Posted: Sept. 20, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle's fleeting appearance in "Fahrenheit 911," the iconoclastic film by Michael Moore, turned into a political flashpoint Monday evening during a multi-office debate for the Congress, governor, lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner.

Paul Donnelly, the Democratic newcomer whose campaign until this moment was largely invisible against the six-term Republican congressman, used the film to go after Castle and establish himself as an anti-war candidate.

Donnelly has a son who was discharged from the army after a tour of duty in Kuwait and Iraq. In the film, Michael Moore is shown as asking members of Congress outside the Capitol whether they would be willing to send their children to fight. Castle walks by while talking on a cell phone and ignores him.

"As he [Moore] approached my opponent, he beat a hasty retreat," Donnelly said. "Mike Castle really didn't understand what I went through . . . because he doesn't have any children."

Donnelly added, "President Kerry and Congressman Paul Donnelly will do everything they can to bring our troops home. Enough is enough."

Castle let Donnelly's remarks go unanswered. In an interview after the debate, he said he intended to deal with "Fahrenheit 911" later in the campaign. What was shown in the film was not what actually happened, he said.

Instead, as Castle talked to his wife Jane on his cell phone, Moore did not ask him about Iraq but about whether he had read the USA PATRIOT Act, a controversial anti-terrorism law, and did he know what was on page 78.

"He just sort of ambushed me," Castle said. "I didn't want to engage."

Donnelly's unanswered salvo supplied unusual heat to what is typically a decorous debate that is known as a staple of the election season.

Every two years the Jewish Community Center north of Wilmington is the site of a statewide candidates' forum sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Delaware and the Wilmington chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women's organization.

The debate customarily is held on the Monday following the primary and regarded as the opening of the fall campaign, but this year it was delayed a week because another event was scheduled for the auditorium.

The forum also broke with custom in another way. It was sparsely attended. In other years the room has been packed, as much with campaign volunteers as interested voters, but only about 150 people were there, leaving blocks of empty seats.

Also at the debate, the smoking ban was downgraded to a non-issue, even though it once caused "Ban Ruth Ann" stickers to sprout and was expected to be at the heart of the gubernatorial contest.

William Swain Lee, the Republican candidate, shelved it. He noted Republican legislators were the prime sponsors of the ban and said, "The governor signed the bill and deserves great credit."

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat, said she had to "get over the shock" when she heard Lee speak. Last year Lee had said he probably would not have signed the smoking ban into law, considering it ill-conceived -- worthy in concept but costly to the state's economy.

"The smoking bill has positives and minuses, and we'll find out about it on Election Day," he said in 2003.

After the debate, Lee said he never opposed the ban but was concerned about its effects on the gaming industry and the money it brings in. "That's an industry and a revenue source we have to protect," he said. "On the principle of the smoking ban, I'm a wholehearted supporter."

The governor's race dominated the forum with written questions from the audience directed mostly to Minner and Lee. It was enough to prompt a burst of nostalgia from Castle, a former governor himself whose frustration had him wishing away the constitutional ban on serving more than two terms, ever.

"I was ready to announce for governor again," Castle quipped.