Posted: July 5, 2006
A WAR OF WORDS OVER FERRIS WHARTON
By Celia Cohen
As dearly as the Delaware Republicans want Ferris W. Wharton to be the next attorney general, they cannot help themselves from feuding about him.
It is certainly an unorthodox and possibly dangerous way to show support, but is is happening out of alarm from some Republicans -- serious, loyal Republicans -- over Wharton's central message that Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the Democratic candidate, is a legal lightweight running on the name he shares with his father-the-senator.
Republicans have placed enormous hopes on Wharton to stop the slide that has left them with only two of the nine statewide offices, and a number of them fear that a campaign with a negative tone is not the way to accomplish it, nor is it necessary since Wharton is an ex-prosecutor -- the "ex" stands for "experience" -- with a record to run on.
The most recent spate of rumblings burst forth -- as they so often do for the Republicans -- on the Coastal Conservative Network, an e-mail list of 3,800 addresses coordinated by A. Judson Bennett, a Lewes Republican.
The network got itself going when Bennett circulated an open letter to state Republican Chair Terry A. Strine from Bruce A. Rogers, a Georgetown lawyer who chaired the Sussex County Republican Party from 1997 to 2001 and worked as the counsel to U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle when he was the governor.
The flare-up came late last month, not long before Wharton is scheduled to declare his candidacy next Tuesday, July 11, in the traditional statewide tour through all three counties.
Rogers, who described himself in his letter as "a lifelong Republican concerned over the very survival of my party as a political force in Delaware," wrote: "Ferris Wharton is a very well-qualified person to serve as attorney general. We should stress his strengths. Instead, we have launched an attack on his opponent. . . .
"This early, negative campaign will -- in my opinion -- doom the candidacy of Mr. Wharton. . . . It further gives life to the image of the party being a group of angry, right-winged conservative, single-issue people, offering nothing substantive."
Strine did not respond. In an interview Wednesday, he said Rogers' letter -- which he called a "broadside" -- did not warrant one, because the matter has been discussed before, although he said he has traded telephone messages with Rogers, anyway.
Others did offer responses, however. Bennett notified his network he received about 75 of them, almost all agreeing with Rogers' letter. He sent out five, like the one from Anita Sterling, the co-president of the Women's Republican Club of Wilmington. She said she was speaking for herself in writing:
"I hear these same thoughts from many other active Republicans, and I also agree with them wholeheartedly. We need to play up what Ferris can do for us in a very strong manner in order to appeal to the majority of the voters out there."
Bennett gave the final word to retired Judge William Swain Lee, the current Sussex County Republican chair who ran for governor in 2004. Lee said he also shared Rogers' concerns but believed they were directed to the wrong place.
"Who controls the tenor of a campaign? The answer is: THE CANDIDATE!" Lee wrote.
"The candidate and his advisers are going to run this campaign the way THEY believe it should be run. If we disagree with their decisions, we should convey our concerns to them, not the Internet, the blogs and the press. The concerns we have are genuine, but let's not express them in ways that divide the party, discredit the campaign and give comfort to the Democrats."
The problem is, as both Lee and Strine acknowledged, that Wharton's campaign and Republican state headquarters have come across as interchangeable.
It was the state party that sponsored a Web site called BeausNotReady.com, and it was the state party that aired a radio spot saying Biden should not be attorney general because he has not been a member of the Delaware bar for five years (which is true but overlooks Biden's time as a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia and JAG officer with the Delaware National Guard.)
"I can understand why people are confused. We [state party] obviously are doing all we can in a number of campaigns. We are not running them," Strine said.
As Lee suggested, there is really only one person who has to be comfortable with the campaign's tone, and as a matter of fact, he is.
"You have to draw a comparison," Wharton said. While he promised to talk more about himself, the Attorney General's Office and his qualifications for it, he does not intend to back off.
"As we go forward, we're going to continue to make comparisons," Wharton said. "That's not anything politically astonishing to people."