Posted: Aug. 21, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If any Democrats or Republicans were hungry Saturday in Sussex County, it was their own fault.

Both parties had outdoor picnics that were groaning boards of food, an afternoon of delight for gluttons for politics. The Democrats were in Milton with a spread that was positively epicurean, and the Republicans trekked out to Trap Pond State Park near Laurel for a buffet of down-home favorites.

The weather was as laden as the tables. It was heat and eat, and if "sweat" had the good sense to be pronounced the way it is spelled, it would have been heat and eat and sweat.

Oh yes, U.S. Sen. George Allen, the Virginia Republican who is one of the multitudes thinking about running for president, put in an appearance, although his visit to Delaware did not go as originally planned.

The Democrats went first. Corey Marshall-Steele, an executive assistant to state Treasurer Jack A. Markell as well as an effervescent gay rights advocate, turned his 36th birthday into a fund-raiser for his boss, who is running for a third term next year and who-knows-what after that.

Marshall-Steele cooked for a week. With a little help from his friends, about 27 of them, he turned out a menu that was a page long. Its offerings included ginger orange walnuts, Gorgonzola and roast beef pinwheels, grilled chicken wraps with blueberry-Chipotle chutney and goat cheese, bourbon beef barbecue with summer rolls, five salads and 11 desserts, a lot of them made with Kahlua.

There were also Corey's famous cocktail olives, breaded and baked, and famous because of state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat who was there. It seems Marshall-Steele brought the olives a few years ago to one of Schwartzkopf's fund-raisers, and nobody told Schwartzkopf that the secret ingredient was vodka.

"I kept eating them, and about a half-hour later I felt a little tipsy, and I didn't know why," Schwartzkopf said.

"He didn't even thank the host, just thanked me and my olives," Marshall-Steele said.

"I love olives," Schwartzkopf said.

Marshall-Steele cooked for 350 people, who flowed to food stations under tents in the yard outside a charming Federal Street house with one 18th Century room and another 19th Century section, all fixed up by owners Greg Brown and Anne Yarbrough. Admission was a check made out to Markell's campaign for any amount, up to the $1,200 legal limit.

Food aside, it was a political event. If Markell was looking for someone to run for lieutenant governor when he goes for the governorship, which he avoids mentioning as though he were whistling past the gorilla in the room, the crowd included two whose names have been bandied about -- Schwartzkopf and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn.

Interestingly, about a half-dozen members from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's staff attended. They were so careful to say they came to support Markell for re-election and not because they were choosing sides in a gubernatorial showdown between Markell and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. for 2008, although it is fermenting with the pop of one of Marshall-Steele's cocktail olives.

There is no such thing as a coincidence in politics. Still, Markell steadfastly refused to read anything into the staffers' presence, not to mention the appearance of lobbyist Mary Davis, who along with her lobbyist father Edward R. "Ned" Davis is part of Minner's inner circle.

"I don't think it says anything," Markell said with a straight face.

Also wandering the grounds was Melvin A. Slawik Sr., a Democrat who set the standard for disgraced New Castle County executives by going to jail in the 1970s for what he did while in office and again in the 1990s for what he did in another political scandal while he was out. Slawik, who had to be pointed out to Markell, said he was there because he has a house in Milton.

The speeches were short and humorous. In the political pecking order, Schwartzkopf introduced Denn, who introduced Markell, and they were all a mutual admiration society. The 39-year-old Denn revealed he has known the 44-year-old Markell since he was a toddler, much to Markell's advantage.

"My entire life, I have been asked [by my mother] why am I not more like Jack Markell," Denn said. "Jackie eats his vegetables, who don't you eat your vegetables?"

Denn followed protocol and danced around Markell's future. "He's going to be part of our party for a long, long time," Denn said. "The other party is terrified of Jack Markell. He's like Sputnik was for the Eisenhower folks."

Markell responded with a poem for the occasion. It included praise for Denn's tirelessness in an office that more typically disappears from public notice, as Markell rhymed "insurance" with "endurance." Then everybody went back to eating.

Farther south, about 300 Republicans chowed down at a Crab Feast & Watermelon Extravaganza, hosted for its eighth year by Sussex County Councilman Vance C. Phillips.

At pavilions in a tree-covered grove, the feasters ate family-style at long planks of picnic tables as they helped themselves to crabs donated by local restaurants, watermelons grown by Phillips himself, corn contributed by a farmer friend and also fried chicken, baked beans and other fixings from Jimmy's Grille, which is to catering in Sussex County what a horse-drawn carriage is to a Return Day parade -- an absolute staple.

Amid all that consumption, Phillips listened nervously for the chattering roar of a helicopter bringing in George Allen from Washington. In the week beforehand, all sorts of shifts in times, places and events had gone on to ensure that the senator could show up, and Phillips was not ready to believe it until he could see it.

Allen originally was scheduled for three appearances -- the $30-a-ticket crab feast, followed by a private fund-raiser for his own benefit, followed by a Rehoboth Beach reception with the proceeds from the $100 tickets going to Republican Party coffers.

Then two things happened. The BRAC Commission on military base closings scheduled a rare Saturday session with an installation from Allen's home state of Virginia on the agenda, and the Republicans found their Rehoboth reception falling flat. Depending on who was talking, the party was said to have sold anywhere from 28 to 58 tickets, when it had hoped for upwards of 100.

The Rehoboth reception was dumped. Phillips moved his event from mid-afternoon to late afternoon, and Allen's own fund-raiser was rescheduled for the evening at the Georgetown law office of J. Everett Moore Jr., a former Republican state chairman.

"Instead of getting him for a whole day, we're going to get him for two hours," said William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who is the Sussex County Republican chairman. "Our [Rehoboth] event just got squeezed. It's August at the beach, and we're selling political tickets?"

Allen did come, and he was in the right place. His presidential-sounding stump speech trilled the beauty of free enterprise, a theme dear to Phillips and his political allies who are on the side of the growth that has become such a searing political issue in Sussex County. In fact, Allen was expected to raise $35,000 or $40,000 for himself largely from members of the county's Positive Growth Alliance, although the organization itself officially was not involved.

As Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, said, Allen was singing the song and the people were humming along.

Not all of them were even Republicans. Sure, Attorney General M. Jane Brady, a Republican up for her fourth term next year, was there, and so were state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, a Chateau Country Republican keeping those murmurings of statewide office alive, and Robert I. Hicks, the former New Castle County auditor who might take on Markell, but there was more.

State Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., a Sussex County Democrat, and Stephanie L. Hansen, a former New Castle County Council Democratic president, also were listening. It was vintage Sussex County, where political labels count for less than who-knows-whom.

Venables is a conservative's conservative, and he could not have seemed more comfortable. "I came down here to straighten them out," he joked. "Plus Vance is a good friend of mine. Plus I like crabs."

Hansen, a lawyer, is setting up a land-use practice that extends to Sussex County, so she went where the pro-growth partisans were. "I figure I'm going to have to call Joe Biden personally and apologize," she said.

For Delaware's first look at Allen, he established his local ties by latching onto a couple of crowd-pleasers -- football for one and the respect of someone from one of the original 13 states for another.

The son of the Hall of Fame football coach, Allen noted he had a brother who once was a kicker on the University of Delaware squad. Then it was on to the colonial connection. Delaware was the First State, but Virginia was the mother of presidents, weighing in early with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, and Allen drew from that.

He called himself a "common-sense Jeffersonian conservative" and quoted to nods of approval from Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inaugural address, which called for "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

Allen was not around long. He said he would not stay for a meal -- "I just came to talk and give you all indigestion" -- but he was definitely intent on doing some feeding. He flung out political red meat to go along with the watermelon and such, the crowd eating up his declarations. He was in favor of energy independence through initiatives like soy diesel that could come from Sussex County crops, and he was ringingly against estate taxes.

"The IRS is like a bunch of buzzards at the funeral," he said. "We ought to give the death penalty to death taxes because death should not be a taxable event."

As Allen moved on after his speech, there was still pie left to eat. The crowd was thinning, but it included Joe Connor, a good Democrat but also a Sussex County real estate broker whose claim to fame was his attendance at both of the day's  events.

He went to the one in Milton for his politics, and now he was at Trap Pond for his business. And the food? "Better here," Connor said.