Posted: Sept. 30, 2005
THE CARNEY TOUCH
By Celia Cohen
Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. is serious about raising money for the governor's race in 2008. When a Democrat has a fund raiser at the Wilmington Club, among the last outposts of upper-crust Delaware, it is serious.
Carney, a second-termer, went to the classic brownstone off Rodney Square on Thursday evening for an event that drew a crowd of about 150 people, mainly lawyers, who paid $150 each to attend.
It was a sizable gathering, much appreciated by Carney's camp. Although the focus was on him, not very far out of focus was Jack A. Markell, the state treasurer who is running for a third term next year and appears to be on a collision course with Carney for the Democratic nomination for governor.
"I'm sure John is touched by your presence, as he ought to be, because you were all touched to be here," quipped William T. Quillen, the retired Supreme Court justice who is Carney's father-in-law and introduced him.
Quillen knows something about Carney's political predicament. Quillen wanted to be governor, too, coming off the bench to run for it in 1984, but he was hobbled by a primary against a "name" Democrat, former Gov. Sherman W. Tribbitt, and could not catch Michael N. Castle, then the Republican lieutenant governor who became governor and then congressman.
So far this time, there is less for the Democrats to worry about, if there is a primary. While Castle was the frontrunner because of his association with Gov. Pierre S. du Pont, the outgoing two-term Republican in 1984, the Republican Party has no obvious candidate for 2008 yet, although a few legislators are interested.
Still, a gubernatorial primary between two proven vote-getters is the Democrats' worst nightmare, and it colored the event. Neither Quillen nor Carney directly mentioned the absent Markell in their remarks, but the references were there.
Quillen said, "John is the only candidate for governor as we stand here tonight, so I can say without contradiction, he is the best candidate. No matter how many people enter this field, he is still the best candidate for governor."
Carney suggested he will be a financial underdog -- an allusion to Markell's million-dollar war chest, three-quarters of it from his own pocket -- but rich in another resource. "What I have, I've got all of you, and I'm going to have you to the end," Carney said.
It was a little hard to tell who was going to run this race, Quillen or Carney. The father-in-law spoke longer than the son-in-law, about 20 minutes to 15 minutes, and Quillen talked up Carney more than Carney talked up himself.
Quillen described Carney's background in government, as an aide to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and New Castle County Executive Dennis E. Greenhouse, the finance secretary when U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper was the governor, and a two-term lieutenant governor elected along with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.
Mostly Quillen praised Carney's character as his greatest strength. "John has heart," he said. "He likes people, and they like him."
Carney previewed the themes of his potential candidacy, saying the state needs to focus on education, particularly mathematics and science, as the foundation for a strong economy and to promote healthy lives as a means of containing health care costs.
He also hit hard on his connectedness, arising from his early years in Claymont in a family of nine children and his youthful fame as the 1973 quarterback of St. Mark's High School championship football team. "The strength of my campaign is always going to be people like you -- support at the gut level," Carney said.
Still, as much as Carney and Quillen wanted to claim the crowd as their own, the spirit of Markell hovered, and even some of the Democrats who were listed as co-chairs of the event were not ready to choose sides.
Some were, but some were not. Francis G.X. Pileggi, a lawyer who was the prime sponsor, said flatly, "This is definitely a commitment," but C. Malcolm Cochran IV, a lawyer who was a co-chair, said hopefully, "They'll work it out."
A couple of past Democratic state chairs also split in their approach. Gary E. Hindes was with Carney all the way, saying, "Sure, the guy's got more in the trenches in government than any other people," but not Richard H. Bayard, who said, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, and it may never develop. The [campaign] committee is 'Friends of John Carney,' and I consider myself a friend of John Carney."
Democrats most closely associated with Biden's camp also attended, notably Bert A. Di Clemente, a past national committeeman and former aide, and Claire M. DeMatteis, a lawyer and event co-chair who was counsel to Biden. They were among those holding back.
"We've been friends for a thousand years, but I've got a lot of other friends," said Di Clemente, who was Carney's eighth-grade football coach at Holy Rosary School in Claymont.
"I'm sponsoring Jack's [event] next month. I pray God I don't have to choose. It would be a failure of our party," DeMatteis said.