Posted: Sept. 15, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When William Swain Lee met with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in their first joint forum, he told a gay rights group he would not support a bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Lee, the Republican candidate for governor, did something similarly contrary on Tuesday evening when he appeared for the second time with Minner, a first-term Democrat, during a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Newark.

Lee took a question from panelist Leland B. Ware, a law professor whose expertise is civil rights, about what should be done to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Lee replied that schools should be moved back into Wilmington as a way to improve education by increasing parental involvement, and he stuck to his answer when Ware pointed out that the city's students are 90 percent black or Latino living in high levels of poverty.

"Wouldn't that effectively re-segregate schools?" Ware asked.

"That is a consequence," Lee said.

Lee's response provided an opening for Minner that she did not let go by. She brought up northern Delaware's long history of federally mandated desegregation.

"I don't want to see us back under that court order," Minner said. "We cannot have schools that are not a blend of all of our students with equal opportunity."

The exchange was a rare moment of clarity is what was otherwise a tepid debate.

Like nearly everything, debates take practice, and it is early in the season with Minner and Lee only probing at this time for lines of attack on what they do agree are the central concerns of the campaign-- education, the environment and the economy.

The format did not help. The candidates were limited to one-minute answers and barred from engaging one another directly, and the crowd of about 150 people, while filled with partisans, heeded an admonition against applause.

The panel did not help, either. Beyond Ware, who is nationally recognized for his work, the members were Christine E. Serio, a reporter with the parent company of the Newark Post, and Brad Wenger, the general manager of the Embassy Suites Hotel Newark, where the debate was held. Serio's questions were Newark specific, and Wenger went with questions on tourism.

The debate also included Frank Infante, who is more curiosity than candidate, running for governor on two ballot lines, the Libertarian Party and the Independent Party of Delaware.

Infante provided moments of comic relief. After the candidates fielded questions from the panel, they took written questions submitted from the audience. One of them asked about caps on payouts in medical malpractice suits.

Infante did not like overlarge awards, but he thought there had to be some allowance for egregious cases -- "You go to a doctor to have your tooth pulled and wind up with no legs."

In response to another audience question about sentencing, Infante said he favored a "one-strike-you're-out" law for violent crimes against children. "I'll spend 30 cents of your money. I'll spend it on electricity," Infante said.

Some of the crowd could not help themselves when Infante said that. They broke the rules and applauded.