Posted: Sept. 19, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Democrats hosted a picnic Sunday in Brandywine Hundred, and it was a modern political marvel that people came.

As groups go, trying to gather "Brandywine Hundred Democrats" once made as much sense as assembling "humble politicians." Who could find them?

Not U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, not when he broke into politics as the Democrats' winning candidate for treasurer in 1976. "You could count them on your hands and your feet," he joked.

Times change. Back then, Carper got clobbered in Brandywine Hundred, which was the mother lode for Republicans, except for the gritty Democratic holdout of Claymont. By the turn of the century, this northeastern pocket helped Carper pull off the feat of unseating U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., once an impregnable Republican, and contributed to the transformation of Delaware from a swing state to an increasingly Democratic one.

Carper showed up for the picnic in testament to the new order. "It's wonderful to be back here surrounded by a few Democrats," he said.

The Democrats called their picnic "It's Good to be a B.A.D." -- the initials for "Brandywine Area Democrat." They organized the event, which was free, in Bellevue State Park on the lawn of the Cauffiel House, an old mansion overlooking the Delaware River, and invited several hundred voters who have registered Democratic since April to meet all of their Democratic elected officials from the congressional delegation to the New Castle County Council.

The concept was grander than the execution. About 85 or 90 voters came and got to hobnob with about half of the 16 officeholders, including Carper but not U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. but not Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who had an event downstate; Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn but not Treasurer Jack A. Markell, who was out of state at a treasurers' conference; state Rep. Diana M. McWilliams and assorted county officials.

There were no speeches -- which perhaps could explain the modest turnout from the officeholders. There may be "Brandywine Hundred Democrats" these days, but a caucus of "humble politicians" has yet to assert itself.

If the event was a modest success, it mirrored the party's status. Three of the four representative districts here still send Republicans to Dover -- with McWilliams the lone Democrat among House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr. and Rep. Gregory F. Lavelle.

Still, the Democrats' expectations are rising. McWilliams cracked the lineup by capturing an open seat last year, and the voter registration numbers are going the Democrats' way, according to state election records.

In just the months from the November 2004 election until Sept. 1, the Democrats picked up ground on the Republicans in all four districts, and Valihura's district flipped from having more Republicans than Democrats to more Democrats than Republicans.

In McWilliams' district, the registration went from 41 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 25 percent others to 42 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican and 25 percent others.

In Smith's district, the registration changed from 35 percent Democratic, 42 percent Republican and 23 percent others to 36 percent Democratic, 41 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

In Valihura's district, the registration switched from 38 percent Democratic, 39 percent Republican and 23 percent others to 39 percent Democratic, 38 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

In Lavelle's district, the registration went from 35 percent Democratic, 40 percent Republican and 25 percent others to 36 percent Democratic, 39 percent Republican and 25 percent others.

"Brandywine Hundred will be Democratic. It's just a matter of time," said John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chairman who lives here himself.

Some of the new voters at the picnic were noticing the change, too. "It was nice to pull into the parking lot and see bumper stickers like mine," said Anna Melhem, who actually is a recycled voter.

Melhem grew up in Brandywine Hundred but got a law degree from Brooklyn Law School and stayed in New York City to practice. She and her husband Anthony, a native New Yorker who is an executive chef, decided to move to Delaware after they had a daughter, thereby becoming part of the Democrats' growth.

What bodes well for the Democrats and poorly for the Republicans is that both parties are playing only a passive role. The voters are self-selecting. According to state election officials, about 95 percent of new voter registration comes through "motor voter" -- the 1993 law that makes it easy for residents to register to vote at motor vehicle lanes when they apply for driving licenses or make changes to them.

It is a jolt to think of Brandywine Hundred as trending Democratic. From the 1960s with the rapid growth of the suburbs, the region has been a Republican Red Sea, a bedroom community of the DuPont Co. with a reliable voting bloc that was socially progressive and fiscally conservative.

For a generation, Brandywine Hundred provided a base that helped to send Bill Roth to the Congress in 1966 and to make governors of other upstate Republicans -- Russell W. Peterson in 1968, Pierre S. du Pont in 1976 and 1980 and Michael N. Castle, now a congressman, in 1984 and 1988. In fact, du Pont got his start in politics as the vice chair of the Brandywine Hundred Republicans.

Now Brandywine Hundred is proving to be a boon to Democrats, whether they are upstaters like Carper or downstaters like Minner. The ebb and flow have been going on since the 1990s.

"It started when middle-class working Republicans started moving south of the canal into new houses, and the older housing stock in Brandywine Hundred began to be bought by blue-collar Democrats," said Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist who is a member of Minner's kitchen cabinet.

The Democratic wooing of Brandywine Hundred now is part of politics. No wonder the picnic attracted Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son who appears to be the only person in the state still dancing around the prospect that has him running for attorney general next year.

When Joe Biden won an upset election against Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs in 1972, Brandywine Hundred (except Claymont) was a lost cause for him. Not for Beau Biden, the unannounced candidate.

"I'm going to go shake some hands," Beau Biden said to Daniello, the state chairman.

"Why?" cracked Daniello.

As if Daniello did not know. Because this was Brandywine Hundred, and that is where the Democratic votes are.