Posted: March 16, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

It was a dark and stormy night. John Carney had a fund-raiser. It figures.

Even Mother Nature would not give him a break.

It was just another reminder that Carney, the Democratic congressional candidate, used to be the lieutenant governor. If a lieutenant governor falls on a deserted island, does it make a sound?

The unofficial motto of lieutenant governors in Delaware is, So Near And Yet So Far. Sometimes they move up, more often they do not.

It is an office that brings with it a whiff of second string, and it is best to remember Bill Clinton and not inhale. It can do a politician no good.

Some lieutenant governors do get to more rarefied air. Bert Carvel and Ruth Ann Minner, both Democrats, were elected governor. Mike Castle, a Republican, was not only elected governor but also congressman and still could make it to senator.

Other lieutenant governors get big-footed, as in the cautionary tales of S.B. Woo, a Democrat, and Gene Bookhammer, a Republican.

Woo tried twice to get to Capitol Hill, but it was no use. He could not dislodge Bill Roth, the Republican senator, and Castle beat him out to become the state's delegation-of-one in the House of Representatives.

Bookhammer could not get by fellow Republican Pete du Pont. Bookhammer wanted the congressional seat, but du Pont snagged it. Ditto for the governorship.

Bookhammer even lost to du Pont in a contest staged by Republicans in Sussex County to see which of them was faster putting clothes on a bare female mannequin. True story. It happened in 1974. Politicians apparently were more comfortable acknowledging this skill back then.

Carney's trajectory after two terms as lieutenant governor is still a work in progress. It plummeted when he was out-gunned and out-flanked in the 2008 Democratic primary that sent Jack Markell onward to governor, but there is reason enough to believe Carney can still turn it around.

In more prosperous days Carney might have had a better shot at governor, but his candidacy was a way for voters to repudiate Minner, the caretaker as the economy slid south.

The woes of the governor get visited on the lieutenant governor.

Carney started a year ago to rebuild his political career by setting his sights on the congressional seat. It was something of a gamble, because the seat was occupied by Mike Castle, the fellow ex-lieutenant governor who was still deciding whether to run for the Senate or for re-election or retire.

Carney looked like the smartest guy in politics when Castle settled on the Senate race and the Republicans went month after month with nobody to plug in. In a little state with 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans, Carney was regarded as one of the best Democratic bets in the country to pick off a Republican seat.

Not so fast. The Republicans finally countered. They are waiting for a commitment from Michele Rollins, the wealthy business executive they expect to be able to capitalize on voters' twin frustrations with the economy and government. She could give Carney a run for her money.

It should be noted that Rollins' husband John, who died in 2000, was once a lieutenant governor himself. He was elected to one term in 1952, although she was not around then. She was seven years old at the time.

Eight years as lieutenant governor are a lesson in patience. Carney is staying focused on what he has to do -- like the fund-raiser Friday evening at a home in Brandywine Hundred. The event went on despite a drenching that could have impelled creatures to line up two by two.    

Carney did not mention Rollins in his remarks to about 35 people, who paid $100 to be contributors or $250 to be supporters.

"What I hear most from folks is anxiety and pain about the state of the economy. I've never seen it this bad in my lifetime," he said. "Getting people back to work, that's got to be our primary focus. It will be mine as a member of Congress."

Carney plods on, trying to get himself back to political work.

It could be worse. Castle could have run for re-election.