Posted: Aug. 16, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The banner displayed in May at the Republican state convention in Dover was a tease -- Re-elect state Rep. Bob Valihura for Insurance Commissioner.

It was cute and confusing -- which office would it be? -- and now it has become a choice. State Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr., a Brandywine Hundred Republican first elected in 1998, is being mentioned in party circles as a possible candidate for insurance commissioner next year. He has not decided what to do.

"I am considering it, but I'm very pleased to represent my own constituents. It's nice to be talked about, but it's too early to be making that decision," Valihura said.

The Republicans need someone to run for insurance commissioner. They lost control of the office in 2004 by doing about everything they could to give it away. Donna Lee Williams, then the three-term Republican incumbent, bailed on them without any warning. They found David H. Ennis, a Brandywine Hundred legislator at the time, to be their candidate, but it is hard to say he bothered with a campaign.

The post went to Democrat Matthew P. Denn -- one of the reasons the Republicans currently occupy only two of the nine statewide offices.

Denn plans on running for lieutenant governor in 2008, and the Democrats lack a strong alternative so far. Karen Weldin Stewart, who was the nominee in 2000 but lost a party primary to Denn in 2004, is looking at the race, and so is Eugene T. Reed Jr., an Insurance Department administrator.

It is a prime opportunity for the Republicans to take back an office and rebuild their statewide presence. They have to decide whether Valihura is the right candidate to do it.

Valihura, 47, is a lawyer and part-time professor at Widener law school. After scraping through his first campaign with an eight-vote victory, he has been re-elected safely to the state House of Representatives, where he sits on the insurance committee. He has an easygoing personality and takes his legislating seriously -- sometimes so much that the law professor in him leaves his listeners unhappily feeling lectured to.

The problem is Valihura may be more valuable to the Republicans by running for re-election. The Democrats are expected to make a spirited assault on the Republicans' 21-year-long House majority, currently at 22-19, and Valihura represents a district with a Democratic registration edge. If he goes, Republican control of his district might go with him.

Brandywine Hundred with its four representative districts was once solid Republican territory, but the region is changing and the Democrats now hold two of the seats.

The Republicans lost one of them by doing exactly what they are contemplating now -- taking a Brandywine Hundred representative and making him their candidate for insurance commissioner. It is something to think about.

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If there was any question that control of the state House would not be contested fiercely in 2008, it was dispelled by what is going on at the staff level. Both caucuses are bulking up.

The Democrats struck first in this political arms race. They hired Erik J. Schramm, a political operative who ran Treasurer Jack A. Markell's campaign in 2006, worked on Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's re-election in 2004 and also has experience in legislative races. The Democrats disguised their interest in Schramm's political skills by naming him their administrative assistant, the chief aide to the caucus.

The Republicans countered by bringing in Garrett Wozniak, most recently the state Republican Party's executive director, who earned his political credentials in May for his part in winning a legislative special election in Sussex County. The Republicans are camouflaging Wozniak by making him their policy coordinator.

"I got close to Garrett during the special election. We were fortunate to have him available, so we grabbed him," said state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, the Republican majority leader.

The Democrats did not stand pat. They added Amanda Lamar, who was the state Democratic Party's deputy executive director. If the next election is important enough for the House Republicans to raid their own state headquarters for personnel, it is important enough for the House Democrats to do it, too.