Posted: Feb. 22, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Kent County Democrats liked the idea of Darryl Scott as a legislative candidate right away. He was a businessman with some political experience as both a party volunteer and a member of the Capital School Board.

They liked the idea even more as they thought about a campaign against state Rep. Nancy Wagner, the eight-term Republican who has ensconced herself in an administrative post at Delaware State University and aggressively safeguarded a state paycheck in the prison system for her husband Bud, as though the legislature were a job fair.

The dual employment holdings, Wagnerian as they are, made it into general circulation with a story earlier this month in the Sunday News Journal, and the next week a press release on Scott's candidacy came flying out.

Coincidence? The Republicans think not. "I think everybody can draw their own conclusions," said John Davis, the Kent County Republican chair.

The boldness of the press release should be regarded by the voters in the 31st Representative District as an early warning system signaling what they are in for.

This Dover-area setting is one of the battlegrounds that will determine the control of the Delaware House of Representatives. The Republicans have run it since 1984, but their majority in the 41-member chamber has dwindled to 22-19, and the Democrats are threatening a takeover.

Kent County in general will be the scene of ferocious legislative battles. The Democrats, who asserted themselves in 2006 after years of woeful showings in the the state's middle county, want to build on their momentum with a serious class of challengers they recruited for 2008, and the Republicans know it.

Abby Betts, the Democratic county chair, put it this way, "We have opportunities, and we want to take advantage of them."

Davis, the Republican county chair, promised a pushback. "We had a bad year in 2006. We did not do the things we needed to do as an organization, and we need to remedy that," he said.

Seats in both the state Senate and House will be in play.

In hopes of helping the Senate Democrats pad their 13-8 majority, the Kent Democrats are focusing on two races against Colin Bonini, a Republican senator since 1994, and John Still, a Republican senator whose 20-year tenure included a stint as minority leader.

Even more is at stake in the House elections. The Kent Democrats have two seats to defend -- the ones held by newly-elected Reps. Bob Walls and Bill Carson -- but they also are zeroing in on Wagner as well as Reps. Donna Stone and Pam Thornburg, all Republicans of long standing.

Still, it is Wagner whose race stands out because of her potential vulnerability. More ominously, there already were hints of warning in her endeavor to hold onto a district where the voter registration tilts Democratic.

Wagner under-performed the other Kent Republican legislators in 2006, when she slipped to 54 percent of the vote against Prameela Kaza, a weak Democratic challenger she previously outpolled 63 percent to 37 percent in 2000. In between those two contests, Wagner was unopposed in 2004.

As legislators go, Wagner is no shrinking violet. She is more of a shrieking violet, one who asked so many questions from her perch on the Joint Finance Committee that her inquisition of witnesses during budget hearings became known as "Wagner time." It was like a reckoning with the school teacher she once was.

Wagner did not care what anyone said about her questioning, and she is far from flummoxed at the prospect of fending off the Democrats and unfavorable news coverage.

"I don't think any of us know what to make of it. I've taken care of my folks for 16 years, and I represent their viewpoint. If they want to have me back to keep working for them, that would be great," Wagner said.

"What is it that the Democrats want? They want to take over the House, and I'm in a Democratic district," she added.

The Democrats for their part are eager to keep the pressure on. Scott, the Democratic candidate, talks about "a great opportunity to restore integrity and accountability to the position." He is already out campaigning.

"When you have something like this happen in the district, all you have to do is go out to the people and talk to them. Darryl's been door knocking, and the reception has been overwhelming," said Betts, the Democratic chair.

In politics, timing is everything. With a credible challenger and a wounded incumbent, this election has the Kent Democrats thinking it could be ripe to turn "Wagner time" into their time.