Posted: June 14, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democratic insurance commissioner, could not get her own party's endorsement for her re-election, in no small part because of that eternal political question, what have you done for me lately?

Not enough, apparently.

The Delaware Democrats' executive committee met Saturday in Dover to dole out the endorsements in the 2012 statewide races, and it should have been about as somnolent as counting sheep, but this is politics, and it never naps.

Five sitting officeholders should easily have gotten five endorsements. Stewart was left as the odd one out, a blistering vote of no confidence made all the more noteworthy because it does not appear the party ever cut out another of its own elected officials before.

Instead, the Democrats endorsed Mitch Crane, who used to work in the Insurance Department, along with an otherwise all-incumbent slate of Tom Carper for senator, John Carney for congressman, Jack Markell for governor and Matt Denn for lieutenant governor.

Carper technically has a primary, except his opponent is some obscure guy who plunked down $10,000 for the filing fee and has not been heard from since.

The Democrats made their endorsements about six weeks after the Republicans made theirs, going with Kevin Wade for senator, Tom Kovach for congressman, Jeff Cragg for governor, Sher Valenzuela for lieutenant governor and Ben Mobley for insurance commissioner.

When the Democrats voted on the insurance commissioner, New Castle County, Kent County and Sussex County went with Crane, and Wilmington went with Stewart, but then they voted to make the endorsement unanimous for Crane.

"In essence, there were reports coming from the subdivisions to endorse. It was almost unanimous for Crane," said John Daniello, the Democratic state chair.

Afterwards, Stewart acted like it was no big deal. "I'm not going to spend my time finding out why. They didn't endorse me before," she said.

Still, it was different before. Stewart was running for the nomination against Gene Reed Jr., now her deputy insurance commissioner, in an open race in 2008, and this time she is the incumbent, getting there after a long struggle.

Stewart was the Democrats' nominee for the office in 2000, when she lost to Donna Lee Williams, the Republican insurance commissioner. Stewart lost the Democratic primary in 2004 and then finally got elected in 2008.

The endorsement should have been Stewart's for the asking. The problem is, she did not ask.

Crane outhustled Stewart for the endorsement. He went to Democratic meeting after Democratic meeting, while she did not. "I did a lot of hard campaigning -- 33,000 miles in the last year on the new car," Crane said.

Another sore spot was Stewart's frustrating record on constituent relations, the work that makes politics go 'round and made her party reluctant to stick with her.

"I think people wanted to give Karen a chance, and she blew it, and they were able to say they were wrong," said Karen Peterson, a Democratic state senator who backed Crane after tiring of constituent complaints about Stewart.

"It has been like pulling teeth. She just never got it. If people want to show you a drainage problem, you've got to be willing to traipse through a yard up to your ankles in mud."

It could hardly have helped Stewart's cause, either, that she feuded with Beau Biden, the attorney general who shares the most famous name in state Democratic circles, over the high-profile merger she approved between Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware and Highmark in Pittsburgh. He called it a "bad deal" for ceding control outside the state.

This is not to rule out that Stewart could win the party primary, after all. She is the incumbent. She is not friendless. She has a good measure of support in Wilmington, where there is a spirited mayoral primary to bring out the voters, and some sympathy from people who think Stewart got a raw deal from the party.

"She's the only incumbent who wasn't endorsed. She's the only female statewide official. I think it's a travesty. What does it say about the Democratic Party, the party of diversity, the party of inclusion?" said Sam Lathem, the state AFL-CIO president with Democratic clout.

When Stewart won the primary in 2008, she did it by polling 43 percent of the vote in a splintered field of three candidates. She could be helped this time by a field that is even more splintered with four candidates running.

Along with Stewart and Crane, there are Dennis Spivack, a lawyer who was the Democrats' congressional candidate in 2006, and Paul Gallagher, an insurance executive. Although Spivack and Gallagher were afterthoughts for the endorsement, both say they intend to stay in the race.

Stewart's loss of the party's endorsement is one of those cautionary tales of self-inflicted political damage that came from not courting the party or tending to constituents in adequate fashion.

It was the wrong answer to the question, what have you done for me lately?