Posted: April 5, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Democrats' assembly was supposed to be a session for selecting delegates to their national nominating convention, but it turned into a homecoming for Joe Biden.

The convocation Saturday at the Dover Sheraton was the first time the state party had a mass meeting since Biden dropped out of the presidential running after the Iowa caucuses in early January, so it became a moment of mutual appreciation for the senator and his core supporters.

The loudest cheers of the day were for Biden, whose roots run so deep here that no Delaware Democrat of any consequence endorsed another presidential candidate until Biden was out of it -- although they jumped quickly afterwards, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to Hillary Clinton, Treasurer Jack Markell and Lt. Gov. John Carney to Barack Obama, and so on.

Biden has come home from the presidential wars before. He limped back 20 years ago, hounded out by the twin horns of plagiarism and an unstatesman-like temper, and the Democrats took him in and cradled him, but this time they could greet him as a hero, their party's voice on world events and obvious secretary-of-state material.

"I truly was hoping I would be standing here, chairing a caucus that would be electing the delegates to send the United States senator from Delaware to the White House," said John Daniello, the Democrats' state chair.

"The senator has been, as we all know, the pride of Delaware, not just to the citizens of Delaware, but the citizens of the country and around the world."

Biden was gracious about the way his campaign turned out. Well, not counting a sour thought or two about the press and the way it did such things as focus on his description of Obama as "articulate" and make something out of it.

Biden said he was proud to be part of a party that was about to nominate either an "incredibly talented" woman or African-American for president. 

"Many of you have said to me, it's just a shame, Joe. You know, it's not a shame. . . . .It's everything I fought for in my career. It's everything I care about. I say somewhat facetiously, it's too bad I got caught in this time warp. There's no room for anybody but Hillary and Barack at this moment in our history," he said.

"I'm going to say something that is a little impolitic. I particularly want to thank the African-American community in this state. With Barack full bore in the campaign, almost every one of you were full bore for me. It's something I will never ever, ever forget in my entire life. . . .

"The press, I'm sure, will somehow intentionally misrepresent what I said today. It will somehow have a racist tinge to it."

There could have been something of significance come out of the convention if either of the U.S. senators, who automatically are national delegates, used the occasion to make an endorsement, but Biden and Tom Carper kept mum.

Carper stuck to urging that the nominee ask the runner-up to sign up for vice president. Biden said he talks to both candidates -- to Clinton about once a week and Obama about three times in two weeks -- and promised he would help each of them and not endorse the other.

There also could have been some knock-down political brawls at the convention with the division not only between Clinton and Obama, but Carney and Markell for governor, Matt Denn and Ted Blunt for lieutenant governor, and Karen Weldin Stewart and Gene Reed Jr. for insurance commissioner. All of the statewide candidates were there, and the rivalries could have spilled into everything.

This is the Democratic Party, after all. Instead, the convention-goers stayed congenial, their mood no doubt buoyed by the floundering of the other party. The Republicans basically have blanks on their ballot where candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ought to be.

"We know we're going to win, so it's easy to be happy," said Rebecca Young, the New Castle County Democrats' secretary.

Even without any serious dissension, the delegate selection by 200 or so Democrats stretched over five hours, as the convention voted for 16 people to join seven automatic "super-delegates" -- Minner, Biden, Carper and four party officials -- for the state's 23-member contingent at the national nominating convention in August in Denver.

It was numbing, even with the party leaders doing what they could to move events along. New Castle County Chair Jim Paoli even banned applause to save time, so people in his county caucus resorted to a mass flashing of their fingers in the air, as though they were signaling 10-20-30-40! very rapidly. Not only was it speedier than clapping, it was amusing and broke the tedium.

Based on the results of the presidential primary in February, when Obama outpolled Clinton, the Democrats chose nine Obama delegates and six Clinton delegates, all balanced by gender and geography. They also chose one unpledged delegate, who was not really unpledged, because it was Rob Carver, a campaign coordinator for Obama.

Although the delegation is weighted for Obama, there is wiggle room because of the super-delegates who are free to vote as they please. Three of them -- Minner, National Committeeman Rhett Ruggerio and National Committeewoman Karen Valentine -- have endorsed Clinton, although they can switch to Obama if they want. The other super-delegates -- Biden, Carper, Daniello and Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor, the party's vice chair -- have expressed no preference.

A convention is the home turf of political insiders, and they carried the day. Every delegate came out of elected or party office, the presidential campaigns or the labor unions that are the Democrats' backbone. One deal was cut four years ago, when state Rep. Helene Keeley stepped aside to let state Sen. Patti Blevins be a delegate, so this time Blevins gave way to Keeley.

The Obama delegates are: Wilmington Councilwoman Stephanie Boulden; Darius Brown, an aide to Biden; Spencer Epps, an Obama volunteer; Sam Lathem, the state AFL-CIO president; Bernard Pepukayi, a lawyer in the governor's office; Wilmington Councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz; Elisa Vassas, an Obama campaign representative; Robin Whitaker, an Obama volunteer; and Tim Willard, a former Sussex County Democratic chair.

The Clinton delegates are: Crystal Barnett, a Clinton volunteer from the teachers union; Joe Dillon from the electrical workers union; Helene Keeley, the House Democratic whip; Betsy Maron, the New Castle County Democrats' parliamentarian; Kay Ryan, the Sussex Democrats' vice chair; and Ken Woods from the sheet metal workers union.

The last act of the convention was the delegation's election of its chair. It was not left to chance, either, as Daniello commandeered attention and said, "I would like to put my name in nomination for that position."

He won, of course, unopposed. No one beats the insiders' insider.