Posted: June 11, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Jack Markell's campaign account has a plump enough cushion of about a quarter of a million dollars, poised to get fatter with more than three years left in the Democratic governor's first term.

No worries here. Not only has Markell been a prolific fund-raiser, he has a personal reserve of $725,000 he routinely loans and then backs out of his treasury, the better to intimidate opponents.

Besides, he is the governor. Campaign contributions pair up with a governor like green eggs with ham. Jack can get them from a PAC! He can get them in a stack! But he cannot steal them in a sack!

It all meant that Markell did not need the take from what has been a regular fund-raiser for him, first as a candidate for state treasurer and then governor. Instead, the Sixth Annual Summer Bash last Saturday in Milton was turned into a charity event for the Food Bank of Delaware.

"This is a bank that deserves to be bailed out," cracked Corey Marshall-Steele, the host who is an aide to Markell.

There is nothing quite like the Summer Bash. It balloons the population in Milton, some 1,800 people in eastern Sussex County on the way to the beach, by more than a third, everyone milling around a field with an oversized, white party tent next to Marshall-Steele's home.

Somehow the bash always lures a country music star -- this year it was Pam Tillis, the daughter of Mel Tillis -- and serves a gourmet menu with offerings like Grey Goose Vodka olive puffs with farmhouse cheddar. Yes, people can get tipsy on them. They once snuck up on state Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, before he knew they were laced.

This bash took advantage of a select fund-raising season, one that often avoids notice. Off-years are prime for top-tier candidates to stockpile contributions, while there is less competition for them.

For example, Mike Castle is hosting a golf outing Monday at Biderman Golf Club in Chateau Country, $1,000 a person or $5,000 a foursome, to add to his campaign war chest currently at $840,000. As the Republican congressman mulls a Senate race, re-election or retirement, it certainly seems to be a clue that retirement is not the option.

Likewise, John Carney has a reception scheduled for next Thursday at the Blue Ball Barn at Alapocus Run State Park, with tickets from $250 to $4,800. Carney, the former lieutenant governor who lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Markell, needs a financial jumpstart to run for the state's lone congressional seat. He ended last year with $7,500 in his campaign kitty.

The Summer Bash was never meant to be a high-dollar affair. It was more about bringing in people who could be converted for the Jack Pack, so the admission stays low at $25 a ticket. Marshall-Steele estimated it has meant about $20,000 in past years for Markell.

The bash is always a chance for Markell to show he is that rare politician who likes a little silliness in life. It came this time as Pam Tillis made her entrance.

As Tillis sang "Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile," she was carried on a litter by two men costumed as ancient Egyptians. After she arrived on the makeshift stage, she was fanned by fronds, one of them waved by Markell.

His fellow frond-fanners were Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, Auditor Tom Wagner and New Castle County Executive Chris Coons. Wagner is a Republican, but the way the state is trending, he has no shot unless he woos Democrats, too, and he is up for re-election next year.

Wagner claimed an innocuous reason for hanging out with this crowd. "This is a fund-raiser for the food bank," he quipped.

Denn was there, because where else would he be? "I'm kind of like the Art Garfunkel to Jack's Paul Simon," he said. "We work well together, but he could probably do it by himself, and if I show up by myself, nobody gives a crap."

Coons did not explain his attendance. Maybe it was nice for him to be downstate, away from the constituents whose property taxes he just hiked by 25 percent.

Marshall-Steele again showed himself a maestro when it comes to organization and fine food, a critical trait in his latest assignment for Markell as the administrator for Woodburn, the governor's house in Dover. The two met while Marshall-Steele was volunteering on local legislative races, leading Markell to hire him originally as the executive assistant to the treasurer.

Marshall-Steele has yet to encounter any of the famous Woodburn ghosts, like the tippling phantom who uncorks bottles of wine that have been left out and drinks them dry. His credentials have made him fearless at the thought.

"Me versus Casper over a glass of wine? My money's on me."