Posted: May 10, 2004
A DEMOCRATIC SKELETON IN THE GOP CHAIRMAN'S CLOSET
By Celia Cohen
When Terry A. Strine was running for chairman of the Delaware Republican Party a year ago, he faced questions about whether he really lived in Pennsylvania.
The state Republicans had a leadership vacuum at the time, so they installed him, anyway. Now Strine is facing new questions that are potentially more damaging, questions about his Republican credentials.
A check of Strine's voter history shows he has not always been a Republican during 36 years of registration in New Castle County. Since 1968 he has jumped around, voting as a Republican, an independent and even -- perish the thought! -- a Democrat.
Strine first registered as a Republican. Ten years later in 1978, he switched to independent. In 1984, he switched to Democrat. In 1986, he switched back to independent. In 1996, he went back to Republican.
Voter history is public information, kept on file at the county election departments. Strine's record was checked after a recent telephone tip to Delaware Grapevine.
Strine is a movement conservative. He calls Ronald Reagan "the best president of the last century" and Pierre S. du Pont "the best governor in the last 50 years." Both of them were in office in 1984 when Strine became a Democrat. The timing could not have been stranger.
Strine was interviewed Monday morning about his periodic lapses in Republicanism, ironically just before he boarded a chartered bus to lead a field trip for party officials and donors to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Asked why he registered as a Democrat, Strine said, "Don't know. Don't think it matters."
It does matter. To the uninitiated, there is no explaining how bad it is. Regardless of affiliation, politicians almost universally prize loyalty as one of the finest of traits and cannot bring themselves to trust party switchers.
There are precious few instances when politicians accept it, and it usually has to do with mirroring the changing nature of a constituency, as when U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond switched from Democrat to Republican in 1964 in the vanguard of political realignment in the South.
Most often, party switching is unthinkable, the lowest of acts, something on the order of a Benedict Arnold or Axis Sally of politics.
Strine's jumps, especially without explanation, baffled Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard, his counterpart. Bayard knows. His Democratic family still is accounting for an 18th Century Federalist in a storied political history going back to the Continental Congress.
"It's an astonishing statement for anyone, let alone a party chairman, but beyond that I'm not going to touch it," Bayard said.
As Republican Party leaders learned of Strine's political acrobatics, they reacted with surprise and near-horror. They were willing to say what they thought, although most were disinclined to attach their names to it.
"The question is, how Republican is the Republican chairman? Not very, in my view," one Republican official said.
"He's a chameleon. Whenever he needs to change, he changes," one of the seven Republican regional chairs said.
The criticism was more muted from Republican officials who were willing to be identified, but they clearly were troubled.
"It's like the stock market. There will be changes. People like you and me keep living in one place and staying the same way," said Ernest E. Cragg, the Brandywine Region Republican chairman.
"I'm shocked and disappointed, but I have no comment. I'll let Terry answer the allegations," said Thomas S. Ross, the New Castle County Republican co-chairman.
Strine's only defense was to suggest that he may have been accommodating his business interests as a real estate investor. "I've never been a Democrat philosophically," he said.
The problem for Strine is that he has yet to settle in as party chairman, a post he assumed a year ago when J. Everett Moore Jr. unexpectedly decided not to seek another two-year term. When other, more seasoned leaders could not be persuaded to take over, the party turned to Strine, an informal adviser to Moore.
Before Strine was elected, he weathered questions about his residency. He owned a country house on Selborne Drive, a picturesque lane off Delaware 52 in Chateau Country. The estates there hug the Delaware-Pennsylvania state line, some on one side, some on the other.
Despite being in the real estate business, Strine said he could not be sure which state he lived in. He switched his voter registration to an apartment above his business on Delaware Avenue in Wilmington, and the party made him chairman.
Strine has worked to move what has been largely a party of moderate Republicans to the right, making some leaders uneasy because of the Delaware voters' preference for statewide candidates who are pragmatic and centrist. Moderate party members have complained privately that Strine has challenged their commitment.
Strine's own voter history has all the potential for a backlash. Already the gallows humor is spreading.
"It looks like we're appealing to swing voters," one party official quipped.
"It could be worse," another Republican said. "He could have been a communist."