Posted: Aug. 25, 2006
WHEN IS A SPEECH JUST A SPEECH?
By Celia Cohen
K.C. Keeler and the University of Delaware are back-pedaling away from a speaking engagement that the football coach did for Michael J. Ramone, a Republican legislative candidate, although it is a little unclear how fast and how far.
Keeler was the featured speaker on Aug. 3 at a political breakfast for Ramone, who is trying for the second time to unseat state Sen. David P. Sokola, a Pike Creek Valley Democrat, in one of the most closely-watched races of 2006.
Ramone threw a scare into Sokola four years ago by coming within 277 votes of winning, and the Republicans urged him to go for a rematch. In a chamber the Democrats have controlled since 1973, Ramone looked to his party as perhaps its best chance to whittle down its 13-8 deficit there.
Keeler, who coached the Blue Hens to a national championship in 2003, is about as big a name as there is in Delaware, so his appearance at Ramone's $100-a-ticket breakfast was bound to attract attention. There is no telling what effect it could have on a sitting senator who casts votes on the university's budget, confirms its trustees and happens to chair the Senate's Education Committee.
"I was disappointed. You have a right to support whoever you want, but this is one of our institutions," Sokola said.
Sometime after the breakfast, Edgar N. Johnson, the university's athetics director, and Keeler telephoned Sokola to say there was nothing to it. Keeler had gone because he was paid to give a talk about leadership, as he is routinely.
The fee, paid from Ramone's campaign fund, was $1,000 for about a 15-minute presentation to a crowd of 50 people or so with breakfast thrown in. It was a lot of money, but who can put a price on the cachet that Keeler could bring to a candidacy?
"In hindsight they said we probably made a mistake," Sokola said.
"I called Dave because it was the right thing to do. Dave Sokola has been a good friend of the UD for years. He's an alum," Johnson said. "Coach Keeler was not under the impression it was a fund raiser."
Keeler was not available for an interview, so it was impossible to ask what his impression was, but his name was on the invitation with his biography included, and there is no doubt about the impression he left on people who went to Ramone's breakfast.
Keeler gave a speech for a friend. In a little state like Delaware, friendship counts even more than politics.
"He did not make a political speech. The coach is a very good friend of Mike's, and also the wives are friends," said state Rep. Joseph E. Miro, a Republican who attended the breakfast.
"It was evident there was a personal relationship between two friends, a personal relationship, as opposed to a political relationship," said state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Republican who also was there.
Keeler and Ramone became friends when the coach, who played on the university's 1979 championship team, returned to take over the football team in 2002, Ramone said.
Keeler contacted Ramone, a swimming coach who owns a cluster of swimming and fitness enterprises, to ask about swimming opportunities for his daughter and son, now 13 and 10, and this mutual interest in swimming brought them together, Ramone said.
"It's not like he comes over every Friday night and has a beer. It's close but casual. I don't ask him about football. I never went to a UD game. I think that's why he likes me," Ramone said.
"K.C. made clear, I love you to death, but I can't get involved in politics. He said, I need to be very careful not to endorse a candidate. We paid him to come out and be a speaker. He can't endorse me. I knew that. I wouldn't be that stupid. I'm not going to compromise a friendship to win an election."
If Keeler is not endorsing, he certainly seems to be winking. In addition to his paid appearance at the breakfast, he attended a $50-a-ticket fund raiser that Ramone held earlier, and his children have worn yellow "Team Ramone" t-shirts and participated with other teen-age swimmers in literature drops, Ramone said.
Keeler will not be voting for Ramone, however. He is a Republican, but he lives across the Pennsylvania line in Landenberg.
If the Democrats are concerned about a Keeler-Ramone connection, they have a right to be. They were on the other end of a similar one in the 1998 election, when Democrat Jack A. Markell ousted a Republican incumbent in the state treasurer's race.
As a boy, Markell lived in a Newark neighborhood seven houses away from Tubby Raymond, the football coach before Keeler. Like the Ramones and the Keelers, the Markells and the Raymonds were friends. When Markell became a candidate, Raymond appeared in a radio spot and in print advertising in a football program for him.
"Tubby said to me, it was like doing it for family. It was one of the most effective things I did in the campaign," Markell said. "You know what Delaware's like. It went a long way."