Posted: April 23, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Bill Lee, the ex-judge who cannot seem to get himself either into or out of the governor's race, knows exactly what the Republican state convention will be like for him. It will amount to spending time with Dopey and Goofy.

This is true. Lee will not be with the Republicans on Saturday, May 3, in Dewey Beach. He will be with his daughter and her family in Disney World.

If the Delaware Republicans have any thoughts about drafting Lee for governor, they are going to have to do it without him.

Lee is leaving Friday for Florida and will not be back for 10 days until Monday, May 5, after the Republicans did whatever they did. The timing of the trip is not to be ignored. The prime factors keeping Lee on the political sidelines are his family's reluctance to endure another campaign and the daunting task of amassing $1 million or $2 million to pay for it.

There were even family conditions put on the Disney getaway. No politics. No cell phone. Yikes! It sounds like an intervention, not a vacation. Lee's candidacy could hinge on his resourcefulness in tracking down Jiminy Cricket to wish upon a star so dreams come true.

"I am going to be incommunicado to the whole world. I will be interested in finding out what happened," Lee said.

Whatever happens, it will not surprise just Lee, but the party, too. Nothing has been predictable since Alan Levin, the former owner of Happy Harry's drugstores, sent the Republicans spinning by canning the candidacy they were counting on and leaving them without anyone of reckoning to run against Lt. Gov. John Carney or Treasurer Jack Markell, whoever wins the Democratic primary.

Lee was an obvious alternative, a Republican favorite who nearly denied Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor, a second term in 2004. As the weeks passed without anyone in the party leadership putting it together, he grew impatient and ruled himself out last month. In rapid succession, so did House Speaker Terry Spence and state Rep. Donna Stone.

It was not the Republicans' finest hour. With the party floundering and the calendar turning, Lee was urged to reconsider. He has not said yes, but he has not said no, either, and he let his continuing interest be known when he was talked into going to the Republican Governors Association in Washington earlier this month to find out what sort of support it might provide.

"This is something I want to do so much -- so much! -- but it does have to be doable. It takes a perfect storm under the best of circumstances, and under the worst of circumstances, it would be wreckage on the beach," Lee said.

There has been a good deal of talk about drafting Lee for governor at the convention, where the delegates will vote to endorse a slate of statewide candidates for the primary on Tuesday, Sept. 9.

Otherwise, the Republicans are left with the enigmatic Mike Protack, a compulsive candidate for higher office, or the even more obscure Dave Graham, who wanted the gubernatorial endorsement the last time but could not find a single delegate to place his name before the convention. Lee may be the one going to the Magic Kingdom, but this is Fantasyland.

Political drafts have happened in Delaware before. There is even a famous case with an absent candidate, back in the days before primaries when the parties settled on their nominees at conventions. Democrat Allen Frear returned from a reunion of his old college fraternity in Utah to find his party had put him on the ticket for the U.S. Senate in 1948. He won, too.

Lee himself flirted with a draft once before. "Draft Judge Lee" buttons sprouted in the lead-up to the 2000 gubernatorial election, when he had become a household name with his deft handling of the mercurial murder trial of Tom Capano. It did not take a draft, though, to get Lee to pursue his longtime dream of the governorship. He retired from the bench and declared his candidacy.

Lee came tantalizingly close to the nomination, losing the primary by 46 votes. Ever since then, he has been inseparable from the governorship in Republican minds.

"There's a lot of people I talk to who want to draft Bill Lee," said Ron Sams, the Republican chair of Sussex County, which is Lee's home base.

"I have said from day one that Bill Lee is our best chance of winning the governorship. This is one of those things that probably will take on a life of its own," said Vance Phillips, a Sussex County councilman who is also the Republicans' state vice chair.

Still fretting about family and financing, Lee has guaranteed nothing if drafted -- "I haven't said yes to anyone" -- but he would be hard-pressed to accept.

"My feeling is a significant number of delegates would be very pleased to have a broader choice for governor. If there is a true draft, I'm confident he would give it very major consideration. He is doing nothing to encourage it and nothing to discourage it," said Terry Strine, the Republicans' state chair.

Whatever happens, Lee will be the last to know. If he discovers he has not been endorsed, he expects to fade quietly out of politics. "If it hasn't happened, I can just be forgotten and allowed to turn brown in the sun," he said.

If Lee is endorsed, he will become the first winner ever to say, "I'm back from Disney World!"