Posted: Sept. 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Four months after David H. Ennis was endorsed at the Republican state convention, he finally got around to announcing for insurance commissioner Monday with the traditional three-county tour through Delaware.

This is as laid-back a campaign as there could be. It is so laid back that Ennis does not even bother walking for himself. He has a Segway, one of those motorized contrivances that looks like a pogo stick on two wheels.

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the six-term Republican who was on hand as Ennis declared for office, calls the Segway the greatest campaign gimmick going, right up there with the bars of soap that Republican Christopher J. Castagno is giving away to show he is running for New Castle County executive to clean up the government.

Ennis, a 63-year-old state legislator from Brandywine Hundred, rides his Segway sedately. Clearly zippiness is not a virtue in this campaign. In fact, Ennis intends to use his laid-back style as an asset in the election against Matthew P. Denn, who won the Democratic nomination Saturday in the primary.

Denn, a 38-year-old Wilmington lawyer who was counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, ran a pugnacious race against Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democrats' nominee in 2000, questioning her insurance-industry credentials and suggesting she was concealing the identity of contributors. He won with 58 percent of the vote.

At Ennis' announcement, the Republicans signaled that they plan to portray the election between Denn and Ennis as a contest between Mr. Mean and Mr. Mellow.

"Everyone loves Dave Ennis," Castle said.

Even Ennis' speech was a literal depiction of this theme. The last page was only half a sheet, the bottom of the paper cut off. What had been there was a quotation from President George W. Bush criticizing trial lawyers, but Ennis decided he would rather not go on the attack but hew instead to the state custom of political congeniality, layering on that laid-back style once again.

"I have not built my career on tearing down my opponent," Ennis said, replacing the missing text of thin air. "I challenge my worthy trial-lawyer opponent to follow that traditional style of campaigning."

Ennis' campaign has been more evolutionary than deliberate. He surfaced belatedly as a candidate after Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams, a three-term Republican, made a surprise decision to leave politics. Ennis tiptoed in, first forming an exploratory committee, saying he would not commit to running until he saw how he fared at the Republican state convention in May.

Ennis came out of the convention with the endorsement, defeating New Castle County Republican Co-chairman Jeffrey E. Cragg for it, but his campaign still did not gel as Cragg pondered whether to withdraw from the field or take Ennis to a primary. Cragg never did say one way or the other but simply let the deadline for filing pass in late July. Ennis became the nominee by default.

Ennis chalked up the late date for his announcement to wanting to know who the Democratic nominee would be -- another laid-back departure from politics as usual. The line from most candidates is that they intend to run their campaigns without regard to their opponents.

Ennis made much of his 20 years as the chairman or vice chairman of the Banking & Insurance Committee in the state House of Representatives, where he has served since 1980.

He promised to work to increase competition among insurers, reduce the cost of business insurance premiums, workers' compensation insurance and auto insurance and to add Insurance Department service centers in New Castle County and Sussex County to the existing center in Kent County.

Denn in his campaign tells voters he wrote the Patient's Bill of Rights to protect Delawareans against mistreatment by health maintenance organizations and says he has a plan to keep car insurance rates down, reduce health-care costs and keep insurers from using credit history to set insurance rates.

When Ennis finished his announcement speech, he ascended his Segway and rode off, looking like an emperor on a horseless chariot, the champion of the Republicans who seemed eager to mount a campaign against a Democratic trial lawyer for insurance commissioner.

Never mind that for the past 12 years with Donna Lee Williams, it is the Republicans who have given the state a lawyer as an insurance commissioner. That was then. This is now.