Posted: March 16, 2006
IF TROUBLE KNOCKS, IT IS NOT FOR CARL DANBERG
By Celia Cohen
All anyone needs to know about Carl C. Danberg, the new attorney general, is what happened when he was asked for his mother's unlisted telephone number so she could be called for an interview.
He said he would have to ask for her permission to give it out.
Maybe he was being the dutiful son. Maybe he figured he had better check out what she might say. He did come up with the telephone number. Promptly.
What Delaware has here is an attorney general with an instinct for staying out of trouble.
"He's a very, very solid guy, a breath of fresh air. He's got no political agenda. He's bent on doing the right thing," said Lawrence M. Sullivan, the state's public defender.
If anyone has all sorts of official reasons not to say nice things about Danberg, it is Sullivan. He defends, Danberg prosecutes. He is a Republican, Danberg is a Democrat. Instead, Sullivan is wise to the new tone of the Justice Department.
Not that Danberg flees from conflict. He simply has shown himself adept at sidestepping it.
In the four months since Danberg was named attorney general, he easily could have been engulfed by controversy. He not only avoided it, he did it with hardly anyone even noticing that he had.
There was no bigger potential firestorm in criminal justice than the fate of Thomas J. Capano, the diabolical lawyer with a lady-killer style that turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Delaware has watched for nearly 10 years to see whether Capano with his wealth and political connections could get away with the murder of Anne Marie Fahey, the scheduler for U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper when he was the state's Democratic governor.
Only weeks had elapsed since Danberg assumed office when Capano's death sentence was thrown out. The state had to decide either to go back to court for a new death penalty hearing or have Capano sentenced to life.
Danberg consulted with the Fahey family and the prosecutors. The passage of time and the family's reluctance to re-live the crime persuaded him to let the death penalty go. He announced the decision and gave the reasons.
There was no public outcry. "I had people come up and say Capano deserved the death penalty, but that's about as strenuous as it was," said William Swain Lee, the retired judge who presided at the murder trial.
Maybe there would have been the same calm if M. Jane Brady still had been the attorney general. Maybe not. Brady never turned the other cheek, so to speak, unless it was for the political equivalent of flashing a moon.
In 15 years of politics as a Republican senatorial candidate and attorney general, Brady was known for slamming U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. with old plagiarism charges, getting into a tabloid-television argument with Geraldo Rivera about a baby-killing case involving two teen-agers, and picking a fight with a federal judge over a dormant abortion law.
Who knows what would have happened with Capano. Danberg was there, and Brady was not.
In retrospect, Danberg's tenure could have imploded before it started. It did not germinate under the best of circumstances.
The vacancy itself was a political stunner. The Republicans were counting on Brady to run for a fourth term in November in what was expected to be a fierce campaign against Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the Democratic senator's son making his first bid for office.
Brady was coming off a shaky victory in 2002, and without telling her party, she bolted for a judgeship in a deal across party lines. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and her fellow Democrats in the Senate majority were happy to make Brady a judge and get her out of the way.
There was widespread speculation that Minner would turn the office over to Beau Biden, but he was already a legacy candidate and did not want to compound it with a back-door appointment to incumbency. Danberg, the chief deputy attorney general since 2004, was a logical and immensely quieter alternative.
Not only was Danberg a Democrat who was made the chief deputy by a Republican attorney general, but Minner knew him from his previous work as the top aide to Stanley W. Taylor Jr., her corrections commissioner.
It can be considered something of a miracle that Danberg had the trust of both Minner and Brady, politicians from opposite parties, neither regarded as easy to get along with. If this is not a knack for dodging trouble, nothing is.
"Carl has been able to be a confidant to Gov. Minner and Attorney General Brady at the same time," Taylor said. "People will say he's a lucky man, he was in the right place at the right time. But that is not the case. He was ready. Chance played a role in tapping him on the shoulder."
Within hours of accepting the appointment as attorney general, Danberg extracted himself from politics, saying he had no interest in running for the office and pledging as a Democrat to support Biden.
Some Republicans tried to make something of it, charging Danberg would be nothing but a surrogate for Biden, but it went nowhere. Not even other Republicans would believe it.
Danberg's rise to a 13-month appointment as the state's prime legal officer is a classic Delaware story that weaves its way to some of the best-known people and events in politics here.
Danberg is not a lifelong Delawarean. He just seems like one. He got here, as so many others did, in the great influx of families to New Castle County in the 1960s, drawn by the scientific boom and a prospering suburban life.
Born on Aug. 29, 1964, Danberg was the youngest of five children in the family of James and Mary Lou Danberg in Silver Spring, Md. Jim Danberg worked for NASA until the agency had cutbacks, and then he became a professor at the University of Delaware and moved the family to Newark.
Carl Danberg was a toddler when they arrived, and he never left. He went to school in Newark and has his own family with two daughters there now. The farthest he got away was Widener law school.
Mary Lou Danberg, originally from the Pennsylvania mountains where her grandfather and his brother were Irish immigrants who worked in the coal mines and ended up owning them, raised the children with similar farsightedness in the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church.
That Irish-American, Catholic, Democratic combination leads inevitably in Delaware to one wellspring -- Joe Biden. Mary Lou Danberg volunteered for his campaigns, and Carl Danberg was offered an internship in the Senate office one winter session while he was a student at the University of Delaware.
He loved politics as much as his mother did. "We thought we'd never get him home," Mary Lou Danberg said.
Biden was not Danberg's only college-age connection to politics. He also gravitated to Professor James R. Soles, a political scientist with a widespread patronage that also includes Tom Carper and former Secretary of State Edward J. Freel on the Democratic side and Chancellor William B. Chandler III and Jane Brady on the Republican side. Soles himself is a sort of bipartisan Democrat.
After graduation, Danberg worked as a staffer for Biden's presidential and senatorial campaigns. In addition, he went to law school, an experience that proved to be as life-changing for him as politics. It was good, and it was bad.
The good was meeting a fellow law student and deciding he wanted to marry her, although in Danberg's penchant for steering clear of trouble, she had to pass muster first. Barbara Snapp Danberg was invited to a party, where Danberg's friends tested her and Jim Soles sat her down and grilled her. They all fell in love with her, too.
"If you don't marry her, you're a fool," Soles said.
The bad was a drunken-driving arrest. "August 6, 1987," Danberg said, the date clearly as unforgettable for him as children's birthdates are for their parents.
"Everything that happens to you in your life, you have to use the best you can. It's a constant reminder that I am capable of making dreadful mistakes, and I was very lucky," Danberg said. He went through a first offenders program, and it went away.
Danberg became a deputy attorney general in 1994. Soon Jane Brady was running for the office, and this was a problem. As a Biden staffer, Danberg was assigned to follow her in 1990 when she declared her candidacy for the Senate and record her announcement in all three counties. He was sure he knew what was coming after she was elected attorney general and called him in.
"I was absolutely certain I was going to be fired. She couldn't understand why I was so nervous," Danberg said. Eventually he blurted, "Are you sure you know who I am?"
Brady did. She said it did not matter. In fact, she selected him Deputy Attorney General of the Year in 1995. "For all of the public criticism of her for being overly political, she was always straightforward with me," Danberg said.
As a deputy, Danberg represented the Corrections Department. When Stan Taylor was promoted to commissioner in 1996, he recruited Danberg to become his senior assistant. Danberg went, but he still wanted to practice law, so it led him to join the Delaware National Guard's Judge Advocate General's Corps, where he remains as a major.
In Danberg's early days with the prison system, Tom Capano committed his dreadful murder and was prosecuted by Colm F. Connolly, then an assistant U.S. attorney, and Ferris W. Wharton, a deputy attorney general, in what became an enduring partnership. After Connolly became the U.S. attorney in 2001, he persuaded Wharton, who had become the chief deputy attorney general, to join him as a federal prosecutor in 2003.
Wharton left, and the chief deputy's spot sat open for nearly a year. "We just couldn't find someone," said Glenn C. Kenton, a former secretary of state and Republican strategist who was a close adviser to Brady.
The Republicans were out of power and had no pool of government lawyers to tap. The annual salary of about $119,000 was too low to attract a Republican lawyer in private practice with enough stature to have the respect of a very experienced senior staff. Brady was working with Danberg on prison issues, and Democrat or not, he was asked to become her chief deputy.
Danberg nearly did not accept. He thought it could hurt both of them -- "that merger of a conservative Republican and a moderate Democrat" -- but he talked with his wife and decided to take the chance.
"If I hadn't taken that risk, I never would have been in this position," Danberg said. "I have fallen into stuff my whole career. I honestly believe there must be a God, because you can't explain my life any other way. I'm still trying to figure out what He's got in mind for me."
Danberg took his oath as attorney general on Dec. 8 in a ceremony in Dover. Brady, newly robed the day before, swore him in. He offered a wry assessment of his situation, saying with his customary humor, "Normally a ceremony of this type would start with a thank-you to the voters. This time it won't work."
Danberg does not know what comes next. His name is mentioned as someone who could take over as corrections commissioner whenever Taylor, who has worked in the prisons for 30 years, retires, but Danberg himself has talked about the likelihood of going into private practice.
He does know he will leave the Attorney General's Office no matter who is elected, whether it is Beau Biden or someone else. The Republicans want Ferris Wharton to run, but he has not committed yet.
"I don't think it's an option to stay, much as I know the office. No matter who is the next attorney general, they deserve and have the right to surround themselves with people who are loyal to them," Danberg said.
It is just another case of knowing how to stay out of trouble.