Posted: July 23, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Sussex County did not have to get warmed up for this election season. It has felt like perpetual politics there for years.

John Atkins, the wild-child state representative from Millsboro, started it by jolting the county into the first of a string of three special elections, dating back to 2007, and he remains in the thick of the politicking coming afterwards.

That would include Election Year 2010, when he legislated a County Council race into existence.

Atkins is a pied piper of politics. Wherever he goes, it follows. It went so far as to stalk him on the infamous night near Halloween 2006, when drinking and domestic discord involving two states and two police departments, not to mention the ill-advised use of his legislator's ID, got him frog-marched out of the House of Representatives.

Atkins' departure led to Sussex Special Election #1. His resignation speech, however, sounded like a campaign kickoff, and he was not gone for long.

By 2008 Atkins had his seat back, treating the entire state of Delaware to a show of two of the most difficult feats to accomplish in politics. He recovered from scandal, and he returned to office after switching parties, from Republican to Democrat. Only in Sussex County.

Atkins toned down his personal act and moved up his political gamesmanship.

It has meant heartburn for Vance Phillips, the Republican president of the Sussex County Council, not that Phillips actually needed any help with it.

Phillips is conspicuously backing Glen Urquhart in the Republican congressional primary against Michele Rollins, the party's endorsed candidate. The Republican regulars are not pleased.

The Delaware Republicans tend to like their politics buttoned up, and here was Phillips, like something out of spring break.

Phillips' involvement with Urquhart became extra controversial because he was getting paid for it. Politicians help each other out all the time, but this was a new twist, one calling the other boss. Not to mention it was a case of a Sussex councilman on the campaign payroll of a Sussex developer and getting paid more by the campaign than the council.

Phillips collected $21,000 from Urquhart from February through June, according to campaign finance reports, not much less than his entire salary of $27,075 for the year as the council president. (He is no longer employed by the campaign, although he remains a volunteer, a campaign spokesman said.)

This is not the only brouhaha over Phillips. There are still deep suspicions that he was in cahoots with a minor-party candidate last summer in the race to replace Thurman Adams, the state Senate's Democratic president pro tem who died in office.

This was Sussex Special Election #2. The Republicans were backing Joe Booth, a state representative, and the Democrats put up Adams' daughter, but there was also Matt Opaliski as a conservative alternative to Booth.

It is hard to think Booth's conservative credentials could be challenged, but this is Sussex County. It is the place where Mike Castle, the Republican congressman, went viral on YouTube when a birther waved her own birth certificate and a tiny flag at him during his own town hall meeting and made everyone say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Booth won in a romp, slyly scheduled a thank-you party on the same day as Phillips' Crab Feast & Watermelon Extravaganza, and there was no trouble from Phillips in Sussex Special Election #3, when Booth was replaced in the House by another Republican.

Phillips' capers had people thinking he could be vulnerable for re-election. Denny Cordrey, the Sussex County personnel director who is retiring next month, was interested in running on the Democratic ticket, but there was a sticking point.

County officeholders who are also retired county employees could collect their salary or their pension, but not both. This problem went away, however, when Atkins came up with legislation allowing for both a public paycheck and a pension.

The bill was passed last month on a party line vote, the Republicans complaining it was being done for political reasons.

"But they were kicking and screaming for the same reason, purely political," Atkins quipped.

Republican solidarity only goes so far. Now that Cordrey is in the race, Republicans have not exactly been lining up to help Phillips fend him off. Not after Phillips dances with Urquhart.

"This will cause him to lose many Republican votes," said Jud Bennett, a Sussex Republican who runs a vast e-mail operation called the Coastal Network.

Just what Sussex County needed in its politics. More intrigue.