Posted: June 1, 2006
THE SON ALSO RISES
By Celia Cohen
Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, who has been included in the ranks of up-and-coming Democratic political leaders on the force of the famous name he shares, declared his candidacy for attorney general on Thursday and propelled himself into a campaign that will prove whether he belongs there.
Biden did nothing to distance himself from the legacy that brings him both the advantages of a practiced, family-wide political network and the disadvantages of the open skepticism the Republicans are flinging at him to question his qualifications to stand on his own. To the contrary, he embraced it.
In the traditional three-county announcement that moved northward from Sussex County to Kent County to New Castle County, it was clearly Beau Biden's show, but he was surrounded in Kennedy-esque fashion by four generations of Bidens -- from his 88-year-old grandmother to his 11-week-old son -- and the cameras often were pointed at his father-the-senator who is running for president.
The family was nervous and emotional. Before Beau Biden spoke in Georgetown in Sussex County in the morning, Joe Biden was shaking hands and saying, "I'm Beau's father, I'm here to take care of the grandchildren," and afterwards Valerie Biden Owens, the take-no-guff family enforcer who is Joe's sister and runs her brother's campaigns, said, "Don't talk to me now or I'll cry."
Inside the tiny Old Sussex Courthouse, where Beau Biden gave his speech, there were not enough chairs, so Joe Biden knelt at a railing that cut the room in two, put his elbows on it and clasped his hands as though he were in church, directly in line with his son. If he was trying to get a front-row view and be inconspicuous at the same time, he succeeded about as well as Bill Clinton would.
Opening the ceremonies, Owens noted nostalgically, "We're back where it all started in 1972" -- when Joe Biden was 29 years old and kicked off his campaign for the U.S. Senate in Georgetown.
Joe Biden is 63 now, and Beau Biden is 37, and with those old memories welling up, Beau looks more like Joe than Joe does.
"I'm going to be all right, family," Beau Biden said before he talked for about 15 minutes.
Biden made his case for why he should be attorney general, which is generally regarded as the second most-powerful state office behind only the governor because of its influence on policy and its life-or-death decisions.
His speech was about running for the office, not about running against anybody else -- a marked contrast to the campaign for Republican Ferris W. Wharton, the ex-prosecutor who is the Republican candidate.
The Republicans are making their stand in 2006 on this election for attorney general. The Democrats have been swamping them in statewide races since 1998 so that only two of the nine officeholders are Republicans -- U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle and state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr.
The Democrats not only have thrived -- holding the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats -- but they also have put together an up-and-coming bench with Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell, Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn and New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons.
It has been so bad for the Republicans that Donna Lee Williams, a three-term insurance commissioner, and M. Jane Brady, a three-term attorney general, bailed out of politics without telling the party leadership, rather than run for re-election. Brady departed for the bench last year with Biden's candidacy looming.
The Republicans worked hard to get a prize recruit for attorney general to try to stop not only their statewide slide but a potential Biden dynasty, the thought of which seems to be more than they can bear.
The Republican weapon-of-choice against Biden has been ridicule, playing up Wharton's experience as a former chief deputy attorney general and assistant U.S. attorney. The party did what it could to step on Biden's announcement day by launching a Web site called BeausNotReady.com and staging a counter-rally with an admission of $4 -- representing Biden's four years as a member of the Delaware bar.
"They need an enemy. That's their strategy," said former Supreme Court Justice William T. Quillen, who introduced Biden in Wilmington.
For Biden, the beginning of his campaign was a way to re-introduce himself to a state where the lasting impression of him goes back 34 years. It is a searing memory of a Hockessin car accident that killed his mother and baby sister and hospitalized the three-year-old Beau Biden and his two-year-old brother Hunter shortly after the Senate election. Joe Biden took his oath of office weeks later at the hospital.
Beau Biden brought the voters up to date. He went to Archmere Academy, the University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University law school, clerked for a federal judge in New Hampshire (where else?) and spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia and as a lawyer in in Wilmington. He is a JAG captain in the Delaware National Guard. He and his wife Hallie have a 22-month-old daughter and a newborn son.
"The Attorney General's Office is Delaware's largest law firm with 180 attorneys. It has one of the most powerful and broad jurisdictions of any Attorney General's Office in the country. Because of its tremendous strength and reach, its power must be used with diligence, wisdom, humility and especially fairness. Delaware's biggest law firm should be its best," Biden said.
"The Delaware Department of Justice must be proactive, not reactive. It must prevent crime, not just punish it, and above all it must protect our families from the new threats we face as a state and nation in the 21st Century."
Biden proposed reorganizing the office to create an identity-theft task force, a senior-protection strike force, a child predator unit -- "a predator can slip into your child's bedroom without your knowing it with the mere click of a mouse" -- and assigning community prosecutors to work with police on their beats.
If Biden took any jab at the Republicans, it was a subtle one. The Republicans churned out quotation after quotation endorsing Wharton when they landed him as a candidate, so Biden's campaign came up with some of their own -- including the catch-of-the-day from Louis J. Freeh, the FBI ex-director and former MBNA executive who is a Republican.
"Your policy-making experience, first-hand work as a prosecutor and police trainer provide an excellent background for the position of attorney general," Freeh wrote.
The Bidens know this announcement drill. The crowds built all day as the ceremonies moved through the county seats, and the sites were sized so there were too many people for too little space and too few chairs.
Biden drew about 100 people in Georgetown, too many to cram into the 18th Century courthouse, so his speech was piped outside, too. About 200 people came to the Schwartz Center in Dover -- this time Joe Biden sat cross-legged on the floor -- and sweltered because the air conditioning was out. By the last stop at Biden's campaign headquarters on the Wilmington Riverfront, the crowd topped 300 people. (Joe Biden simply stood to the side for this one.)
It was a turnout high enough to impress the pros like Carney, Markell and former Attorney General Charles M. Oberly III, a three-term Democrat. Looking around at the Wilmington crowd, Oberly quipped, "I didn't get this many to all nine of my announcements combined."
Except for U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, who was traveling, every Democratic statewide official attended at least one event -- Joe Biden, of course, and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Carney, Markell, Denn and Attorney General Carl C. Danberg, appointed after Brady took her bailout.
If the Republicans are invested in Wharton, the Democrats clearly are invested in Beau Biden, as well. "He is a chip off the old block. He stands up there, he has charisma, he can get his point across, and he has that Biden ability. It's special," said Senate President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Democrat who was elected to the state Senate the same year Joe Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate.
It fell to Bill Quillen, the former justice, to point out the amazing political trick the Republicans are pulling off. Because Joe Biden was elected when he was 29, there has been a sense that Beau Biden's political clock has been ticking ever since he turned 30. Loudly.
"Beau, where the hell have you been?" Quillen quipped.
Up until now, Beau Biden has been tagged as a late bloomer. The Republicans are giving him his youth back.