Posted: July 5, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In a Pike Creek Valley sandwich shop, Alan B. Levin encountered an empty coffee urn and unhesitatingly yanked it up to the counter to be refilled. It was not doing either the customers or the store any good, otherwise.

Minutes later, Levin overheard a woman with car trouble uncertain how to contact her dealership. He authoritatively snapped out the telephone number off the top of his head -- Levin is a car buff of the first order -- and eventually made the cell phone call for her after she bumbled it.

No wonder the Delaware Republicans want Levin to run for governor. Here is a go-to guy who hustles like a go-fer. Politics was invented for people like that. Besides, he has name recognition.

Friday is Levin's last day at Walgreens, the pharmacy giant that absorbed Happy Harry's, the locally ubiquitous drugstore chain his father founded and he grew, liberating him to turn his restless attention elsewhere.

Levin's new consulting firm, advising startup companies on marketing, is unlikely to be enough to satisfy him. There is no guarantee that politics will fill the rest of the void, although he does have some unfinished business there. He dropped out of it 20 years ago, leaving his post as the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., to run the family concern when his father died.

Levin does not plan to make up his mind about the governor's race until the fall. It will give him more time to assess whether a Republican can break the lock on the Democrats' four consecutive terms in the office and especially whether the Democrats will provide an assist with Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell headed for mutually potential destruction.

"Simply to go to slaughter? I really don't see that," Levin said.

Levin sounds like someone who wants to run -- "For me, it's an opportunity to give back. Delaware has been good to my family and to me. If you can make a place better, then great" -- but his life is a pastiche of course corrections thrust upon him.

Alan Levin did not plan to take over his father's drug stores. He did not necessarily want to be a Republican. He made the most of both.

"Make a decision and get behind it and give it a chance to work, but don't be afraid to say it didn't work," he said.

Levin grew up in Brandywine Hundred, not thrilled with his lot as Little Happy Harry. For college, he was allowed to go anywhere from here to the Mississippi, and he went as far as he could -- to Tulane in New Orleans.

He graduated in 1976 as a moderate-thinking independent and wrote a letter looking for campaign work with Wilmington Mayor Thomas C. Maloney, a charismatic Democrat who was taking on Roth, a Republican then running for his second Senate term. The letter went unanswered, and Levin was stung enough by the slight to call Roth's office. Roth's campaign swiftly offered an unpaid job, which Levin took.

His political apprenticeship with Roth began as low as it gets. "My first assignment was to pick him up. I didn't know my assignment was also to pick up the dog," Levin said.

The dog was Ludwig, a hairy, sloppy lummox of a Saint Bernard, the first of a long line of them campaigning with Roth as his trademark. Already a flashy connoisseur of cars, Levin was driving a yellow Oldsmobile convertible with a white interior, and it is a testament to youthful self-discipline that he endured the dog lumbering inside and slobbering on his blue suit and creamy car seats.

"That was the last time I ever used my car to take that dog anywhere," Levin said.

Levin shuttled between Roth's staff and Happy Harry's as his father's health failed. When his father died in 1987, he chose business over politics, assuming his father's role.

It would be easy to get Freudian here, with Levin inclining toward the governor's race for the separate identity long denied to him, but it would be too dismissive of Levin's own political instincts and experience.

With 60 Happy Harry's stores throughout the state, Levin has a politician's grasp of the neighborhoods and a retailer's approach to governing. "If you don't take care of your customers or your constituents, you're not doing your job," he said.

Levin puts himself philosophically in the moderate middle, just to the right of center. He does not like abortion but regards the right to abortion as the law of the land. He does not think embryonic stem cells should be harvested for science but believes research should proceed on adult stem cells or donated embryonic stem cells that otherwise would be discarded. He has not taken a position on the gay rights bill.

Levin favors a Freedom of Information Act for the legislature with an exception for caucus deliberations. He is leery of a proposal legalizing sports betting, not because of moral or religious reasons, but because it would bring on a draining lawsuit from the National Football League and still not jumpstart the economy.

"We haven't found the next FCDA," Levin said, referring to the way the Financial Center Development Act brought the banks here in the early 1980s. "Gambling ain't it."

If Levin is in, the next governor's race will be a typical homegrown affair -- with Levin's boyhood roots in Brandywine Hundred, Carney's in Claymont and Markell's in Newark, all familiar to the voters. Its outcome is likely to be shaped by the growing rivalry between Carney and Markell and the Republicans' skillfulness in exploiting the fallout. 

The Republicans would not mind if Carney won the Democratic nomination. They are vowing to give him a new first name -- "Minner" Carney -- and run against an administration largely perceived as marking time. They also believe that a disappointed voter for Markell, who shares Levin's background in business, could be persuaded to shift to Levin.

There is also the possibility that a disgruntled Carney voter could become a Levin voter if Markell is the nominee. Samuel E. Lathem, the Delaware AFL-CIO president influential in the Democratic Party, personally regards Levin as his second choice after Carney, who has been endorsed by Minner and a host of legislators.

"Jack has proven himself to me not to be a party guy. He put himself above the party," Lathem said.

It is all figuring into Levin's political calculus. This summer he is making the rounds of Republicans, and if he U-turns out of the race, it will not be because of party stalwarts like J. Everett Moore Jr., a Georgetown lawyer who is a past state chair and Sussex County chair. Moore liked what he heard.

"I've always known he was very capable. I wondered about the fire in the belly. He was able to convince me," Moore said.

The son of Happy Harry, 'Appy Alan 'as it.