Posted: June 19, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

To laws and sausages, the things that Otto von Bismarck said it was better not to see made, you could add an endorsement from the Delaware Democratic Party.

The party's state executive committee made its most significant decisions of the 2008 campaign season when it voted Wednesday evening in Dover to bestow its statewide endorsements, giving the most glittering one to John Carney in the primary for governor on Sept. 9 against Jack Markell.

There were also a couple of expected endorsements for Joe Biden for the Senate and Matt Denn for lieutenant governor, an afterthought of one for Gene Reed running in a three-way primary for insurance commissioner, and nothing at all for either of the political orphans chasing after Republican Mike Castle for the Congress.

Despite the sky-high interest in the endorsement for governor, the party would rather it not be examined too closely, no more than sausages are. A lot was supposed to be kept under wraps.

No one in authority would say what the vote was. No one in authority would say who attended the executive committee meeting. No one in authority would say how the members voted.

John Daniello, the state chair, gruffly said it was the executive committee's choice not to say.

Not that it was impossible to find out. There are no secrets in Delaware. Especially none in the Democratic Party, as gloriously unruly as it is. On a motion to endorse Carney, the 23 members of the executive committee voted: 13 yes, one no, seven abstaining and two absent.

It was not unanimous. Maybe that cat was not supposed to come out of the bag.

The meeting itself was not publicized, nothing about it on the party's Web site, no press release advancing it. Some of the executive committee members themselves were not entirely sure the votes on the endorsements would be on the agenda.

"We held a quarterly meeting. There were motions. We had to honor those motions," Daniello said.

The only word of what happened was a party-issued press release, which came afterwards. It did not reach Delaware Grapevine until an e-mail Wednesday after 10 p.m.

It is hard to think of what more the party could have done to make the endorsement look like a back room deal. It even met in a place called the Lobby House. The name reeks of political intrigue.

The conclusion belied what the party said it was trying to do -- an open accounting that began with the candidates going to the Democratic committees for the representative districts, the three counties and the city of Wilmington to build up support.

Still, the prize is the prize. "Getting the endorsement of the Democratic Party in a primary is a big deal," said David Hamrick, the campaign manager for Carney. "I think the endorsement was a public process, done at the grassroots level of the party. Hundreds of local Democrats across the state participated."

Markell's side shrugged it off. "I care about the election on Sept. 9, when all the Democrats vote, less so how the executive committee makes its decision," said Andrew Roos, who is Markell's campaign manager.

The Democrats' procedure for endorsing had nothing in common with the one for the Republicans, as the other party did not mind pointing out. The Republicans drafted Bill Lee as their endorsed candidate for governor at a convention with press coverage, as 310 delegates voted 250-60 for Lee over Mike Protack.

"It doesn't surprise me when you're dealing with a party that for 16 years has operated outside the public interest, a party based basically in cronyism and incompetence," said Tom Ross, the Republican state chair.

"Ours was a public vote. We had an open process where anybody could be nominated. 'Draft Bill Lee' was a grassroots campaign."

The Democrats' executive committee meeting was closely held. Its own members were told of it only a week or so in advance. Not everyone realized the endorsements would be considered, although the candidates were told.

Some committee members happened to hear from others that they would be voting. National Committeeman Rhett Ruggerio, one of the few willing to talk publicly, said he found out only after calling state headquarters on Monday to ask about the agenda.

Carney won the endorsement with strong support from the party leadership along with upstate Democrats present from New Castle County and Wilmington. He did not receive any "yes" votes downstate from Democrats representing Kent County or Sussex County.

Voting yes: Vice Chair Harriet Smith Windsor, Vice Chair Jim Hussey, Rhett Ruggerio, state Sen. Patti Blevins, state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, state Rep. Helene Keeley, New Castle County Chair Jim Paoli, state Rep. J.J. Johnson, Margie Conner, Erik Schramm, Betsy Maron, Lynn Doto and Larry Smith.

Voting no: National Committeewoman Karen Valentine.

Abstaining: John Daniello, Kent County Chair Abby Betts, Jody Sweeney, Ray Johnson, Sussex County Chair Tom Chapman, Karen Chapman and Peter Schott.

Absent: Wilmington Chair Theo Gregory and Rebecca Young.

Valentine said her "no" vote was not a rejection of Carney but a protest because not all of the local committees have voted on their endorsements yet. "It has nothing to do with John or Jack. I would have liked to see all the districts complete the process before we voted," she said.

Betts had a similar explanation for the three abstentions from Kent County, where the Democratic committee plans to discuss its endorsements next month.

"We went not voting. We're still in the process of finding our way through this. It's not easy. We'd like to go with all of our districts united, and we've got local candidates who need these guys to help on their campaigns. We don't want to make anybody mad. We've got two very good candidates running," Betts said.

Daniello said he withheld his vote because he did not want to appear to be directing the course of the endorsement.

The cloistered voting was a far cry from the way the Democrats handled their statewide endorsements for the last election. In 2006 the executive committee members cast their votes during a state convention at Wesley College in Dover. There were 200 people present, and the press was invited. The candidates came and gave speeches.

The Lobby House or Wesley College, either scene was allowable under the Democrats' party rules, although they left different impressions. Perhaps not different outcomes.

"I don't know what would have changed if the meeting was held at a forum like the last one," Ruggerio said. "John Daniello is a pretty strong leader with pretty strong beliefs and opinions. He's done very well, so people give him the benefit of the doubt."

This is politics. Endorsements, like sausages, are not for the squeamish.