Posted: April 27, 2005


A match-up for Markell?

Delaware Republicans may not be as upset as they once sounded when the New Castle County Council fired Robert I. Hicks, the auditor whose stormy dismissal earlier this year sent them into a high cockalorum of frothy press releases and talk-show breast beating.

It seems they have discovered that Hicks, who was both hired and fired by Democrats, is a Republican. Who knew?

Now that they have put a halo on him, the Republicans also could put Hicks on their statewide ticket to run against state Treasurer Jack A. Markell, the Democrats' rising star who will be up for his third term in 2006.

It would be a huge relief for the Republicans, not only plugging a hole on their ballot but doing it with a credible candidate with a modicum of name recognition to take on Markell, a top vote-getter who is expected to contend for the 2008 Democratic nomination for governor.

Hicks showed up Saturday at the Republicans' state convention in Brandywine Hundred, a sure sign that the delicate courtship that precedes the marriage of a party and a candidate is on.

Hicks is acting like someone who would not mind being wooed. "There are people who have asked me to consider running. The idea is very intriguing. There are some hurdles that have to be overcome," he said. "Even if I have a small chance of winning, I need to know there's a small chance."

The Republicans are acting like a party that does not mind doing the wooing. "Any party would be honored to have a candidate with Bob Hicks' integrity and commitment to public service on its ticket," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

If Hicks does run for treasurer, it would be a twist that no one foresaw. Up until now, he simply seemed to be the man with the blindfold and cigarette in a circular firing squad where the guns belonged mostly, if not exclusively, to Democrats. The Republicans had little reason to care about Hicks -- except to use him as an excuse for some all-purpose criticism of the other party and the way it has run the County Council.

Hicks came onto the New Castle County political scene as part of the warfare between Thomas P. Gordon, then the Democratic county executive, and Sherry L. Freebery, his top aide, on one side and Christopher A. Coons, then the Democratic council president, on the other.

Coons managed to have Hicks hired as auditor and touted it as a victory for ethics in government, a counter to the scandal and federal investigation spiraling around Gordon and Freebery. Hicks became central to such matters as exposing the residency problem that forced the resignation of the county attorney whom Gordon appointed.

Hicks, 48, a resident of Salem Woods near Newark, was brought in as a professional auditor, a Temple University graduate who previously worked at MBNA and Campbell Soup. His political preferences never came up.

"I don't believe we asked that question. The auditor's position is registration-neutral," said County Councilman Penrose Hollins, who is a Democrat.

Hollins said he was surprised to learn of Hicks' party affiliation shortly after his hiring, but it did not matter to him, and he became perhaps Hicks' strongest defender.

"I think the guy was a consummate professional. He was determined to be an auditor, no matter what the obstacles," Hollins said.

The 2004 election scrambled the county government. Coons became the county executive after dumping Freebery in a Democratic primary and winning the general election. The council presidency went to Paul G. Clark, who got there by beating Hollins for the Democratic nomination.

Hollins remained on the council, but he did not have the clout to keep Clark from ousting Hicks and replacing him with Robert B. Wasserbach. Ironically Wasserbach, who also has financial experience, may have taken a reverse path from Hicks -- going from candidate to the county. Wasserbach came to political attention by running statewide for the Democrats in 2002 against Republican Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr.

In the fallout from the Democratic feuding, the Republicans learned that Hicks was one of their own. Not only was he a Republican, but he was self-described as a "black conservative Republican" -- the exact demographic group they are interested in cultivating in hopes of expanding their base.

No wonder visions of candidacy seem to be dancing in their heads. Markell for his part probably is grateful he just became the chair of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, a high-profile organization that is a magnet for African-American professionals.

Hicks for now has returned to auditing and consulting. This week he is working at a site near Reading, Pa. If he becomes a candidate, the turmoil he experienced at the county will be good preparation. Not even his friend Penrose Hollins could stick with him against Jack Markell.

"That would be a little difficult, I think," Hollins said, laughing. "Bob and I are pretty tight, but I don't think I'd be able to make that one work."

Harkins goes to a Pennsylvania prison

Michael E. Harkins turned himself in Monday at Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in the mountains north of Harrisburg, Pa., about a 90-mile drive from Delaware.

Federal corrections officials initially told Harkins to report to a facility in West Virginia, but he was brought closer to home after U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan, who sentenced him, requested it to make visiting easier for a Harkins family member who is ill.

Schuylkill is the same prison that housed Kermit H. Justice, the state transportation secretary who was caught extorting a bribe in a federal sting and went to jail in 1993.

Prison officials are projecting Harkins' release as April 29, 2006.