Posted: Feb. 11, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans were so short on star power that they had to borrow some from the Democrats for a salute to state House Speaker Terry R. Spence, and people sure were surprised at what they got.

There was a moment of horrified silence during the tribute Saturday at the Kent County Lincoln Day Dinner in Dover, when a congratulatory letter was read from none other than U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the six-term Democrat and presidential candidate the Republicans love to hate.

The letter was laudatory. The Republicans applauded. Some of them. Sort of.

The only time the Republicans ever thought they would be clapping where Joe Biden was concerned was if he was giving a concession speech.

State Sen. John C. Still III came to the rescue. He cracked that at least Biden had not called Spence "clean" or "articulate."

The laughter relaxed the Republicans and fortified them enough to sit through more Democratic compliments sent by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper. Anyway, those three all served with Spence in Legislative Hall -- Minner and Carney now and Carper when he was governor -- nor did the party spend the last campaign season futilely beating up on any son of theirs.

It all added up to a reminder of political reality for the Republicans, who find themselves struggling to reassert themselves in a state that once was reliably colored Republican red but is more and more Democratic blue.

"This is not the easiest time in the world," said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the eight-term congressman and former governor who is the last true star the Republicans have. "In Delaware we know what the circumstances are, in terms of who's elected."

Spence was the man of the evening in a tribute attended by about 300 Republicans at the Dover Sheraton Hotel. He was recognized for presiding for 20 years in the state House of Representatives, making him the longest serving speaker in Delaware history and the longest sitting speaker in the country. He is also the president of the National Speakers Conference.

"What can I say, except a big thank you," Spence said.

Spence said he was nervous about all of the attention and proved it. He praised Kent County for having two fine new legislators -- state Reps. Donald A. Blakey and Daniel B. Short -- only Short is from Seaford.

Yes, Spence does know that Seaford is in Sussex County, as he correctly recalled once the dinner was over.

Spence, 65, is the type of officeholder the Republicans need to find more of -- someone who can get Democrats to vote for him. His Stanton-Christiana area district in New Castle County is 49 percent Democratic, 26 percent Republican and 25 percent others.

He banks heavily on support from law enforcement organizations, gun owners and typically Democratic labor unions. In fact, his campaign manager was a Democratic, card-carrying member of the operating engineers, the union for the construction workers who handle the heavy equipment. It is not unusual for Spence to run unopposed, although the Democrats came after him in 2006. With help from his union allies, he pulled 56 percent of the vote.

Spence's record certainly explains why all those Democratic officeholders were so willing to join the salute. Spence brings out the Democratic vote for them, too.