Posted: Sept. 23, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

New Castle County Democrats are dealing with an uneasy truce at the top of the ticket with Christopher A. Coons, their candidate for county executive, and Paul G. Clark, their candidate for council president.

The tenuousness is the result of lingering suspicions that Clark cast his lot in the primary on Sept. 11 with Sherry L. Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer who lost lopsidedly to Coons for the county executive nomination in a deep and dark blood feud.

There was and is no middle ground between Coons and Freebery -- not with Coons, a lawyer and onetime divinity student campaigning as Mr. Ethics, and Freebery, a former police chief fighting an indictment on federal corruption charges.

That rupture put enormous pressure on the candidates in a three-way election for the council president nomination, which Clark claimed in a tension-filled squeaker that came down to a two-man contest he won by 152 votes over Penrose Hollins.

The primaries set up election showdowns between Coons and Republican Christopher J. Castagno for the right to succeed Democratic County Executive Thomas P. Gordon, Freebery's boss and fellow indictee who was term-limited, and between Clark and Republican Ernesto B. Lopez for council president, the post that Coons is vacating.

During the primary campaign, the Democrats' county organization endorsed Coons, but it could not decide among the candidates for council president, forcing them to rely on their own resources and to find aid wherever they could.

Despite the lack of an endorsement, there were signals from the party leadership that it was pulling for Hollins, a county councilman from Wilmington, because he was regarded as a better bet for drawing Democratic city voters, especially his fellow African-Americans, to the polls in November than Clark, a Newark suburbanite. Democrats need that city vote.

For political peace, Hollins was disinclined to link to either Coons or Freebery, but as the primary season unfolded, he found himself increasingly at odds with Freebery and by extension Gordon.

"They didn't accept that I was acting independently. They contrived to tie me to Chris Coons, and I had no ties to Chris Coons, except that I thought he was the better candidate," Hollins said.

Freebery thought that was what Hollins thought, and she responded accordingly. "Penrose abandoned his friends who helped him for eight years and went to the highest bidder," she said.

Clark dropped by her headquarters on Primary Day, and Hollins said his volunteers in the field came back with tales that Freebery's forces were with Clark's. "Maybe in the end, they [Freebery and Gordon] decided, we're going to get this guy," Hollins said.

Clark insisted he was on his own, staying neutral in the county executive battle. "I get along with everybody. If you rely on somebody else, you owe them something or they let you down," he said. "Maybe it's the ag major in me. You know when you're walking across the pasture, there are things you don't step in."

Any daylight between Coons and Clark would be a windfall for the Republicans, who are united behind their Castagno-Lopez ticket and energized by the prospect that the corruption charges have given them an opportunity to win the two top county spots, something they have not done since the 1980s.

After all, the Democratic primary voters demonstrated they were not swayed by Freebery's argument that the indictments, brought by a Republican federal prosecutor, were politically motivated.

Coons may be gritting his teeth, but he is determined to make the best out of the hand that the Democratic voters dealt him.

"We need people who are independent from Gordon and Freebery. Paul tells me that's where he is," Coons said. "I'm going to take that at face value. He's a Democrat."

It suits Clark. "I presume a Delaware ag student can work with a Yale divinity graduate," he said.