Posted: Feb. 26, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Look no further than the next election for insurance commissioner for evidence that there is no longer any such thing as an off-year in politics.

Here in the chill of February 2003, with more than 20 months to go before the 2004 election, the campaign already is heating up for a statewide office that is often little more than an afterthought.

Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams, a Republican first elected in 1992, will be up for a fourth term next year. Delaware Democrats already have her targeted, and as a matter of fact, some Delaware Republicans do, too. Williams could face a primary -- a rare hurdle for a statewide incumbent.

Williams, a lawyer from Dover, has been wading through a number of dense, arcane issues, such as medical malpractice insurance and new ownership for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware.

Now it appears she will have to add politics to her list of priorities earlier than planned -- this for an office that usually is overlooked, not only because of its narrow and technical nature, but also because it is overshadowed on the statewide ballot every four years by the showcase races for president and governor.

"I do intend to run. I have been working extremely hard for the citizens of Delaware. They have elected me three times, and I hope to continue serving," Williams said.

The Democrats already appear to have a candidate in Matthew P. Denn, currently the legal counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat who also will be on the ballot.

"I'm seriously considering it, and I'm in the process of talking to people about it," Denn said.

State Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard said Denn will make a fine candidate and appears to have the field to himself, although you never know. "Anything's possible in the Democratic Party," Bayard said.

The Democrats intend to focus on the insurance commissioner's race, building on their record of recent years against Republican statewide officeholders, Bayard said. In the last three election cycles, Republican Treasurer Janet C. Rzewnicki lost to Democrat Jack A. Markell in 1998, Republican Sen. William V. Roth Jr. lost to Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper in 2000, and Republican Attorney General M. Jane Brady barely held off Democrat Carl Schnee in 2002.

"The insurance commissioner's race is one we definitely want. We got Rzewnicki and Roth and almost Brady, and now we're aiming for Donna Lee Williams," Bayard said.

The Democrats may have to get in line, however. There are Republicans unhappy with Williams, too.

The intramural displeasure does not turn on Williams' performance, but on resentment toward her chief of staff, Jacqueline F. Brown. She is a former party official who is said to have helped out the campaign of Bethany A. Hall-Long, a newly elected Democratic state representative who is Brown's neighbor in a development near Middletown.

Brown denies it. "I didn't work for anyone in that race," she said.

Still, the belief persists. "It's been commonly discussed that at least one member of Donna Lee's staff has been at a minimum not supporting a Republican and at a maximum helping a Democrat," said David A. Jones, the New Castle County Republican chairman.

The name of Jeffrey E. Cragg, a Brandywine Hundred businessman with insurance interests, is circulating as a potential Republican opponent for Williams. Cragg is the treasurer for the New Castle County Republicans and was a candidate in a three-way legislative primary in 2000. His father is Ernest E. Cragg, the Brandywine Region Republican chairman.

Jeff Cragg currently is embroiled in another race, running for the New Castle County Republican chairmanship to replace Jones, whose two-year term expires next month. Cragg faces Thomas S. Ross, a mortgage company executive from Wilmington, although the two are meeting this week and may try to work something out.

Cragg says it is too early to discuss the insurance commissioner's race, but he has heard the rumblings against Williams and does not believe it would be incompatible to be a county chairman and a candidate. "Somebody could do both," he said.

Meanwhile, Williams intends to stand by Brown and to stand for re-election, regardless.

"Jackie does an incredible job. I wish I had nothing better to do than to start gossip. I am so busy doing my job," Williams said. "I want people to vote for me because they have confidence in me, not because I'm the lesser of two evils."

Twenty months out and counting, the campaign season is clearly here.