Posted: Dec. 10, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The room for the gala was outfitted like a political convention. There were flags and signs for waving at all the tables, a red-white-and-blue balloon drop ready to go, and even an empty chair on the stage, in case Clint Eastwood showed up and wanted to growl at it.

Not that it was a convention, but a dinner roast-and-toast Saturday evening at the Chase Center at the Riverfront in Wilmington, and it was called "Everybody Knows Priscilla."

This is a small state, where the vice president is known as Joe and the governor as Jack, kind of like a giant "Cheers" tavern where everybody does seem to know everybody else's name, and one of those names belongs to Priscilla.

Not too many people are named Priscilla, but she would stand out if her name were Sue.

Priscilla Rakestraw is sort of unavoidable because of the way she had made her mark in Delaware politics, but also in her staff work formerly at the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition and now at the Ministry of Caring, the charity founded by a friar who naturally is known simply as Brother Ronald.

Rakestraw spent thirty-seven-and-a-half years as the Republican national committeewoman and pretty much as the personification of the party here at home, because of the way she threw herself into every campaign season with all-consuming rapture, whether she was strategizing about the governor's race or going door to door with a no-chance legislative candidate.

For an evening that was a tribute to Rakestraw's time as the national committeewoman, the convention motif was fitting, because she attended 10 of them, in the thick of the presidential nominations from Gerald Ford to Mitt Romney.

She was escorted into the room by Reince Priebus, the Republican national chair, the two of them walking behind a towering YoUDee, the Fightin' Blue Hen mascot from the University of Delaware, while "Stars and Stripes Forever" was played and the people at the tables waved the flags and the signs saying, "Priscilla, Thank You!"

When it was time for the program, Rakestraw sat in the chair on the stage and made Clint Eastwood superfluous.

It did seem like everybody who was anybody knew Priscilla, and it was bipartisan in the way that Delaware's small-state politics is. There were videos from the vice president and the governor, Democrats that they are, and a personal letter from the first George Bush. There were photos showing her with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich.

There was also a video spoof with people like John Carney, the Democratic congressman, saying dubiously, "Priscilla? Priscilla Rakestraw? No, never heard of her."

The video also had Tom Ross, the Republican ex-chair, reprising his famous line about Christine O'Donnell as he said, "Rakestraw? Yeh, I know her. She couldn't get elected dogcatcher."

The allusion to O'Donnell was as necessary as it was stinging. Without her, Mike Castle could have been the Republican senator and Rakestraw still the national committeewoman, not a casualty of the party's ruptures and fissures that emboldened a drive to replace her with Ellen Barrosse.

The dinner crowd of about 250 people was a living arc of the state Republicans' fortunes during Rakestraw's time from 1975 until 2012.

There were the political figures from the early glory days, when the party could confidently make Pete du Pont the governor and replace him as congressman with Tom Evans, and there were the also-rans from the current wilderness years, when the party struggled to deliver upwards of a third of the statewide vote in November for Sher Valenzuela and Ben Mobley.

All kinds of people gave all kinds of speeches, but the one that probably showed the most what Rakestraw meant to the Republican Party came from Bob Gilligan, the Democratic national committeeman who just retired as the speaker.

"Politics is a contact sport, and Priscilla has been a fierce competitor. As a matter of fact, she was too damn good. I was in the Delaware General Assembly for 40 years, and thanks to Priscilla, I was in the minority for 29 years," Gilligan said.

"I'm happy because I'm a Democrat and you're moving on to something else."

It took Rakestraw herself to really capture the tenacity of her tenure, as she explained the way she became the national committeewoman. She wanted the post, and so did Bubbles Pierce, who was from Kent County, but the state chair was also from Kent County, so Pierce was asked to wait.

"She was told she could have the position when I was finished. That was in 1975. Sadly, Bubbles passed on last year, still waiting. I was too embarrassed to attend her funeral," Rakestraw said.

Throughout the evening, there was a running joke about Rakestraw's cell phone, which is always answered this way: The mailbox belonging to Priscilla is full and cannot accept new messages at this time. Please try again later.

As if anything else should be expected from someone that everybody knows.