Posted: Aug. 31, 2006


Not a time to turn over rocks

State Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., normally one of the most talkative officeholders, was not taking calls on Thursday, at least not political calls.

Wagner, a Republican, was letting sleeping Democrats lie. He was on the verge of becoming one of the rarest figures in Delaware politics -- a statewide official running unopposed.

The filing deadline is Friday for political parties to fill holes on their ballot, and while the Democrats appear to have done everything short of invoking the name of St. Thomas More, the patron of politicians, to help them find a candidate for auditor, it looks as though they will come up empty.

It would be a huge embarrassment for the Democrats, who have seven of the nine statewide officeholders -- all but Wagner and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle -- and planned to target Wagner this year. Still, there is likely to be little effect on the Democratic ticket overall, not with a Carper, a Markell and a Biden running at the top.

Wagner was taking no chances. He jovially sent word he would be available to talk at 4:45 on Friday afternoon, 15 minutes after the election office closes. It was a remarkable display of discipline from someone even fellow politicians regard as gabby.

The Democrats did try to find an opponent for Wagner, who has held the office since 1989 -- first as an appointee to fill a vacancy and then for four full terms, beginning with the 1990 election.

The Democrats thought they had Robert B. Wasserbach, their candidate in 2002, but last year he became the New Castle County auditor, an appointed post, and did not want to seem ungrateful by trying to get out of the job so soon after he got into it.

The Democrats also tried Gary E. Hutt, a Wilmington ex-councilman. He was all set to be endorsed at the state convention in June, but he showed up only long enough to back out. In recent weeks, party leaders sounded out Lester Hendrix, who is running in a four-way primary for the Wilmington legislative seat held by state Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, but Hendrix decided to stay where he is.

If Wagner skates, it could be the first time for a statewide officeholder in 120 years.

Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr., the 85-year-old Republican elected a congressman in 1956 and Wilmington mayor in 1968, could not think of anyone else who did. Neither could William Swain Lee, the 70-year-old former judge who chairs the Sussex County Republicans and grew up hearing political stories from his grandfather William J. Swain, a Republican state treasurer, insurance commissioner and prohibition commissioner in the 1930s and 1940s.

That leaves a passing reference to unopposed candidates in a slim volume called "Delaware Politics 1904-1954," a memoir written by the late Daniel O. Hastings, once a Republican U.S. senator. He recounted a year of unconditional surrender:

"It appears that in 1886 the Republicans were so discouraged by their constant defeats that they declined to put any candidates in the field, and all the Democratic candidates were elected."

The difference now is that the Democrats are anything but discouraged, not with the state trending their way. Instead, the situation seems more like the assessment that Cornelius Ryan, the World War II historian, offered about Allied stumbles toward the end of the conflict, noting, "The truth was that the Germans were losing faster than the Allies could win."

Maybe the Republicans are losing faster than the Democrats can win.

Jordan gets his hearing

U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan, nominated to replace Judge Jane R. Roth on the U.S. Third Circuit Court, will not have to wait long for his confirmation hearing once the Congress returns from its summer recess.

He will spend Wednesday afternoon in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There do not appear to be any obstacles to Jordan beyond the typically glacial pace of federal judicial confirmations.

Roth's seat has been open since May 31, when she went on senior status, or semi-retirement, with a reduced caseload.

Be careful what you wish for

In the election for state attorney general, Republican Ferris W. Wharton accused Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III of ducking debates. Biden replied that he was not ducking, only waiting until the traditional fall campaign season.

Was he ever. The Biden campaign has released a list of a dozen joint appearances and debates between Sept. 6 and Nov. 3, four days before the election on Nov. 7.

There are debates in the morning (Caesar Rodney Rotary Club on Sept. 29), in the evening (Delaware State Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 6) and at lunchtime (Wilmington Rotary Club on Oct. 12.)

There are debates before business leaders (Committee of 100 on Sept. 19), union members (A. Philip Randolph Institute on Oct. 14), academics (University of Delaware Academy of Lifelong Learning on Oct. 16), police (Delaware Police Chiefs Council on Oct. 10), and groups with a religious flavor (Jewish Federation of Delaware on Sept. 14 and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark on Oct. 11.)

There are debates on radio (WILM on Oct. 20 and WDEL on Oct. 24) and television (WHYY on Nov. 3.)

Wharton's campaign is taking credit for this deluge of debates. "We're happy that Beau has acquiesced to our demands," said Michael J. Hudome, a campaign consultant. "I suppose it will have to do. We would have liked to have some sooner."

With the debate on debates over, a new one can begin. At what point does subjecting the voters repeatedly to two lawyers talking become cruel and unusual punishment?