Posted: May 14, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware Democrats, reveling in their winning record, elected John D. Daniello as their state chair, putting themselves in the hands of a veteran political warrior they expect to drive them hard and keep their streak going.

The party had no illusions about what it was doing to itself when it held a state convention Saturday in Dover and voted unanimously for Daniello, a political player who has been around since the 1960s as a New Castle County councilman, congressional candidate, Cabinet secretary and New Castle County Democratic chair, the post he gave up to take his new assignment.

Daniello comes to the party as a master political organizer, more comfortable delivering votes than speeches. For anyone who prefers a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, forget it. Daniello is straight medicine.

"If you think the truth might hurt, don't ask John," quipped New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons.

"Let me tell you something about John Daniello. He never met a Republican who he thinks should hold public office," said House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan.

Daniello is -- in the words of his daughter Elizabeth Daniello Maron, a party official who nominated him -- "a lifelong Democrat, born on Delaware Day."

As a matter of fact, Daniello's birthday was not just on Dec. 7, the day Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1787, but it was in 1932, a year Democrats remember for the election that made Franklin Delano Roosevelt president.

Daniello's politics are grounded in the labor unions, and the Republicans already are showing signs of making it an issue. John S. Bonk, the Christiana-Mill Creek Region Republican chair, spoke about it Thursday at a party meeting at the Mill Creek fire hall.

Bonk, who is in the construction business, said Daniello comes out of a labor movement that could not compete at the job site, so it turned to government. "Their way of gaining market share was political involvement," he said. "After Saturday it will be statewide. It will be a complete takeover of the Delaware Democratic Party by organized labor."

Daniello took the gavel at a convention so serene that no one would have gotten humorist Will Rogers' joke, "I'm not a member of any organized political party, I'm a Democrat."

As much as the Delaware Democrats spoil for a good fight, they had no interest in jinxing what they have going. The state has not voted for a Republican for governor or president since 1988, and the Democrats hold six of the nine statewide offices, including both U.S. Senate seats.

The convention had but one moment of division -- a limp effort by Karen Weldin Stewart, a former candidate for insurance commissioner, to unseat Karen L.K. Valentine, the national committeewoman from Kent County, from her post representing the state party on the Democratic National Committee.

Valentine had endorsements from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and others, including John F. Kerry, and she crushed Stewart. The vote was announced as 200-63, but the official tally sheet had another five votes for Stewart, making it 200-68.

Along with Daniello and Valentine, the convention elected these other officers, all without opposition, to four-year terms: National Committeeman Rhett D. Ruggerio from Wilmington; Vice Chairwoman Harriet Smith Windsor, the secretary of state from Sussex County; Vice Chairman James F. Hussey Jr. from New Castle County; Treasurer Patricia M. Blevins, a state senator from New Castle County; and Secretary Margaret Rose Henry, a state senator from Wilmington.

If Daniello emerged as the backbone of the party, Bob Gilligan was its voice, giving the speech that had people talking.

The state House of Representatives, controlled as it is by the Republicans, is a sore point for the Democrats. Gilligan blasted the Republicans -- "Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts, they don't put people first" -- and focused the convention on overturning the Republicans' 26-15 majority.

He handed out political buttons that read, "Six in '06," meaning that six new Democratic representatives elected in 2006 would give the party control. "I guess I've got a conflict of interest. After 33 years in the House of Representatives, I'd love to be speaker," he quipped.

As Gilligan's remarks showed, the convention was a time for some Democratic introspection. Coons noted the difference between the party's local victories and its national shortcomings, particularly in the 2008 presidential race.

"We are a nation at war," Coons said. "We had a nation that just in the end didn't trust us."

The Delaware Democrats hold conventions only once every four years -- unlike the state Republicans who meet every year -- so this one had its valedictory moments.

There were thanks for Richard H. Bayard, the outgoing state chair who decided not to seek another term after 16 years in party office, the first half as national committeeman and the second half as chair. Bayard's family has been in politics since the Continental Congress, so Carney paid tribute to him as "a yellow-dog Democrat with blue blood."

The convention also was the last one for Minner as an elected official, as she noted with a punch line, "By the time you gather to elect officers in 2009, everyone will say, 'Who?"

There also were some calling cards delivered. Markell, the state treasurer who is running for re-election in 2006 and maybe governor thereafter, although Carney may have something to say about that, laid his card down by hosting the convention breakfast.

Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son who is the party's dream candidate for attorney general next year against three-term Republican M. Jane Brady, had his card delivered for him -- by the governor, no less.

"We'll elect an attorney general," Minner said to applause. "He might be a familiar name. He'll be on the ballot if I can talk him into it."

Mostly, though, the Democrats were having fun. Victoria "Vikki" Bandy, the campaign manager for state Sen. Karen E. Peterson, wore a T-shirt with the words, "I Only Kiss Democrats," and a caricature of a donkey on it.

"What it really says is, 'Kiss my ass,'" Bandy said.