Posted: Jan. 12, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Peter K. Schaeffer, a Dover Republican with insurance experience, said Monday he is interested in filling the void on his party's ballot that yawned unexpectedly when three-term Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams took herself out of the race, although it appears that he will have company in a wide-open field.

Since Friday afternoon, when Williams pulled out, Republican Party officials say they have heard from five possible candidates, none of whom state Chairman Terry A. Strine was willing to identify.

Two of them, however, have gone public themselves -- Schaeffer and Jeffrey E. Cragg, the New Castle County Republican co-chairman who is a businessman with insurance interests.

"Things are moving fast," Strine said. "There is not a dearth of qualified candidates. I have encouraged them all to pull their thoughts together, give us their campaign plan, their organization, their budget and how they're going to raise the money."

Strine said the party would prefer to settle on a candidate without resorting to a primary and would set up a committee to try to sort out the field.

The 2004 election for Delaware insurance commissioner broke open without warning last week with Williams' withdrawal, although it already was being regarded as a race to watch because the Republicans had concerns about Williams and the Democrats have a primary looming.

Williams was coming off a modest showing from the 2000 election, when she polled only 53 percent of the vote, and she also was facing the twin pressures of some dissatisfaction within her own party and an energetic Democratic opponent in Matthew P. Denn, who recently announced he had collected $123,000 in contributions in the early going.

Williams' candidacy was troubled enough that Cragg, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, has been mentioned for nearly a year as a possible substitute. A candidate in a legislative primary in 2000, Cragg is the son of Ernest E. Cragg, the Brandywine Hundred Republican chairman.

Despite the party's misgivings, Williams said she was stepping aside not because of political considerations but because it was time for her to put her family first. A Dover attorney before running for office in 1992, Williams and her husband John, also a lawyer, have a nine-year-old daughter.

The Democratic field includes not only Denn, a Wilmington lawyer who was counsel to Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, but also Karen Weldin Stewart, who was the 2000 nominee.

Meanwhile, the Republican field expanded with Schaeffer's interest. After working in the Insurance Department for three years beginning in 1992, Schaeffer became an independent contractor monitoring insurers' financial solvency and market conduct for state regulators in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and Guam, and he also picked up a law degree from Widener University, he said.

Schaeffer, like Cragg, has family ties to Republican politics. His brother is Smyrna Mayor Mark G. Schaeffer, a past Kent County Republican chairman and 2002 state Senate candidate. Pete Schaeffer says he has lined up Constantine F. Malmberg III, a Dover lawyer who is also a Kent County GOP ex-chairman, to run his campaign.

"I think I'm qualified for this. I've essentially been regulating insurance companies for the last eight years. My name is known in the industry," Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer and Cragg both say they are willing to work with Republican Party officials in the effort to avoid a primary. Strine, the state chairman, says he is urging all interested candidates to come forward by the end of the month so the winnowing can begin.

"I've told them all, no maybe's," Strine said.