Posted: July 22, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A running joke in Delaware politics is that the lieutenant governor is in charge of the weather.

It is a funny way of saying that the lieutenant governor is about as meaningful as a rain dance, an officeholder depicted by an abbreviated title in which the “lt” should stand more appropriately for “lite.”

In one of the ironies of politics, the lieutenant governor is not just the cipher that once led Delaware Today magazine to put Michael N. Castle, the Republican lieutenant governor who became a two-term governor and now a six-term congressman, on its cover with the caption, “Is this man useless?”

Under the state constitution, the lieutenant governor deals with matters of life and death.

There is the one people sometimes do think about – the lieutenant governor’s responsibility to step up if the governorship opens because of one of the “Three Ds” of politics, Death, Disability or inDictment.

Then there is the life-and-death responsibility that people rarely think about – the lieutenant governor’s role as the president of the Board of Pardons, a five-member panel with the power to recommend clemency for prisoners sentenced to death.

If the board says no, there is no appeal to the governor. If the board says yes, then the governor has the final say in deciding whether to grant a pardon or commutation.

As serious as that duty is, it essentially went unmentioned this week as both Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., the first-term Democratic incumbent, and James P. Ursomarso, the Republican challenger, went on a three-county tour that is traditional for declaring for statewide office.

Carney went first, making stops Tuesday in Gumboro and Georgetown in Sussex County, Dover in Kent County and Wilmington in New Castle County.

Ursomarso was out two days later, traveling Thursday to Newport and Wilmington in New Castle County, Bombay Hook and the state fair in Harrington in Kent County, and Seaford in Sussex County.

They ran as candidates for lieutenant governor usually do – as feel-good politicians inclined to talk about the weather that the office is known for. This was a topic they met with firmness. Both Carney and Ursomarso said it was hot.

The death penalty did not come up.

Carney made something of a passing reference, noting almost dismissively that the lieutenant governor is charged by the constitution with presiding over the Senate and chairing the Board of Pardons, responsibilities that he said “don’t take up a tremendous amount of time.”

Carney does support the death penalty. He presided over two capital cases at the pardons board in 2001 for David F. Dawson and Abdullah T. Hameen, both of whom were executed within a month of each other.

Ursomarso did not discuss capital punishment in his remarks, but he was direct about it during a short interview. “I support the death penalty,” he said.

As buried as the candidates’ positions were on that subject, it was even harder to figure out from their announcements that the lieutenant governor in Delaware is elected separately from the governor. Instead, they seemed vice presidential-like.

Both toured as a team with the gubernatorial candidates who hand-picked them, Carney with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and Ursomarso with retired Judge William Swain Lee.

In addition, both took pains to be seen as governors-in-waiting. When Minner said she looked forward to working with Carney for the next four years “and beyond,” his camp construed it as a show of support for four years from now – even though people who try to put words in this governor’s mouth do so at their peril. Lee said flatly he wanted Ursomarso on the ticket because “he had what it took to be governor.”

The candidates for lieutenant governor coordinated their messages with their senior partners, all of them talking about education, the economy and the environment. Where Carney saw a record of accomplishment, however, Ursomarso said it was “not enough.”

The candidates for lieutenant governor are seeking a four-year post that pays $64,900 annually. Carney, like Minner before him, has treated it as a full-time job, and Ursomarso, currently working at his family’s Union Park auto dealerships in Wilmington, says he would serve full time, as well.

The tours were designed to showcase the candidates’ native Delaware roots with their stops in New Castle County.

Carney went to Warner Elementary School, across from Brandywine Park in Wilmington, where he lives two blocks away with his wife Tracey, the daughter of retired Supreme Court Justice William T. Quillen, and their sons Sam and Jimmy. At 48, Carney has spent 20 years in government, working for New Castle County and U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and for Gov. Thomas R. Carper, now a U.S. senator, as finance secretary.

“This is our home,” Carney said.

Ursomarso headed for the General Motors plant at Boxwood Road, a visual reference to the family business that began with GM origins in 1955 as Union Park Pontiac. The location was also not too far away from Elsmere, the site of Angerstein’s Building Supply, the family business of his wife Kristen.

Ursomarso, 34, is a lawyer who practiced in New York and Washington before going to the family car dealerships. He also spent a summer as a law school student in Japan in the legal department of Nissan Motor Co. In politics he has been the executive director for George W. Bush’s 2000 primary campaign in Delaware and the Wilmington Republican regional chairman. His father Frank A. Ursomarso worked in the Ford and Reagan administrations.

When Carney was elected in 2000, he led all statewide Democrats with 62 percent of the vote and trailed only Mike Castle, who polled 68 percent of the vote, among all statewide candidates. Still, the early indications are that the Republicans are not giving Carney a bye in 2004, nor that he is expecting one.

Carney anticipates that his campaign will cost $400,000 to $500,000, an increase over his 2000 race, which cost about $350,000. He raised more than $150,000 last year and husbanded nearly $118,000 of it, according to his 2003 campaign finance report. Ursomarso, who emerged as a candidate only three months ago, has not had to file a report yet.

Ursomarso for his part took the aggressive step of issuing what is known in politics as a “prebuttal,” releasing a statement challenging Carney’s re-election credentials the day before Carney declared.

Ursomarso lumped Carney in with “career politicians that work more for their political friends and to maintain the status quo.”

Carney’s tour also was shadowed by someone videotaping him. Ursomarso acknowledged there were plans for his side to keep track of Carney.

However the office is regarded, it does not appear that the campaign for lieutenant governor will be politics “lite.”