Posted: May 7, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As chairs of the Delaware Republican Party go, Tom Ross is not exactly the standard issue Greenville model. His version of prep school was a card-carrying union job in construction with Laborers Local 199 to make money for college.

His father worked at the General Motors plant. The family had 11 kids. His early years were spent in Brandywine Hundred, his teen years below the canal. His schooling took him from Middletown High School to the University of Delaware, until he had to leave after falling off a roof at a job site and hurting his back.

After regrouping, Ross finished his degree at Delaware State, and from there on, it was all business to put together a successful career at 39 as a title company owner with real estate investments, too, and a home in Wilmington with his wife Kelly and a three- and four-year-old.

What happened to Thomas Stuart Ross only can help as he takes over a party that has been as flat on its back as he once was.

The last decade has brought indignity after indignity. In 1998 the Republicans lost the state treasurer. In 2000 they gave up a U.S. senator. In 2004 they coughed up the insurance commissioner. In 2006 they said bye-bye to the attorney general. The reason they did not unhand the governor and lieutenant governor is that the Democrats already had them.

Ross chafed. This hapless performance was the opposite of what made someone with his background want to be a Republican in the first place.

"A large part of it stems from Ronald Reagan and Pete du Pont when I was becoming politically active as a young person. My idea of what a Democrat was, was probably Jimmy Carter and Sherman Tribbitt. It became pretty easy to identify with people who were fixing things instead of breaking things," Ross said.

Ross was elected as the chair Saturday at the state convention in Dewey Beach. He replaced Terry Strine, who abruptly resigned halfway through a two-year term when the party registered a symbolic vote of no confidence by rejecting his bid  for the Republican National Committee. The post went to Laird Stabler III, whose late father was a long-serving member of the party's governing council.

"Tom brings a new outlook to the party, a new generation. He wants to reinvigorate the party by including everybody. He wants to create a force for good in the state," said Basil Battaglia, the chair emeritus who served from 1988 to 2001.

The convention could not install Ross fast enough, just moments after Strine's resignation. Ross was a natural choice, elected by acclamation. His rise caps a 10-year involvement in politics from a forgettable loss in a 1998 primary for the New Castle County Council to stints as the Republican county co-chair and city chair, his most recent post.

Ross has shown an instinct for knowing when to compromise and when to clash.

He compromised in the 2003 election for New Castle County party chair, when he was running against Jeff Cragg, a Brandywine Hundred businessman. Minutes before the vote, they brokered a deal to divide the responsibilities and each serve as co-chair.

"We decided it's going to be an awful close vote. Why walk out of here a divided New Castle County Republican Party, when we can walk out of here a united New Castle County Republican Party and really take it to them?" Ross said at the time.

Ross was nowhere as magnanimous when Laird Stabler Jr., a beloved figure in the party, unexpectedly was challenged for national committeeman in 2004 by Tom Draper, a Sussex County businessman who was an old friend.

Stabler was so stunned, he said he would step down to avoid a rift. Always a gentleman, he rebuffed entreaties to reconsider because he had given his word. Ross was so incensed at Stabler's shabby treatment that he recruited John Matlusky, then the party vice chair, to run against Draper and beat him in a 48-hour campaign.

Whatever strategies Ross chose, they worked. There is hardly a sign of either Cragg or Draper, and Ross is in charge.

Nor it is coincidental that Strine is in eclipse. He was seen as aiding and abetting the putsch to jettison Stabler. Add in the party's losing streak, and Strine was on borrowed time.

It is fair to say Ross was doing the work of the state chair before he got there. More than anyone, he was responsible for orchestrating the ticket that has so cheered the Republicans with Bill Lee drafted for governor and Charlie Copeland for lieutenant governor.

Ross acted when the Republicans were in dismal circumstances, lacking any serious option for governor against either Lt. Gov. John Carney or Treasurer Jack Markell, the powerhouse Democratic rivals. Alan Levin, the ex-owner of Happy Harry's drugstores, had walked away from the Republican field. Lee, the retired judge who was the 2004 nominee, was an obvious alternative, but the party dallied under Strine until Lee got impatient and declared himself out of it.

In that depressed state, Republicans gathered in late February for a memorial service for Laird Stabler Jr. at the Vicmead Hunt Club. Before the ceremony, Ross saw Lee and broached the idea about changing his mind. Afterwards, Ross happened to be parked near Copeland and bantered a little with him to suggest he think about running for lieutenant governor.

It may have seemed like a strange setting, but not to anyone who practices politics. "That was a gathering of politicians, and Tom started to work the room and said the condition of the party is unacceptable," Lee said.

One thing led to another. Ross talked Lee into traveling to the Republican Governors Association in Washington to see what sort of backing was available. Copeland, the state Senate minority leader, provided even more encouragement by deciding to run for lieutenant governor.

By the state convention, the party had its ticket. There is nothing more important to a political party than electing a governor.

"You've got to give Tom credit. Most of us had given up. He was persistent, and he went back and back to Bill Lee to get him to run," said Battaglia, the state ex-chair.

Ross has given himself a head start as he begins his stewardship, but still. There is a great deal of ground to be made up. He probably does not need to be reminded of the words of Pete du Pont, one of his Republican heroes, who used to have a saying as governor, Enter the battle at its lowest point, because there is nowhere to go but up.

Ross timed his entrance right. The future of the Republican Party depends on how he handles the rest of du Pont's political equation.