driven underground.

There has been suspended animation on the Republican side, where Ferris Wharton plans to emerge as soon as it is clear he would not have to face Biden, who beat him 53 percent to 47 percent in 2006.

There has been a clandestine standoff on the Democratic side, until Coons broke it off to leave Carl Danberg as the prime candidate-in-waiting.

Danberg has been waiting patiently for some time, ever since he filled in as attorney general for a year. When he accepted a gubernatorial appointment to the vacant office, he made plain he would not run in 2006, making way for Biden instead. In the meantime, Danberg has served as the corrections commissioner, first for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and now for Gov. Jack Markell.

Danberg has been open about his interest in bookending Biden's time as attorney general. In most endeavors, his patience would be a virtue, but this is politics. Patience does not matter if impatience can get the votes, and there was Coons, looking impatient to put county government behind him for the statewide stage.

County government is not so easily shed, however. It turned out to be such a ball-and-chain that Coons will be staying for now and apparently sparing the Democrats a primary.

He offered a game explanation, saying he was attracted to the Attorney General's Office as an extension of the public safety component of county government but decided it was not his time.

"You can't be all things to all people," Coons said. "I am really enjoying being county executive. I feel like we have a good team. I have a good balance between public life and family. There's important work to do in the county."

There was more to it, though. The county has raised taxes, and the Republicans are never happier than when they are running against someone who has raised taxes. Nor could Coons figure out what to do about Paul Clark, the Democratic president of the County Council.

It is one thing to leave in mid-term. It is something else to leave with Clark stepping up as the county executive. Clark's wife is a land use attorney, a complication that has left him coping with conflicts on a scale second only to Jon & Kate.

What a dilemma for someone like Coons, who went to Yale Divinity School to study ethics.

Coons tried to get around it. He quietly approached legislators to gauge their support for a bill that would change the county succession. Not that he wanted to talk about it --"I may just have to leave you to speculate about all that" -- after the alternatives simply did not fly.

What about having the governor appoint a replacement for the county executive? Right, just drag Markell into this mess.

What about a special election for the vacancy? Not on the life of the political types who have to drop everything for special elections and have had their fill of them, thank you very much.

"You raised our taxes, and now you're going to give us a special election?" yelped one Democrat.

Besides all of that, Danberg stood in the way. He is well-liked in political circles, the soldier who has been there for the Bidens, Markell and Minner, and it gave him the inside track.

"He's a straight arrow. If Carl goes on with his plan, I think that'd be great," said  Margaret Rose Henry, who is the Senate majority whip as well as the Democratic Party secretary.

As matters stand now, the Democrats have a non-primary for a non-race. John Daniello, the Democratic state chair, wants to leave it there.

"I'm not going to give you a quote about an office that nobody announced they're running for," Daniello said.

Coons joins a long line of county executives who have yet to convert the office for political dividends. New Castle County government has been around in its current form with a county executive and council since 1967, and no county executive has escaped from it.

Mel Slawik, a Democratic county executive in the 1970s, was one who did go on to serve another term elsewhere, but it came from the sentence of a judge to a federal pen.