Posted: Feb. 15, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Colin Bonini raked in a lot of money when he was running for state treasurer in the last election. How he got a bunch of it is for him to know and the voters to find out.

Fat chance with that.

There were never any signs Bonini had it in him to be a money magnet. A state senator from a Dover-area seat since 1994, he has not been known for much beyond being a back bencher in the Republican minority caucus in the "Row of No" -- the rear seats where he sits with Joe Booth and Dave Lawson, fellow conservative naysayers from downstate.

Oh, and for supplying the one Republican vote that Tony DeLuca, the Senate's resident tough guy, needed to squelch a rebellion in his own ranks and stay as the Democratic president pro tem.

Just when voting no would have mattered, Bonini goes and votes yes.

Bonini dithered for years about running statewide and finally got around to it in 2010, when the treasurer's office was in play. The sitting treasurer was Velda Jones-Potter, a Democratic placeholder put there by Jack Markell when he moved up to be Delaware's Democratic governor, and Jones-Potter was involved in a party primary with Chip Flowers.

It was a free-for-all. When all was settled, Flowers won not only the primary but a squeaker of an election by beating Bonini with 51 percent of the vote.

Along the way, Bonini raised $608,100. It did not put him in the same league as, say, Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general whose famous name and connections brought him more than $1 million in contributions, even though the Republicans did not even field a candidate against him.

Still, Bonini fared considerably better than Flowers, a lawyer who largely self-financed his campaign with personal loans of more than $250,000.

Bonini's secret weapon was a PAC called Responsible Delaware PAC.

PACs, or political action committees, are a gigantic tempting loophole in the state campaign finance law. Statewide candidates are not allowed to accept individual contributions of more than $1,200 for their official campaign organizations, but PACs can take contributions of unlimited amounts.

While Bonini's campaign painstakingly collected $258,600, his Responsible Delaware PAC vacuumed up another $349,500, some of it in mega-contributions, according to their financial disclosure reports.

The biggest contribution of them all was $190,000 from North Star Campaign LLC, whatever that is. No fooling, $190,000 from some mysterious limited liability corporation that is essentially a mail drop and legally does not have to explain anything more about itself. Nor does Bonini.

"It's Responsible Delaware PAC, and I'm responsible for it," Bonini said.

North Star, North Star, hmmm . . . Even school children know how to find the North Star in the night sky. It makes Bonini the Big Dipper.

Maybe North Star is really John Still? The former Republican minority leader in the Senate had his moments with Bonini, but Still could have had a change of heart and thought Bonini's PAC deserved to get $190,000.

"No, I didn't give him a dollar ninety. When I was in leadership, I did what I had to do. Now I give to my favorite candidates," Still said.

Maybe North Star is actually Abby Betts? The Kent County Democratic chair might be a secret admirer who directed $190,000 toward Bonini.

"No, that would not be me, but I would love to know who did," Betts said.

Wait, who is that over there? Yes, in the vicinity of the black bag. Why, it is Jim Taylor, a lawyer and loyal Republican. Maybe he knows something about North Star.

"That's sort of me," Taylor said.

Sort of. Taylor acknowledged he drew up the legal papers creating North Star, which was set up as a fund to advocate for smaller government and lower taxes. He said he was one of the contributors, but he would not name any others, and he said he was no longer involved with it.

Well, that was certainly helpful.

Responsible Delaware PAC got other big contributions for the 2010 election from a number of downstate builders and developers, like $55,000 from Craig and Joe Hudson of Milton, $20,000 from Daniel Anderson of Rehoboth Beach, and $19,000 from Richard Johnson & Son in Milford.

"I'm a property rights guy," Bonini said. "All those guys on my list are strong conservatives. I'm proud of being able to get the support of these wonderful guys."

Almost all of the PAC money went for campaign mailers. By law, a PAC is not allowed to expressly advocate for a candidate, but it can do the next best thing.

As it did in one mailer, it could use pictures of Bonini, include his campaign slogan saying, "It's your money," and urge, "Call Colin Bonini . . . and tell him to keep up his fight to protect our tax dollars."

As it did in another mailer, it could mock up a picture of Flowers with dollar bills coming out of his briefcase and demand, "Call Chip Flowers . . . and tell him we can't afford his big-government spending plan."

Since the 2010 election, Bonini has continued to collect money for the PAC. He took in more than $80,000 -- with $75,000 of it coming from Anderson, the Rehoboth Beach real estate power.

Bonini is running again for his Senate seat in 2012, but it sure looks like he has other plans.

"I'd like to try [statewide] one more time. I got really, really close in a very tough year. I continue to think there is room at the top for a conservative voice," Bonini said.

A conservative voice, sure, but it might be nice for the voters to know if there is a $190,000 ventriloquist behind it?