Posted: Feb. 14, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The Sussex County Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner on Thursday night was focused on three people -- old Abe himself and a pair of candidates who would like to be Delaware's next governor.

It could have been better for all three.

State Rep. Joseph W. Booth, a Georgetown Republican who arrived in a pickup truck with his gold legislative license plate on it, wondered what the 16th president would have thought if he had come to the dinner and seen the tag bearing the initials "J.W.B." -- as in John Wilkes Booth.

William Swain Lee, the retired Superior Court judge running for governor, was doing fine until his emphatic statement that he hoped the party believed he was the right person for the job, at which point the lectern fell apart.

It was as theatrical as if old Abe the Rail Splitter had taken an ax to it himself during a talk given by someone who really is related to the Lees of Virginia.

As for Michael D. Protack, the airline pilot who is Lee's rival, he was simply in the wrong county. A Yorklyn resident from New Castle County, he had the task of speaking to a gathering in which Bill Lee was introduced as Sussex County's own.

The dinner, sponsored by the Sussex County Republican Women's Club and the Eastern Sussex Republican Club, drew about 90 people to the Lamp Post restaurant in Rehoboth Beach.

Coincidentally the Lamp Post was the site for a monthly meeting of the Superior Court judges, Lee's ex-colleagues. It was a private session, so it is unknown whether it was lively or dull, but the happiest judge there seemed to be John E. Babiarz Jr., who was telling anyone who would listen that his dog had eaten his hearing aid and he did not mind.

As is fitting in February of a political off-year, the Republicans' dinner was somewhat low key. Lee's camp did its best to keep it that way, even discouraging reporters from showing up to minimize the perception that Lee, who is regarded as the front-runner, has any competition for the nomination.

Lee came within 46 votes of it in 2000, losing the primary election to John M. Burris, and never really stopped campaigning for another chance in 2004 against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat who has said she is running again.

Lee already has secured influential backers, such as former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont and National Committeeman W. Laird Stabler Jr., and financial commitments. He also has instant name recognition as the judge who presided at Thomas J. Capano's murder trial.

In contrast Protack is a political newcomer, his one foray into statewide politics being an aborted campaign for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2002.

The two candidates each spoke for about 10 minutes, both keying not on each other, but on Minner as their common opponent.

Protack, who spoke first, decried the state's pollution, health care and taxes -- "our tax system is about as oppressive and regressive as we can get" -- and said Minner was not up to the job of improving the quality of life here.

"What you get from Gov. Minner is not going to change. She has no vision, no ideology, just an in-box," Protack said.

Lee's message was similar. He promised to take on polluters and a government he considered to be bloated with union jobs and redundant school administrators.

"We have forgotten that government does not exist to provide jobs. This is not the Soviet Union," Lee said. "Our resources have not diminished, only our will and our expectations. Our budgets go up each year. We don't have a money problem, we have a government problem."

The crowd came across as Lee's. "He's going to be the candidate," said Keller Hopkins, the Sussex County Republican chairman. "Part of my job is to make sure he becomes our next governor."

The most noteworthy political moments of the dinner involved food.

As Joe Booth, the legislator with the awkward initials, headed toward the lectern for some short remarks, he passed the dessert cart laden with sundaes. Booth, a big man, nearly faltered.

"I just made the toughest choice of my political career," he said, "grabbing the microphone or walking past about 20 bowls of ice cream." He solved it by speaking, then helping himself to dessert on his return to his table.

Bill Lee showed how politic he could be when he was asked whether he wanted fish or chicken -- Eastern Sussex or West? -- for his meal. He said he had no preference. He followed up by telling a story about a dinner he once had at a Millsboro steakhouse with a friend.

"You ordered beef because it was Bonanza," he told his companion. "I ordered chicken because it was Millsboro."