Posted: Feb. 17, 2006
GOP WANTS FERRIS WHARTON FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL
By Celia Cohen
The Delaware Republican Party is focusing its efforts to find a candidate for attorney general on Ferris W. Wharton, an accomplished lawyer probably best known for co-prosecuting the murder case that convicted Thomas J. Capano for killing Anne Marie Fahey almost 10 years ago.
Wharton, an assistant U.S. attorney and former chief deputy attorney general, is exactly the sort of candidate the Republicans have in mind to run against Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the Democratic senator's son whom the Republicans have mocked as all-name-no-resume.
Wharton has not committed to the race. As a federal prosecutor, he says it is inappropriate for him to talk about running for a political office, although he conceded the appropriate time might come.
"There might be, but it's premature now," Wharton said Friday.
The key to Wharton's candidacy appears to be getting him work, because he would have to leave the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"I have the confidence that if things work out, he would run," said Terry A. Strine, the Republican state chair. "It is not a done deal. It is beyond Ferris' control or mine. We would have to have a sugar daddy. That's one of the problems of being a minority party."
If Wharton runs, the election for attorney general could emerge as the showcase race of 2006 -- a battle for an open office with more suspense to it than the federal contests at the top of the ticket, where it would take monumental upsets for Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper or Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle to lose.
The Republicans have been scrambling to find a candidate ever since M. Jane Brady, a three-term attorney general, left them high and dry by unexpectedly taking a judgeship late last year.
The priority has been to find someone long on prosecutorial experience as a counter to Beau Biden, whom the party insists would not be in the running if his name were "Beau Smith." In Wharton, the Republicans would have the contrast they want.
Biden, a 37-year-old partner at Bifferato Gentilotti Biden & Balick in Wilmington, has been a lawyer for 10 years, including five years in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia and two years as a JAG officer in the Delaware National Guard.
He comes to the race with a seasoned political network behind him and already has banked $132,000 for his campaign by the end of 2005.
Wharton, 53, has been a prosecutor since he joined the state Justice Department in 1980, rising to be the chief deputy attorney general in 2001 until he switched to the U.S. Attorney's Office for Delaware in 2003, saying he wanted a job with more courtroom action and less administration.
Wharton has a host of high-profile cases to his credit, including Capano and the ongoing prosecution of former New Castle County officials Thomas P. Gordon and Sherry L. Freebery.
The Republicans' dream candidate for the race was U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly, who also made his name co-prosecuting Capano, but Connolly wants to stay in his appointed federal office, and Wharton was regarded as a close second choice.
"From the beginning we said we were looking at Colm and Ferris," said William Swain Lee, who left the bench to run for governor after presiding over Capano's murder trial and now serves as the Sussex County Republican chair.
"Ferris would give us a really credible candidate. I don't know that there's anybody more qualified, presuming anyone cares about qualifications. The deputies all consider him to be the star."
Wharton gets a rave review from Connolly, his current boss, but less of one from Charles M. Oberly III, a former boss who was a three-term Democratic attorney general.
Connolly said, "Ferris has superb skills as a trial lawyer. He has the most experience of any prosecutor in the state. That was one of the reasons we wanted him to come here."
Oberly said, "I've known Ferris for a long time, and he's been a friend of mine. We do not see the world from the same viewpoint. He's a lot more conservative. I'm surprised he's contemplating running. Attorney general is more than being a prosecutor."
The Republicans appear to be doing what they can to find a candidate who has a prosecutorial record and reputation to match against one of the state's strongest political names and networks. Then they have to hope that voters do not automatically go for Carper, Castle and Biden without realizing it is Beau, not Joe, and Wharton, if he is there, deserves a look, too.