Posted: March 8, 2005


William Swain Lee is not going away

William Swain Lee is acting like someone who ran into his high school sweetheart after a lapse of 22 years and fell in love all over again.

In his case, his old flame would be politics, and he seems willing to do whatever it takes to keep the fire burning. If he cannot be governor, then Sussex County Republican chairman will do.

Bill Lee appears to be the consensus choice to take over the post from Phyllis M. Byrne, who is running instead for state vice chairwoman. The Sussex Republicans have scheduled an organizational meeting for Monday, and Lee is expected to have no opposition for a two-year term as the leader of the most Republican of Delaware's three counties.

Politicians love to pretend they are running because of a clamor for them to do so, but it really seems to be true for Lee. "It was as honest a draft as it could be," he said. "I'm going to be available, and I expect to have substantial support."

Talk about your full circle. Lee was the Sussex Republican chairman once upon a long time ago, from 1973 to 1977, and maybe it was inevitable that he would be back.

Lee left politics to spend 22 years as a judge, but as he once said, "I was raised in politics." The Swains, who have been in Delaware for more than 300 years,  were Sussex Republicans, and the Lees, who have been here for 200 years or so, were Middletown Democrats. After Lee caught the public's attention as the judge in Thomas J. Capano's publicity-prone murder trial, he eagerly let himself be pulled back in.

Two dauntingly close runs for governor did not cure him. Lee lost the 2000 Republican primary for governor by 44 votes and the 2004 election to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat re-elected with only 51 percent of the vote.

Since the election, Lee has handled a few mediation cases for Bifferato Gentilotti & Biden, the law firm he joined in 2003, and indulged himself in another one of his long-running love affairs, this one for Duke University basketball, but it has not been enough.

"I feel a little unfulfilled right now, and I don't feel I'm old enough to be an elder statesman," said Lee, who is 69. "I've been going to a lot of basketball games. I felt deprived in the past few years, so I'm saturating myself."

Lee has no illusions about the county chairmanship, a post known for being payless and thankless. He quoted someone else who once had the job and said about it, "County chairman is something that it's nice to have been."

Who knows, maybe twice is even better.

Money player

State Sen. John C. Still III, the Republican minority leader from Dover, is the winner and new champion of the Most Expensive Senate Seat, a political "M.E.S.S." if there ever was one.

Still spent more than $150,000 to keep the seat he first won in 1988, turning back an onslaught in 2004 from Democrat Brian J. Bushweller, who is the state director for U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and served as a Cabinet secretary when Carper was the governor.

Still appeared to need every dollar of it, too. In overcoming a 12-point Democratic registration edge and Carper's backing for the man known in Legislative Hall as "Bushwacker," Still got himself to barely 51 percent of the vote.

Bushweller spent nearly $100,000 on his campaign, an amount that also qualifies for the upper reaches of Senate spending. Together the two candidates busted through the record $200,000 race waged in 2002 when Senate Minority Whip Liane M. Sorenson, a Republican in the Hockessin-Newark area, kept her seat against Richard A. DiLiberto Jr., then a Democratic representative, with each candidate spending about $100,000.

"A quarter-million race, the most expensive Senate race in state history," Still said.

Although Still acknowledged that the money seemed exorbitant, basically he was proud of it. "You got to do what you got to do, and I did it," he said.

Still did not seem to mind if others picked up a M.E.S.S.-age in his fund-raising prowess, especially if those others included House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith and state Sen. Charles L. Copeland in his own party or Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell in the other one. Like Still, all of them are regarded as prospects for governor in 2008.

Copeland is a du Pont, and Markell just added $725,000 of his own money to build his treasury for his 2006 re-election campaign beyond $1 million.

Still all but said he figured he could match whatever they did. At his peak, he said he was collecting about $12,000 a month, even with the maximum contribution to a legislative race limited to $600 per election.

"I guess that means I can raise money," Still said. "I could have kept raising money, if I had to."