Posted: Feb. 19, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When Bill Lee agreed to be the master of ceremonies for the Sussex County Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Lee was enjoying his status as something of a politician emeritus, still wildly popular in the party after about a decade of thrills and spills in public life.

He was the King of the Close Call. As a candidate for governor, he had two heart-pumping losses, the one in 2004 when he nearly upset Ruth Ann Minner as the Democratic governor was running for her second term and the one in 2000 when he came up 46 votes shy of clinching the nomination in the gubernatorial primary.

It was a political ride that shot from Lee's almost cult-like standing as the judge who had the patience, the wisdom and the temperament to outthink Tom Capano and not let a feral murderer, no matter how wealthy, well-connected and sophisticated, cagily game the court system or turn his trial into a farce.

Bill Lee is 72. Add in his recent stint as the Sussex County Republican chair -- a reprise of the post he held in the 1970s before he went on the bench -- and he has done his part.

On the last day of 2007, Lee cleaned out his old campaign account for governor by donating $889 to the charity for Beebe Medical Center, the Lewes hospital where he is the vice chair of the board, and that was supposed to be that.

When Lee was asked earlier this year by the Eastern Sussex Republican Club and the Sussex County Republican Women's Club to preside at their Lincoln Day Dinner in Rehoboth Beach, it seemed to mean nothing more than a post-farewell appearance, not even very far from his home. Lee said yes.

That was before Alan Levin dropped out of the governor's race a month ago with the vicious shock of the trap door under the hangman's noose.

By the time Lee arrived for the dinner Monday evening at the Atlantic Sands Hotel, he was not speaking in front of any old 120 people. These were 120 Republicans approaching desperation over not having anyone credible to run against either Lt. Gov. John Carney or Treasurer Jack Markell, whoever wins the Democratic primary for governor, and Lee was looking pretty good to them.

State Rep. Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, sidled up to Lee to show him something. It was a "Lee for governor" political button. Lee rapidly turned away.

(Short also brought along a "John Burris for governor" button and a "Terry Spence for governor" button from past campaigns just in case one of those guys showed up, but neither did. For Spence's button, Short even put a piece of tape through the middle of the last zero in "2000" so it looked like "2008.")

"Certainly pressing Bill Lee to run makes the most sense," said Vance Phillips, the Sussex County councilman who also is the Republicans' state vice chair.

Lee is torn. He was so sure his politicking days were behind him. He figures he would need $2 million to run -- Carney has $1 million in his treasury and Markell has $2.5 million -- and he hates to raise money. His family is against another race, and both of the Democrats are proven vote-getters who would be favored in a state that increasingly likes its politics in shades of Democratic blue.

The nomination, though, is there for Lee's asking, and the governorship is his heart's desire.

"There are still people who think they can put together a financial package. I have strong doubts. My desire to be governor is not going to override common sense and my kids," Lee said.

He expects to decide on his final answer shortly.

At the dinner, Vance Phillips gave the keynote address on Lincoln. The 16th president, who had the foresight to share in the creation of the Republican Party, keep the union together and end slavery, reminded Phillips of a Biblical verse from Proverbs -- "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Where there is no candidate for governor, a political party can perish, too.

The Republicans lost their "Plan A" -- Alan Levin. It is not looking good for "Plan B" -- Bill Lee. There could have been a "Plan C," but Charlie Copeland, the Senate minority leader who has been regarded as gubernatorial material, ran in the other direction as soon as he heard Levin was out.

The Republicans have to do something, or else they will be forced into "Plan D" -- a Democrat. Perish the thought.