Posted: July 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If Christopher A. Coons had let the Democratic primary voters do the talking and kept his own mouth shut, his campaign for New Castle County executive would have had a better June.

Coons took a poll that was so good, he is circulating its findings. He also said something that was so bad, he took it back.

It is all the more reason that this race for the county's top spot continues to come across as a vicious reality show, the most-watched in Delaware politics.

The election features Coons as the wonkish County Council president in a Democratic primary with Sherry L. Freebery, the county's fiercesome chief administrative officer who also is battling a federal indictment for corruption she says is politically motivated. Neither has given more than a glance toward Richard J. Korn, a transplanted New Yorker looking at the primary as his opening to local politics.

The winner of the Sept. 11 primary will face Republican Christopher J. Castagno, who has handed out soap as a suggestion to voters that they clean up the county by washing out the Democratic Party, which has held the county executive's office since 1988.

Coons' poll shows that the more the primary voters learn about Freebery, the more she melts like you-know-who. No wonder he wishes he had not made nice when the two of them spoke recently at the Women's Democratic Club of Delaware.

During the meeting on June 14, Coons was asked whether he would support Freebery if she won the primary, and he gulped and said he would. Now he says he would not.

"I said the wrong thing. In response to the question, will each of you as loyal Democrats pledge to support the winner in the Democratic primary, no matter who wins, I said, yes, as a loyal Democrat. I meant to say, as a loyal Democrat, I will not work for the Republican candidate under any circumstances," Coons said.

"I did not mean to imply and should not have said that I would support Sherry Freebery. In a hotly contested primary, it's common to be asked, will you support your opponent? But Sherry is not just any opponent. She has been charged with serious federal crimes committed while in office, and she is someone I could not support."

Freebery did not return telephone messages left for her Monday and Tuesday, so it is unknown whether she wants to retract the post-primary support she offered Coons at the same meeting. Nor could she be asked about Coons' poll.

The survey, taken of 300 likely Democratic primary voters, was conducted June 21-23 by Karl Agne, a homegrown pollster from Wilmington with national experience. Its conclusions, questionnaire and tabulations were shown to Delaware Grapevine.

The poll provided a scientific measure of what a Ouija board could have gotten right -- which is, a candidate under indictment is in trouble.

The poll showed Freebery to be better known than Coons -- with 67 percent of the sample recognizing her and 52 percent recognizing him -- but what is normally a positive in politics worked against her.

Among the voters who knew them, 44 percent regarded Freebery unfavorably and 11 percent favorably, while Coons was seen favorably by 29 percent and unfavorably by 7 percent. Korn barely registered, by the way.

"Chris is very popular among those who know him -- better than I would have guessed -- but certainly has a long way to go as far as introducing him to people," Agne said.

The poll was designed to test how voters would react the more they knew about the candidates.

First they were asked for their choice in a Coons-Freebery primary or at least how they were leaning. Coons led Freebery, 47 percent to 14 percent with 39 percent undecided.

Then the polltakers read a description of the candidates and asked again for a choice between the two.

Coons was described as a legal counsel at W.L. Gore & Associates and council president. He was said to support the county administration in promoting responsible growth and holding the line on taxes but to challenge its abuses by pushing for an independent ethics commission and opposing taxpayer money for county officials' personal legal bills.

Freebery was described as the county's chief administrative officer and first female police chief who put an end to runaway development, set record financial surpluses without raising taxes and added libraries, parks, police and paramedics.

Those descriptions moved the numbers somewhat, with Coons leading Freebery by 53 percent to 19 percent with 28 percent undecided.

Finally, the polltakers introduced the topic of the federal investigation, beginning with a question to determine how much attention the voters were paying -- with 34 percent saying they were following it "a great deal" or "a fair amount" and 62 percent saying "just a small amount" or "not at all."

Then came a series of six statements about Freebery, with the polltakers asking whether they raised doubts about her candidacy. For example, the statements mentioned that Freebery had been indicted, that the FBI had confiscated 34 guns from her home and that she was charged with taking police officers from their duties for campaign work.

After that round, Coons ran away with the race, leading Freebery 62 percent to 13 percent with 25 percent undecided.

The poll told Coons what he wanted to hear and what he has to do to beat Freebery. "Our campaign is about reaching out to the people who don't know Chris," Agne said. "It's hard to see voters moving to her."

Coons got the message. He has burned the olive branch he once offered. "You won't be seeing Chris Coons wearing a Sherry Freebery t-shirt, sporting a Sherry Freebery bumper sticker or hosting a Sherry Freebery fund-raiser under any circumstances," Coons said.