Posted: Jan. 13, 2003
MINNER AT MID-TERM
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
"Tough Times. Tough Choices. Tough
Governor. Ruth Ann! 2004"
-- political sticker distributed on Return Day
Anyone who settles on a campaign slogan with
"tough times" and "tough choices" in it is not expecting a cakewalk
Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat who is the first
Delaware governor of the 21st Century, the first woman to be
governor here and the first downstater to reach the office in a
generation, is also the first governor since the early 1970s to have
the other party looking forward to the re-election campaign.
It is what comes from trying to run a state
during economic times that the National Governors Association has
called "the most dire fiscal situation since World War II." It is
what comes from watching the histrionics of militant smokers who
chant "Ban Ruth Ann" and regard her as something out of the Taliban.
"There will be a big effort against her. One
of the things that beats governors is a bad economy. One of the
things that beats governors is little bills that get blown up," said
Glenn C. Kenton, a Republican who was the secretary of state for
Gov. Pierre S. du Pont from 1977 to 1985.
Whatever the perils, Minner is hardly a
politician who scares easily. After a 30-year trek from the
governor's receptionist to the governor, with stops as a legislator
and lieutenant governor in between, she is displaying the confidence
of someone who understands it is harder to get the office than to
keep it. She likes her chances.
"On my side, all I hear is encouragement to
run. We've managed state government better than any other state,"
Although gubernatorial politics never is far
from party leaders' thoughts -- not with the most prized office in
Delaware at stake with its power, prestige and patronage -- the pace
of the 2004 race appears to be picking up much earlier than other
recent contests for a second term, not a good sign for an incumbent.
It is a stark contrast to the last three
governors, when Democrats ran tokens against du Pont in 1980 and
Michael N. Castle for his second race in 1988, and the Republicans
nearly despaired of finding a candidate against Thomas R. Carper the
first time he ran in 1992. Democratic challengers William J.
Gordy and Jacob Kreshtool were not exactly household names, and if
Republican challenger B. Gary Scott was, it was only because of all
of those yellow signs from his real estate business, not politics.
Instead, the Republicans already are getting
serious about the candidacy of William Swain Lee, the retired judge
who even now has the makings of a campaign organization in place as
well as promises of financial backing. Lee's front-runner status is
sturdy enough that the noises coming from other possible candidates
are having little resonance.
Lee is a household name. He got the public's
attention five years ago because of Thomas J. Capano's murder
trial, and he got his party's attention in 2000 by coming within 46
votes of the nomination without whining about losing.
"Bill Lee would make an excellent governor.
He's got brains, energy and pizzazz," said W. Laird Stabler Jr., the
Republican national committeeman who has signed on as Lee's campaign
Not to be out-hustled, Minner has made moves,
too. She already has made clear she is running again and announced
she is sticking with Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. as a running mate.
She made a mid-term correction in the governor's office, appointing
a chief of staff who is expected to give it more structure and tend
to relations with the legislature. She also brought in U.S. Sen.
Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic presidential contender, to
headline a fund-raiser last month, even if the attendance and the
news coverage both were a little thin.
If Minner and Lee are circling each other,
neither appears willing to engage yet in out-and-out political
combat. She says, "I've got a job to do for the next two years," and
he says, "I'm not going to be out yipping at her heels all the
Minner says she wants a second term because
she hopes to govern in better times after dealing with the economic
downturn and the national security matters following the terrorist
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She says she would like to have
increasing the number of reading teachers as a top priority, instead
of paring away at the budget while avoiding tax increases, employee
layoffs and raids on the state's emergency reserve fund.
Lee seems content for now to give the governor
the room to trip herself. "How she performs her job will determine
whether she gets re-elected or not," he said.
Minner's fellow Democrats look at what are
considered to be her negatives and regard them as positives.
"She's going to win big. The reason is, she's
been a good governor. Nobody knows more about the state than she
does, and she has the courage to stand behind what she believes. The
smoking bill, the budget, all that just shows she knows what she's
doing," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a former Democratic national
committeeman for Delaware.
"She's fine. People are pretty smart. They
understand that these times are difficult times. This has not been
occurring in a vacuum. People can look at their own 401(k)s and bank
accounts," said state Treasurer Jack A. Markell. He noted that the
state earlier this month retained the highest possible credit
ratings in recognition of its fiscal policies.
Republicans don't expect Minner to be a
pushover -- especially not in a state that has taken on a decidedly
Democratic tilt in key elections in recent years. The electorate
last voted for Republicans for president and governor in 1988, and
both U.S. senators are Democrats.
"While [Minner] certainly is not unbeatable,
it's an uphill climb. One of the best things going her way is, she's
running in what is clearly a Democratic state," said Kenton, the
former secretary of state.
Still, Kenton believes the Republicans are
making the right call in focusing on the governorship -- because
they have a better chance there than in taking on U.S. Sen. Joseph
R. Biden Jr. or Carper or Markell.
"Of the statewide candidates, the one to pick
to have a problem is Minner, but the rumors of her political demise
are greatly exaggerated. She's got more going for her than against
her," Kenton said. "But if you were to ask which one of the
statewide officials would stumble, you'd look at her."
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