Posted: June 23, 2009
THE OTHER TOM
By Celia Cohen
Delaware is so chummy that a simple first name, no matter how common, is about all it takes to identify a top officeholder. Jack. Mike. Joe has gone on to be the vice president, but he is still Joe.
People know who Tom is, too. It is Tom Carper, the Democratic senior senator who also was the treasurer, congressman and governor.
There is another Tom, though, among the nine statewides. Tom Wagner, the Republican auditor.
No one would confuse Tom with the other Tom. The other Tom is just there. Such is the lot of the state auditor.
Wagner is like bread, milk and eggs, the stuff that goes into the shopping cart because it always goes into the shopping cart. He attracts the same sort of attention as the white shirt that is worn with the suit. Tap water could get a second glance before he does.
Life as an afterthought has its political advantages, however. Wagner took office on Jan. 2, 1989, which means he has lasted for 20 years as auditor. It was a milestone anniversary that passed with as much of a profile as he has. Nobody bothered with cake.
Not that anything good can come from having an exciting auditor. The voters in Illinois elected one of them as comptroller, an equivalent to auditor, and look what it got them -- Roland Burris, how nice, just what Rod Blagojevich wanted in a United States senator.
Something can be said for having an auditor like Wagner. His trademark suspenders are his idea of being a wild and crazy guy.
Leave it to Delaware politics to turn same-old-same-old into cutting-edge. There is a strong possibility Wagner will be the only incumbent running for re-election in five statewide races in 2010.
"Everybody else is a question mark," Wagner said.
It is hard to believe it could happen in a state where the officeholders mostly hang around longer than mold, but it could.
Ted Kaufman, the Democrat in Joe Biden's Senate seat, is leaving after his two-year appointment is up. Mike Castle, the Republican congressman, is more likely to try for the Senate, if anything. Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general, also could run for his father's old job. Velda Jones-Potter, the Democratic treasurer appointed when Jack Markell moved to governor, is uncommitted.
Wagner's survival is becoming a curiosity. Since 1998 the Democrats have been gobbling up statewide offices until Wagner and Castle are the only Republicans still standing. Wagner, a Kent County native who lives in Dover these days, is also the only downstater from either party.
"I've told all the Democrats I am an endangered species, and like good Democrats, you're supposed to protect endangered species," Wagner quipped.
The Democrats expect to come after Wagner, although they do not have a serious candidate in mind yet and the upheaval at the top of the ticket could be a distraction to their recruiting drive.
It would be nothing new. Election after election, it seems the Democrats barely beat the filing deadline for auditor and wind up with a walk-on candidate. This is the virtue of being an afterthought like Wagner and a prime reason he wins.
Wagner is bracing for a fight, although it is hard to tell from his finance reports. In the past two years he has not raised so much as a dollar for his campaign account, which stands at a paltry $37,000.
Not that this is unusual. At the pace Wagner normally collects contributions, he treats an upcoming election like it is on snooze alarm.
This time around he wants to have $200,000 or $300,000 in his treasury. Last time he spent roughly $40,000 and came away with 54 percent of the vote in a big Democratic year.
Wagner, who will be 54 on July 28, has been in politics longer than he has been the auditor, and his early years were more colorful than just-the-numbers-ma'am.
He did not start out in public life. After acquiring a business degree from the University of Richmond, he became a loan officer, but it was at the Farmers Bank, which was not long for this world and nearly took the state with it when he went.
Wagner became a local celebrity when he was elected the mayor of Camden at 23. He also worked as an aide in the state House of Representatives.
Wagner lost the first time he ran for auditor in 1986 against Dennis Greenhouse, the Democratic incumbent. In mid-term two years later, however, Greenhouse was elected New Castle County executive, and Wagner was the logical choice to get the appointment from Castle, then the governor, to finish the term.
Wagner has been there since. He has had his share of attention-gripping matters -- like the tip that led to the embezzlement case against the son of a state legislator who was a fellow Republican -- but he is not known for seeking scalps.
"Castle, Carper, Minner, Markell, they know I would not play games just to embarrass them. If there's a problem, OK, there's a problem," Wagner said.
As an auditor, Wagner can count. He knows there are about 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans on the voter rolls, but he figures he can make the odds work for him.
"What I've heard from the Democrats is they want to control everything. If you're going to have one Republican controlling something, the auditor is the one you ought to have," Wagner said.
In politics, one is not the loneliest number, when the alternative can be zero. It is better to be an afterthought than an also-ran.