Posted: Feb. 24, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The Republicans smell blood in New Castle County, Democratic blood, so there they were, packing into the historic courthouse in old New Castle on Tuesday to watch Christopher J. Castagno declare his candidacy for county executive.

They did a decent job of getting out a crowd -- more than 100 people, counting about 25 children from the St. Peter's Catholic Church school, where Castagno's twin daughters went -- particularly considering how rusty the party was.

In the last three elections for county executive, going back to 1992, the Republicans fielded a token candidate once in 1996 and nobody at all twice.

Sure, the registration leans against them -- of the 339,390 voters in Delaware's most populous county, they are split 45 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 23 percent others -- but the Republicans simply gave up.

One reason was that so many of their own were high on Thomas P. Gordon, the Democratic county executive who has reached the two-term limit in office. After giving him a free ride, the Republicans without a shred of embarrassment are hungry to feed on the gooey affairs of the county government.

Gordon touts his record of no tax increases, a budget surplus, land use reform and more parks, libraries and police, but his critics point to the corollary damage of an unconsummated federal investigation with its inferences of corruption and also fierce governmental infighting, like some kind of political hand-to-hand combat.

The infighting has created a Democratic primary between Sherry L. Freebery, who is Gordon's comrade in arms, and County Council President Christopher A. Coons, who intends to campaign on a platform of experience and ethics.

Love Gordon or loathe him, the county has been a spectacle, and Delaware voters are known for their uneasiness with unseemliness. Just ask Jack A. Markell. The Democratic state treasurer was elected in 1998 as a touch-of-springtime contrast to Janet C. Rzewnicki, a Republican accused of spreading allegations of domestic violence involving Thomas R. Carper, the Democratic governor turned U.S. senator.

The Republicans would not mind seeing Freebery and Coons carve each other up while they position Castagno to ride to the county's rescue. In his announcement speech, Castagno used the expression "fresh start" seven times -- as in, "it's time for a fresh start in New Castle County government" -- plus one "fresh and clean start," as well as two posters proclaiming, "A Fresh Start for New Castle County."

Putting the county high jinks aside, the Republicans like what they see in Castagno -- a poised international business consultant, president of the New Castle City Council, a graduate of Salesianum School and the University of Delaware, and a former executive at W.L. Gore & Associates, which also happens to be Coons' family firm. Only in Delaware.

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who is not known for putting himself on the line for other Republicans, is pushing hard for Castagno and introduced him at the announcement.

"I do not choose sides early on," Castle said, "but early on I recognized we had an exceptional candidate."

Inside the courthouse, there is a pair of tipstaves -- long wooden staffs topped with small wooden triangles, painted white on one side and red on the other. During criminal trials in colonial times, the white sides faced out when the verdict was "innocent," while the red sides were turned outward for "guilty."

With the kind of campaign the Republicans are running, it was a cinch the white sides would be facing out, and they were.