Posted: July 9, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There always seems to be some sort of surprise popping up only after the legislature shuts down.

Sometimes it is an item that was tucked quietly into a bill. The state is acquiring what? A golf course? This year it is Dick Cathcart.

Surprise! Cathcart, the House Republican minority leader, is not running again.

He kept his decision close until Wednesday, a week after the Delaware General Assembly's last day. His wife Linda was there with him for the end of the session, which should have been a clue, but it was largely overlooked in the get-out-of-Dover bedlam.

Cathcart's departure apparently comes as a bit of a surprise to him, too, bubbling up after his doctor told him in the last month or so that something had to go, either the stress of the legislature or the stress of his administrative job at Delaware State University. He is 65.

Cathcart waited to say anything, because an announcement would have turned him into an instant lame duck, all quack and no paddle.

"I didn't want to do it before June 30. I would have lost any leverage I would have," he said.

Not that it did him a whole lot of good, anyway. Tony DeLuca, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem, still stuck it to Delaware State, Cathcart and others, including Democratic Speaker Bob Gilligan, by not working a bill that would have set up a popular scholarship program at the school. 

Cathcart is leaving behind two spots to fill, one for his seat in the House of Representatives for lower New Castle County and the other for his leadership post.

Politics abhors a vacuum even more than Mother Nature does. Get ready.

There is already a scramble of candidates in the district. Open legislative seats do not come along all the time, in this case not since Cathcart won it in a special election 13 years ago.

The interest is stronger yet, because both parties think they can win. The registration favors the Democrats, but the voters obviously have been comfortable with voting for a Republican. Not to mention this election year looks like a good one for the Republicans, particularly with Congressman Mike Castle at the top of the ticket to run for the Senate.

Cathcart believes the Republicans can keep the seat, but John Daniello, the Democratic state chair, likes his party's chances.

"Is it winnable? Yes," Daniello said. "The proof that it is an opportunity for the Democratic Party is the immediate interest in running for the office by half a dozen people. I'm confident the [Democratic] representative district committee will handle it."

Both parties are bracing for a primary. The Democrats already have two candidates -- Richard Griffiths, who once appeared to have the nomination to himself, and Rebecca Walker, who ran against Cathcart twice before. The Republicans have John Marino, who has Cathcart's endorsement, but others are expected.

This is an important race. After 24 years in the House majority, the Republicans fell into the minority in 2008 and need four seats for a comeback against the Democrats, who control the chamber 24-17. Cathcart's departure makes it even harder for the Republicans to put together a new majority.

Nor is it a good sign for the Republicans that all four of the House retirements are on their side of the aisle. Along with Cathcart, they are losing Bill Oberle in New Castle County, Pam Thornburg in Kent County and George Carey in Sussex County.

It is the circle of political life. Being in the minority begets retirements begets being in the minority.

Whoever replaces Cathcart in leadership, the odds are it will be for minority leader, not speaker.

A number of people are being mentioned for leadership, most prominently Dan Short, who is currently the whip, Greg Lavelle, who lost to Cathcart for minority leader, and Debbie Hudson.

Lavelle, a Brandywine Hundred representative since 2000, is making no secret of it.

"My interest in leadership has not waned," Lavelle said, and he really wants it to be for speaker. "I'm cautiously optimistic we can take back the House. We need everything to come together. If there's ever a year that could happen, this could be the year."

Cathcart's exit is the end for a breed of House Republicans who were union-friendly and had the clout to put their politically moderate imprint on the caucus. They are gone after the defeat of Terry Spence, then the speaker, and Vince Lofink in 2008, followed by the voluntary departures of Cathcart and Oberle now. Spence is trying to come back, however.

A political shift in the House Republicans looks inevitable. Something rightward this way comes.

Without the king-making skills of an ally like Oberle, it could be a struggle for Cathcart to stay in leadership. Maybe his departure is a little less than surprising, after all.