Posted: Feb. 16, 2006


Castle goes with the winners

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle has gone two-for-two in voting for the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, although it took a while for him to do it.

Castle, a seven-term Republican, was an early backer of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, sticking with him even as Hastert ran dead-last for a leadership post in 1998 before a strange political twist gave him the speakership weeks later.

Now Castle has done it again. He was one of the first to announce his support for Rep. John A. Boehner, who was voted majority leader earlier this month, although Rep. Roy Blunt was supposed to have the election sewn up.

As political handicappers go, Castle has got to be cagey, principled or just plain lucky. "Partially principled, partially lucky, not very cagey," Castle said.

The difficulty of what Castle has done should not be underestimated -- particularly his early alliance with Hastert. At the time, Hastert was not even a long-shot, but a no-shot.

Hastert emerged as speaker after an unnerving series of events for the House Republicans. After they lost seats in the 1998 election, Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned from the Congress. Rep. Robert L. Livingston was in line to succeed him, and Rep. Dick Armey was favored to be re-elected as majority leader.

Castle was no admirer of Armey and worked with a small band of Republicans to draft Hastert to run. "I seconded him, because I suppose there was no one else to second him," Castle said.

In a field of four candidates, Hastert himself was voting for Armey and refused to do anything for his own cause. Armey won, and Hastert came in last with 18 votes, including Castle's. The leadership seemed set. Within a month, though, Livingston acknowledged he had extramarital affairs and quit his seat.

In a matter of hours, Hastert was the consensus choice to become speaker. Castle had drafted the right candidate, just for the wrong office.

Eight years later, when another resignation forced the House Republicans to choose a new majority leader, Castle sided again with an underdog who went on to win.

The Republicans had to replace Tom DeLay, forced to step aside because of legal problems at home in Texas and his ties to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who has pleaded guilty in a corruption scandal.

Blunt, the acting majority leader, was regarded as the front-runner in a three-way race. While Castle considers Blunt a friend, he preferred Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner), who chaired the House Education & Workforce Committee on which Castle serves and represented more of a change than Blunt did.

Castle became less enthusiastic when Boehner told some House Republican conservatives he opposed Castle's signature issue, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Castle stuck with Boehner, anyway, although he thinks Boehner wondered whether he would.

"He happened to sit next to me during the voting. He said, 'I really wasn't babysitting you.' I think he got a little nervous," Castle said.

Boehner won on the second ballot. It made Hastert and Boehner the two top members of the House, and it made Castle . . . well, nothing. It is exactly what would be expected for an outnumbered moderate among the overwhelmingly conservative Republicans.

"I'm a little bit too much of a maverick. I long ago realized that because of my independent position, that's where I am," Castle said.

Home from the Hill

If Mike Castle's ties have gotten him little on Capitol Hill, they apparently mean even less at home. What they have brought him is a Democratic opponent.

Dennis Spivack has formalized his candidacy against Castle in the 2006 election for Delaware's lone House seat. Spivack filed his paperwork on Feb. 2 with the Federal Election Commission and plans to begin his campaign on March 7 with the traditional three-county tour.

Spivack used to work for Castle. Spivack was a lawyer at Schnee & Castle, a five-attorney firm run by Castle and Carl Schnee from 1975 to 1980. The law practice dissolved when Castle was elected lieutenant governor and turned his attention to a political career that also made him a two-term governor and the longest-serving U.S. representative in state history.

Spivack has signed up for the toughest spot on the Democrats' statewide ticket. Even though Delaware is trending more and more Democratic, Castle typically polls about 70 percent of the vote.

Castle says he has had little contact with Spivack since the law firm was shuttered and never dreamed they would be political opponents some day. He did not even know Spivack was a Democrat.

"I like Dennis. I don't ever remember talking politics with him," Castle said.