Posted: April 13, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Beau was not there.

The Sussex County Democrats hosted their spring dinner over the weekend, and they crowded in more statewide candidates, ex-candidates and stealth candidates per square foot than Mayor Dennis Williams up in Wilmington has scheduling conflicts, and he hardly manages to get anywhere.

Beau Biden was not one of them. Oh, he sprang for a full page in the program with one of those vague messages -- "The 2016 election is going to be a critical one for Delaware's future" -- but that was it for the Democrats' only official candidate for governor.

Still, his absence was very much a presence.

It was like the air, invisible but everywhere, occupying every pocket of state politics, particularly on this Saturday evening inside the room at the Heritage Shores Country Club in Bridgeville with about 200 Democrats in attendance.

As one Democrat who was there said, "Everybody's waiting for the dominos to fall."

Until then, nobody knows who is running for what.

Not since 2008 has there been anything like this. Joe Biden was responsible back then.

His presidential campaign had the Delaware Democrats frozen loyally in place. Once he stumbled in the first caucuses in Iowa, they vamoosed in a flash. Jack Markell and John Carney might have been rivals for governor as the treasurer and lieutenant governor, but they both could not endorse Obama fast enough. Ruth Ann Minner, who was the governor, went with Clinton, and so on.

Never mind. There is no helping it. This is the way it is when a family has a hold on the heart of the party because of what Joe Biden has called the "Irishness of life," an epic of father-and-son political glory as vice president, senator and attorney general amid the jagged sorrow of the car accident, the brain aneurysms and, well, whatever the ailment is that laid Beau Biden low.

So the Democrats met in an emotional stew of fidelity, resignation and impatience, although it could be worse. It is not as if the Republicans are running Pete du Pont for governor.

People situated all along the candidate spectrum came and saw and were seen.

There was Tom Carper, the senator not up again until 2018, quipping, "My wife says I never stop running," and there was Jack Markell, the two-terms-and-out governor, maybe the only one with any credibility when he was asked what he was running for and he said cheerfully, "Nothing."

There were candidates who could campaign openly, like the ones for lieutenant governor, because no other office has ever been this available. Nobody has been the lieutenant governor since Matt Denn left in mid-term to be the Democratic attorney general.

Brad Eaby, a Kent County Levy Court commissioner, and Greg Fuller, once the Sussex County register of wills, have active campaigns for lieutenant governor. Kathy McGuiness, a Rehoboth Beach commissioner, is thinking about it. Pete Schwartzkopf, the speaker, keeps getting mentioned, too.

There were ex-candidates making the rounds, namely, Sean Barney, who ran for treasurer, and Brenda Mayrack, who ran for auditor, because who knows? Something else might come along.

Then there were the wink-wink-nod-nod candidates who, gee, if Beau gets out, maybe John Carney will give up his congressional seat to run for governor, and it could be theirs?

This would be "The Briens," as they have come to be called -- Bryan Townsend, who has the good fortune to be in the middle of his term as a state senator, and Bryon Short, who would have to give up his seat as a state representative to run.

Nor did it exclude Collin O'Mara, the keynote speaker, who is the former environmental secretary now running the National Wildlife Federation.

Not only could his remarks have been a congressional stump speech -- "There's a wing right now on the other side that's anti-science" -- but they included a hilarious made-for-Sussex tale about how he managed to get confirmed for Markell's Cabinet as a 29-year-old from upstate New York.

O'Mara recalled making his way to Bridgeville to meet with Thurman Adams, the late Sussex County power who was the Senate's Democratic president pro tem, and Adams took him to Jimmy's Grille and got him an order of scrapple, which O'Mara had never encountered before. He did what he had to do. He ate it.

"The word got back somehow from Jimmy's to Leg Hall that the boy's OK, the boy ate scrapple," O'Mara joked.

The most comfortable candidate in the place had to be John Carney, the only one who just needs to keep doing what he is doing, wherever the campaign season eventually takes him.

Carney gave the closing remarks, and he connected.

Some of it was the way he showed he has kept his good humor, despite his lot as a centrist Democrat among a horde of Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives, with a riff on what O'Mara had said.

"There is nobody in this room who knows the frustration and the craziness that Collin talked about than your lone member of Congress, I got to tell you. I live with these guys every single day, 'We don't do science! We deny science!'" Carney quipped.

Most of it, though, was the way Carney offered "a truly heartfelt thank you" for the concern he received last year when his father died and more recently when his son, a Clemson University student, was named in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Beau or no Beau, there was no getting away from the Irishness of life.