Posted: March 17, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Today was Michael E. Harkins' day, St. Patrick's Day, when everyone loves an Irish-American, maybe even one going to court the next day to be sentenced.

Harkins, the ex-secretary of state who got into trouble as the free-spending executive director of the Delaware River & Bay Authority, was in his element Thursday, as gleaming and gritty as the Irish green emerald-in-the-rough he always has styled himself.

Harkins is a founder and co-chairman of the St. Patrick's Day Society, an assemblage of mostly Irish-Americans, mostly with political connections, who for 12 years now have sponsored a Communion Mass & Breakfast to raise money for the St. Patrick's Center and its programs for the elderly, disadvantaged and homeless on Wilmington's East Side.

The Mass is held at St. Patrick's Church at 15th and King Streets. The breakfast used to be in the church basement, but the crowd outgrew it, so now everyone lines up behind bagpipers after the church service and gets piped up King Street to MBNA at Rodney Square for breakfast with white tablecloths and green napkins and sumptuous splendor.

There was Harkins, following the bagpipers, for a parade up the hill as well as a walk down memory lane. He pointed out the sites as he trudged along, a green carnation in his lapel.

He was baptized at St. Pat's. He was born in the row house at 1213 King St., now a law office. If he had kept going, he would have come to the federal courthouse where he pleaded guilty last March for using the bi-state authority, which runs the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, as a personal piggy bank.

Harkins will be back at the courthouse on Friday. He could get up to two years in prison for his binge of air and limousine travel, hotel stays and meals, to sample the best basketball games and golf courses and even go to a college reunion, often with family and friends.

St. Patrick's Day was a last hurrah done the way Harkins always liked it, hundreds of people gathered together because of something he thought up, doing well by doing good.

The Mass and breakfast have become a fixture in the political calendar, a do-not-miss event held in a city where ethnic politics still counts, although on this day, as the tradition goes, everyone is Irish.

For each Biden and Brady, as in U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Jr. and Attorney General M. Jane, there were a Baker and a Markell, as in Mayor James M. and Treasurer Jack A., at the gathering. The crowd did tilt Democratic, though, and an uncommon lot of it would have turned around if someone had called out, "Hey, Joe!" or "Hey, Mike!"

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was singled out for never missing the breakfast, and never mind that she appointed the commissioners who forced Harkins out at the authority. U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan was spotted at the Mass, and never mind that he will be on the bench tomorrow with a lot to say about when Harkins can attend his next St. Patrick's Day. Only in Delaware.

Harkins at his best has a bubbly personality, but he was down a notch or two, brave front in place, coming across as though nothing was wrong when it came time for him to present one of those oversized checks for $106,800, a record, to the charity.

There also was a surprise for him. The St. Patrick's Day Society made him the co-winner of its Dan Frawley Community Service Award, named for the late Mayor Daniel S. Frawley. The other co-winner was Joseph P. Farley Sr., a former Democratic state chairman who founded the society along with Harkins and Frawley.

The award, according to the program, goes to people whose dedication to service improves the community. Tomorrow Harkins is likely to be told he can improve the community further by leaving it.

On a scale of polite to laudatory, the applause for Harkins came in at about dutiful. Still, it was applause, and it was an award that Harkins cares about.

"I'll never forget it," he said. "Thank you."

The entertainment was an Irish comic named Joey Callahan, who pointed out, "When do we get together, really? When somebody dies."

If the Irish are known for waking the dead, maybe this was reprieving the prison-bound.

Politics is like gravity. What goes up has to come down. If Harkins had his day today, tomorrow comes his night.