Posted: Sept. 1, 2004


The convention in New York marks a changing of the guard in Delaware’s Republican leadership. At its conclusion W. Laird Stabler Jr., the national committeeman since 1985, will make way for John R. Matlusky to take over this top party post. 

Stabler is the grand old man of Republican state politics, revered for his gentle guidance and unassuming wit, his prodigious fund-raising skills and the guaranteed credibility his seal of approval gives to emerging candidates. 

He is an instinctive peacemaker in an elbow-throwing political world. No one has been stabler than Stabler. 

Stabler, a retired lawyer, became a force in party politics after he was elected to the legislature in 1966 and then to a single term as attorney general in 1970. He also was appointed U.S. attorney. Same old, same old – as the federal prosecutor in Delaware, Stabler went after corruption in New Castle County government in the 1970s. 

Not only Republicans have benefited from Stabler’s tutelage. One of his Democratic deputies in the state Justice Department was Supreme Court Justice Myron T. Steele. 

The national committeeman is one of the leading party officials, along with the national committeewoman and state chairman. All three have seats on the Republican National Committee, the governing council for the party, and hold considerable sway on the Republican State Committee. 

When the Delawareans in New York got together Wednesday for an early dinner at a restaurant in Little Italy, they surprised Stabler by turning it into a tribute. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with anyone held in higher esteem in the state of Delaware by Republicans, Democrats and independents,” said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle. 

Republican after Republican extolled Stabler as a gentleman. Politics is a cruel game. If Stabler was not such a gentleman, there is virtually no doubt he would be beginning another four-year term as national committeeman instead of exiting. 

When Stabler unexpectly was challenged for re-election at the Republican state convention in May, he simply stepped aside. As the news spread that he would not run, there was a groundswell to get him to change his mind, but Stabler said he had given his word. 

In a backlash vote the Republicans turned against Thomas H. Draper, the Rehoboth Beach businessman whose challenge sidelined Stabler, and installed Matlusky, their state vice chairman, as the new national committeeman.

Stabler’s accomplishments and his marriage into the du Pont family ensured his stature in Delaware, but it is his humble decency more than anything that endeared and elevated him. 

It came through in a story that Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the national committeewoman, told about the time she was breaking into politics in 1970 and hosted an event at her house for Stabler, who was running for attorney general, and for Pierre S. du Pont, then the congressional candidate who later became governor. When it was over, Pete and Elise du Pont went on their way. 

Laird and Peg Stabler stayed to do the dishes. 

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As Stabler bows out, there is a promotion of sorts for Rakestraw. 

As she begins a new term at the convention’s conclusion, she will become the longest-serving active member on the Republican National Committee, passing by Martha C. Moore, who is retiring as the national committeewoman from Ohio. 

Rakestraw had to wait some time for this achievement. She has served at the national level since 1975. Moore has been around since 1968. 

Seniority counts in politics. One of the perquisites that goes with Rakestraw’s new status is the right to escort the president when he attends a national committee meeting. 

“Not bad for a little farm girl who grew up in Cecil County, Md. My father would have been very proud,” Rakestraw said. 

“Proud” may not cover it. Republicans are about as popular in Cecil County as they are here in New York City.

# # # 

Security intrudes in unexpected ways at these national conventions. It nearly even interfered with the time-honored tradition of bringing home the state standards, those skinny signs marking the seats for the delegations in the convention hall. 

The Delaware Democrats almost were stymied in Boston. The standards were fastened to lecterns – no unauthorized sign waving, you know – and no tools were permitted on the floor. Still, they were determined to bring the standard home. 

“I don’t remember when it hasn’t been done,” said Richard H. Bayard, the Democratic state chairman.

The Democrats found a way. They got an inside tip that television technicians were allowed to bring tools inside. “One of the security guys told us. He knew perfectly well want we were going to do,” Bayard said. 

As the Democratic convention ended, the Delawareans corralled a TV tech and borrowed a Leatherman tool. They turned over the lectern and liberated their standard, now on display in their state headquarters in New Castle. 

Bayard was ready to challenge the state Republicans to match the Democrats’ ingenuity, but it was a bust. The “Delaware” sign inside Madison Square Garden is constructed to slip off its pole, making for easy portage. It will be coming home for sure.