Posted: July 1, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The building Democratic primary for governor, a race so high in profile it is expected to color all of state politics, lurched into Legislative Hall on the last night of the session Saturday through no fault of Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. or Treasurer Jack A. Markell.

Carney was presiding peaceably over the state Senate, part of his role as the lieutenant governor. Markell was not even in Dover for the final rush of lawmaking that stretched beyond midnight.

For their rivalry to make its first mark on legislative dealings this prematurely shows it already has taken on a life of its own.

The Republicans did it. The out-party, which will observe the 20th anniversary next year of the last time it won the governorship, would like nothing better than to have such campaign carnage between Carney and Markell that the Democrats fall apart and the Republican candidate -- possibly Alan B. Levin of Happy Harry's fame -- reverses the state's voting pattern and wins.

The Republicans made a move to give the other party every opportunity to self-destruct. It came when they double-crossed the Democrats by killing what was supposed to be a bipartisan bill preventing "fusion" candidates -- people running on more than one ticket.

The Democrats were blindsided. They did not know the Republicans had decided to renege until the roll was called on the bill shortly after 11 p.m. in the state House of Representatives.

It was a classic June 30 surprise, political chicanery at the witching hour, and it enraged state Democratic Chair John D. Daniello, who was in Dover to shepherd the bill. He ignored how late it was and telephoned state Republican Chair Terry A. Strine, who was not in the hall. When Strine did not answer, Daniello let him have it by voice mail. Whatever was said, neither was talking.

"Did it get one Republican vote? No," Daniello fumed.

There was nothing about the legislation, House Bill 177, on its surface that appeared to have anything to do with the Democratic primary. It proposed that candidates be allowed to file only with the party where they were registered. It was designed to benefit both major parties by stopping what they regarded as gaming the system by "fusion" candidates.

The most prominent example was Karen M. Hartley-Nagle, a 2006 congressional candidate, who registered as a Democrat but double-filed with both the Democratic Party and the Independent Party of Delaware. After she lost the Democratic primary as expected to Dennis Spivack, she stayed on the minor-party ballot for another shot at Spivack as well as U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Republican who was re-elected. She polled 2 percent of the vote.

An anti-fusion bill was drafted last year but was pulled when the Republicans, prompted by Castle, figured they would rather let Hartley-Nagle make mischief for Spivack. It backfired on them when "fusion" candidates complicated matters for Republicans, too -- most notably in their fruitless attempt to unseat state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat.

The Republicans and Democrats decided they had common ground, after all. They commissioned a bill jointly drafted by Richard A. Forsten, counsel to the state Republican Party, and Elizabeth D. Maron, the New Castle County Democrats' parliamentarian who is Daniello's daughter.

The prime sponsor was state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the House Democratic minority leader, with every member of the legislative leadership as a co-sponsor, including state Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Senate Democratic president pro tem, and state Rep. Terry R. Spence, the House Republican speaker. Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner backed the bill, too.

Then Republican Party officials secretly reconsidered. Why should they foreclose on "fusion" candidacies and do away with the option for Carney or Markell to cripple the Democrats by trying it?

Strine sent word to state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, the House Republican majority leader, and the Republicans peeled off the bill without letting the Democrats know. "Sometimes you have to take one for the party," Cathcart said.

The Democrats' first and only clue was the roll call defeating the bill 17-19 with five members abstaining. Only Democrats voted for it. Only Republicans voted against it. The Democrats resented the bait-and-switch. They resented the Republican meddling in their party affairs -- particularly because it seemed so outlandish that either Carney or Markell would bail on the Democrats.

"No chance," Carney said.

"It sounds like a lot of wishful speculation on the part of the Republicans," Markell said. "I am running to win the Democratic nomination. I am doing everything we can to make sure we have a Democratic governor."

It looked like a double-cross for nothing. State Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat who used to be a state police captain, blasted away at the Republican subterfuge. "I come from a profession where your word means a lot. They chose to take political advantage by not keeping their word. There was an outright attempt to embarrass the minority leader. Whoever loses the Democratic primary for governor will turn and support the party," he said.

Daniello was so incensed he threatened to interfere in the Republican Party's own gubernatorial hassles, which are the upshot of Michael D. Protack's perpetual pariah candidacy for high office.

"It's only two years in a row that the Republican Party has made a commitment, and the leadership down here has made a commitment, and they twice lied. I'm ready to make a contribution -- to Protack," Daniello steamed.

"That'll be one," Strine wisecracked.

It was a poisonous end to a poisonous session. The House never really had much of a chance to get beyond partisan politics and get down to governing because of a whirlwind of scandal and special elections.

The chamber was convulsed with disciplinary proceedings for John C. Atkins, now a Republican ex-representative, who did not come clean and abused his office in trying to get out of a a wild spree of drinking-and-driving and an arrest for domestic violence, which landed him on probation.

The sudden resignation of Wayne A. Smith, who was leading the investigation as the Republican majority leader until he took a lobbying job, created more turmoil. Atkins quit in March before he was expelled, and his departure was followed by special elections in April and May to replace first Smith and then Atkins. Both contests left hard feelings and not many days to get over them.

The House declared a truce long enough on Saturday to present Smith with a silver plate, the traditional gift for past members. It was engraved with the names of all the state representatives for this session. Atkins was on there, not that Smith could have forgotten about him, anyway.

There will not be a similar gift coming to Atkins. The House that served him up on a silver platter has no plans to give him one.