Posted: July 13, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The drill is as basic to politics as a wink. When a legislator dies, nominate the widow or another family member to run.

It brings instant name recognition. It brings sympathy. Within the compressed stress and quirks of a special election, it is the most reliable way to win.

Heartless? Not to the political class that strictly observes the protocol of funeral first, nomination second. This is what passes for allowing time for mourning, or at least for speed-grieving.

In politics, shame only comes in losing.

In past years the Democrats turned to departed legislators' relatives to put Sen. Nancy Cook and Rep. Hazel Plant in the Delaware General Assembly, the Republicans to put Sen. Cathy Cloutier, Sen. Dori Connor and Rep. Biff Lee there.

It is the reason the Republicans quietly checked the voter registration records when Thurman Adams, the Bridgeville Democrat who was the Senate's president pro tem, died last month after spending 36 years in the legislature.

The Republicans wanted to know how his daughter was registered. It was a blow when they found out she was listed as "Polly Adams Mervine." It meant the Adams name could appear on the ballot if she was the candidate. The voting booth might as well come with a choir singing "Amazing Grace."

The Republicans had a proven candidate ready to go in Joe Booth, a Georgetown ex-mayor who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, but there was no denying the political pull a halo can have on a campaign.

What people forgot, though, is the special election set for Aug. 3 is in Sussex County, in a western district that stretches east from the Maryland border to take in Bridgeville, Greenwood, Ellendale, Milton and Georgetown.

Sussex politics is alive with switchblades like the Sharks and the Jets. It has turned this special election in Western Sussex into something like the county's own version of "West Side Story."

The Democrats did their best not to nominate Polly Adams Mervine. Although they eventually did, their feuding was a gift to the Republicans. The Democrats took what was a great chance at winning and made it good.

Not that the Republicans were without intrigue, even if theirs was nowhere near what the Democrats had. Matt Opaliski, a Republican who ran as a minor-party candidate for the Senate seat in 2006, is back under repeat circumstances. With turnout notoriously low in special elections, he has the potential to bleed away votes crucial to Booth.

The Democrats giveth, and the Republicans giveth back.

State party leaders on both sides were left frustrated by the Sussex rumbles. "There's such a thing as too damn much democracy," one groused.

The Sussex Democrats were the ones who really outdid themselves, though. Maybe it was inevitable from the start, when they scheduled a meeting to consider candidates on July 1.

It was four days after Thurman Adams' funeral, and certainly they wanted to get going with the campaign, but why on this evening?

It was bad one for their legislators, who were Polly Adams Mervine's most loyal advocates. They had been preoccupied with the 2009 legislative session, which did not end until about four that morning.

It was an opening for people not enamored of dynastic-building in general or the Adamses in particular. Although Democratic Party policy called for waiting a week to settle on the nominee, the Sussex Democrats decided not to bother. Eddy Parker, a Sussex County official for assessments, edged out Mervine by one vote.

The backlash from legislators was swift.

"We weren't asleep at the switch, we were asleep from exhaustion. He [Parker] didn't catch people with their pants down, he caught people who didn't know where their pants were," one Democratic legislator protested.

"I was really, really surprised. I think the [Senate Democratic] caucus was leaning toward Polly, primarily because of Thurman," said Sen. Bob Venables, a Laurel Democrat.

John Daniello, the Democratic state chair, spent hours over the July Fourth weekend at the Dover Sheraton with Parker and Polly Mervine's husband Jay to try to broker a truce, but nothing came of it.

Meanwhile, there was some dirt digging. Parker was a state trooper for five years or so in the 1970s, and there was talk of a checkered record.

The pressure built -- over the failure to follow party policy on the nomination, over the dirt digging, over the legislators' support for Mervine. House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat who used to be a state trooper himself, called Sussex County Democratic Chair Pat Ewing and pushed for a do-over.

Parker made up his mind to get out. He realized he could not fend off the Republicans if he was fending off Democrats.

"It was a decision I made on my own. I just didn't feel there was sufficient support. There was a desire on the part of Sen. Adams' fellow legislators that they wanted to see an Adams on the ticket," Parker said. "For the good of the party, I thought I should step aside."

The Sussex Democrats reconvened. After a stormy meeting, Mervine emerged with the nomination in another close runoff, this time against Lynn Rogers, a former Sussex County councilman.

It left its share of resentment, not the least from Pat Ewing, the Sussex chair, who all along thought Parker was a better nominee. She wanted nothing more to do with the special election.

"Say that Pat Ewing left town on vacation. She is not going to be involved in the Adams campaign," Ewing said.

It does not take much to lose a special election, but other Democrats are more comfortable with their prospects against Booth, now that they have an Adams as their nominee.

"Joe is a really good candidate, but the candidate we have now has a chance of beating Joe. With Polly on board and with the sympathy vote, I think she's going to win," Venables said.

In a final strange twist, the date of the special election on Aug. 3 is a Monday, not the typical Tuesday. The timing is the result of state law, which requires legislative vacancies to be filled in no more than 41 days. In this case, if the special election was scheduled any earlier, it would conflict with the Delaware State Fair.

No candidate wants to compete with the fair.

Still, if voters receive notices telling them to vote on a Monday, they might think it was a mistake or a dirty trick. How appropriate.