Posted: Aug. 12, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If ever a state representative had almost no margin of error for his re-election campaign, it would be Dennis Williams. Uh-oh.

Williams, a three-term Democrat from Brandywine Hundred, sent out a mass mailing to constituents, also known as voters, and it blew up on him.

It seems the contents might have blurred the line between official correspondence and political self-promotion. Not that elected officeholders cannot do both, just not at the same time. Sort of like drinking and driving.

Williams mailed out one of those oh-what-a-good-boy-am-I letters, summarizing the last legislative session, on his official stationery inside his official envelopes from the state House of Representatives. So far, so good.

Some envelopes, however, had something else included. There was a long and slender contact card with mostly governmental telephone numbers, like the congressional offices and local libraries, a little sweet-nothing item popular with legislators for getting their name out. Who knows, maybe people will stick it on the refrigerator with a magnet and look at it every day!

Williams' contact card noted it was "not printed at taxpayer expense," so it was explicitly not a public document. It also happened to note the Internet address of his political Web site. Not so good.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not Clinton-era sleepovers for mega-contributors in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. That said, Williams is not the leader of the free world, either, but a back-bench legislator who always seems to have a defeat-me sign pinned to him.

Williams' campaigns for the 10th Representative District have been perpetually perilous. He was lifted into office over a sitting Republican representative by the Obama-Markell tide in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote, and his percentages have not risen much since.

In Williams' last race two years ago, he squeaked through Primary Day with 53 percent and Election Day with 52 percent. Sean Matthews, his Democratic primary opponent in 2012, is back for another try, while the Republicans have Judy Travis awaiting the outcome.

In this sliver of a district, running along the northern arc of Delaware from Concord Pike at Talleyville to the Delaware River, the electorate leans Democratic -- with a registration that is 44 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 24 percent otherwise affiliated -- so it should be noted Williams probably has more to fear from the primary.

Under the circumstances, the last thing Williams needed was a self-inflicted wound.

Matthews, the primary opponent, was the first to flag the mailing. His campaign manager contacted Elaine Manlove, the election commissioner, last week to ask her to look into it. The Republicans quickly followed with a request of their own.

"We just don't think that is a representation of good government. This is not going to win or lose an election, but I wouldn't do it," Matthews said.

As of Tuesday, the election commissioner's office had not issued a ruling.

Williams himself was incommunicado. He said by e-mail he would be available Tuesday afternoon to discuss the mailing, but he decided later he would rather not.

Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker, stepped up to defend Williams.

"I just don't think it's much of anything," Schwartzkopf said.

Under House rules, the members generally are allowed to send mass mailings prepared by the staff into their districts, although they have to reimburse the state for it, Schwartzkopf said.

Schwartzkopf did not know the size or the cost of Williams' mailing, but he did clear up the mystery about why not everyone got the contact card. There were only 200 copies available to distribute, so some people got them and some did not, although how it was determined he could not say.

Nor did Schwartzkopf consider the contact card to be political in nature.

Well, it sure is now.