Posted: Jan. 9, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

David L. Tackett is running for the New Castle County Council, or at least he thinks he is.

Tackett, a Democrat with past experience as a county planning board member and civic association president, has set up a campaign committee, collected almost $8,500 in contributions and made the rounds of party officials.

He certainly looks like a candidate and acts like a candidate -- unless the Newark-Glasgow area seat he is running for disappears.

The County Council by law is slated almost to double in size in this election year, going from seven members to 13 members, from six districts and a council president elected countywide to 12 districts and a council president. The old districts have been divided in two, retaining the current council members, all of whom are in the middle of four-year terms, and providing seats for a half-dozen new members, also with four-year terms.

The expansion was set in motion by the Delaware General Assembly, which is responsible for passing the laws that determine the county government's structure, but with the election bearing in, a number of legislators are having second thoughts.

As the lawmakers prepare to return to Dover on Tuesday for the 2004 session, there is a movement to leave the council at seven members, depriving someone like Tackett of an office to seek and leaving his would-be constituents continuing to be represented by Democrat Karen G. Venezky.

"I would hope they wouldn't roll it back at this late date," Tackett said.

A roll-back bill already is halfway to the governor's desk. The measure, Senate Bill 53, was introduced last year by state Sen. Karen E. Peterson, a Stanton Democrat who served two terms as the County Council president in the 1980s, and it was passed by the Senate in June in the waning days of the 2003 legislative session.

At the time the legislation was regarded as dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, where expansion has been championed since the early 1990s by some influential Republicans whose party is in the majority there. More recently, however, opinions have been changing as fast as Pete Rose's story about betting on baseball, and the roll-back may have some life, after all.

"I'm going to bring it up in caucus on Tuesday," said state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Republican who represents the Centreville-Hockessin area. "I just don't like doubling the council. I think it's excessive."

Various circumstances have changed over the years, but the tipping point on expansion may have been the raw politics of redistricting.

The Democrats who control the County Council by 5-2 made no secret of their intent to follow the example of the House Republicans, who fashioned legislative districts that increased their majority in the 41-member chamber from 26 to 29 representatives in the 2002 election.

While anything can happen in politics, it is assumed that the expanded County Council could have eight or 10 Democrats on it, not counting the president. This naturally got the attention of the Republican Party in general and its legislators in specific -- not least because it could generate a new class of Democratic officeholders who could be potential legislative candidates with the luxury of running mid-term for the General Assembly.

Minds changed. "I'm someone who initially was an advocate of expanding County Council. I thought the districts were too big, and this could break up the 'amen' council that doesn't question the county executive," said Thomas S. Ross, the New Castle County Republicans' co-chairman. "The redistricting has been such a sham process of cronyism and back-room deals that I've gone 180 degrees, and I'm opposing it. There are a lot better things we could do in this county than spend money on more politicians."

In contrast John D. Daniello, the Democratic Party's county chairman, countered that the expansion ought not to be stopped now. "We spent a year doing what the law asked us to do. We did it, and here we go again," he said.

In addition to the politics, there are policy considerations at stake.

The drive for expansion began with a sorry chapter in county history -- a federal corruption case that forced Ronald J. Aiello, a Democrat, off the County Council in 1989 and sent him to jail for extorting a $100,000 bribe on rezoning votes. It led to the reasoning that more council members might have a leavening effect on land use matters, bringing in a broader perspective and presumably more honesty.

In the slow pace of lawmaking, as the legislature wrestled with whether to expand the County Council, how much to expand it and when to expand it, the county reformed its rezoning procedures. Opinions shifted -- although the land use problems had quieted, perhaps there was a need for a larger council because of population growth, 13 percent from 1990 to 2000, taking the largest and northernmost of the state's three counties from 441,946 to 500,265 people.

"Land use was in an uproar. It was a real zoo. There was no rhyme or reason why something would get rezoned," said state Rep. Roger P. Roy, a Pike Creek Valley Republican who was an early advocate of expansion but not anymore. "Now I'm not so sure. I don't see the need like it was, as far as rezoning goes. If there's any reason now, it's because of the growth of the county."

There is also a question of expense. Peterson, the Senate sponsor of the roll-back bill, estimates that expansion would cost $1 million in the first year of the changeover and $750,000 a year thereafter, and after managing to deal with the entire county herself, she wonders whether more members really would improve representation.

"Is doubling the size of County Council a good idea or a bad idea? I think it's a bad idea. It's just an extra expense, and some people still will be left with non-responsive council representatives," Peterson said.

The prospect for Peterson's bill is unclear. Downstate legislators from Kent and Sussex counties mostly favor the roll-back -- just what they need is more upstate politicians -- but New Castle County legislators are split. They divide roughly but not entirely with those in lower-growth areas to the north favoring the roll-back and those in higher-growth areas to the south against it.

Civic associations are similarly divided, leading Roy to speculate about why a growing area like Bear favors expansion. "I'm not sure if they want more representation or if they want to run for office," Roy quipped.

County Executive Thomas P. Gordon, a two-term Democrat, is against the expansion. The County Council used to be unanimously against expansion but now has a mixed approach.

"After publicly opposing redistricting, council at the end of June last year accepted that the General Assembly wasn't going to act, and we went ahead and did our job. For them to change their minds months later strikes me as unfair, but council will respect what the legislature says," said Christopher A. Coons, the council's Democratic president.

Roy predicts a House roll call would be close. If the roll-back bill is approved, however, it would be on its way to gubernatorial disfavor. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, is not saying whether she would veto the bill, but she is against it.

"The governor has always supported the expansion because she believes it will help make the county government more representative and responsive. Any attempt to undo the expansion at this late date would cause problems in the election process," said Gregory B. Patterson, the administration's communications director.

Whatever happens, Roy says it should occur quickly. "It's got to be dealt with the first two weeks we're in, or you leave it alone. You want to let them get organized," he said.

Meanwhile, election officials for New Castle County are sending out voter registration cards with the new districts, the political parties are recruiting, and candidates like Tackett and George D. Smiley, a Democrat who wants to run in a new New Castle-Christiana area district, are working on their campaigns.

Smiley has a little money in his campaign account, he has put up some signs, and he has gone door-knocking here and there to get acquainted with the voters. He is the only one who seems certain of what will happen.

"I'm running until the gavel falls in Dover and tells me I'm not or the polls close on Nov. 2," Smiley said.