Posted: Feb. 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When the Delaware Democrats gathered 10 days ago for their presidential primary returns, it was worth noting who was the party's designated master of ceremonies, shepherding the various campaign representatives to the microphone at the appropriate time.

The role went to Christopher A. Coons, the New Castle County Council president. In presidential politics, Coons was a neutral choice because he stayed clear of endorsing anyone. In local politics, however, he was not.

Coons is running for New Castle County executive, engaged in what is anticipated to be a bruiser of a primary with Sherry L. Freebery, the chief administrative officer for current County Executive Thomas P. Gordon, a Democrat who has reached the two-term limit.

Political parties pretend not to take sides in primaries, at least not before someone secures an endorsement by a vote of a convention, committee or other vehicle, but they do send signals -- like showcasing Coons during Primary Night.

In the early days of the campaign season, New Castle County politics is a cornucopia of winks, nudges and knowing smiles, as both the Democrats and the Republicans try to sort out competing candidacies for county executive, council president or both.

 In this age of freewheeling primaries, a candidate preferred by the party insiders, subtly or otherwise, is not guaranteed the nomination, but it helps more often than not.

The Democrats not only have Coons and Freebery squaring off for county executive, but also a potential three-way primary for council president with former county Adjustment Board Vice President Paul G. Clark, Councilman Penrose Hollins and Register in Chancery Dianne M. Kempski.

The Republicans presently have a single entrant for county executive in New Castle City Council President Christopher J. Castagno, and here the party is hinting strongly no one else ought to get in. They have two candidates for council president in Gary L. Bowman, who lost a primary for the post in 2000, and Ernesto B. Lopez, a political newcomer.

This is a time for paying attention not to what is being said, but what is being done. Ask a party leader about the conflicts, and the answer will be a practice in avoidance.

Here is John D. Daniello, the Democrats' county chairman, who said, "I'm trying to find out just how serious all of them are and what are our alternatives. Where I can clear up a primary, I'll do it."

It went likewise with Thomas S. Ross, the Republicans' county co-chairman, who said, "We have exciting candidates who are in tune with New Castle County. We're hoping we can avoid a primary."

Never mind. For better clues to the candidates' standing, there are such things as their visibility at party functions, the attendance at their own events and campaign finance reports.

In the Coons-Freebery showdown, it is an open secret that Coons is the Democratic establishment's favorite son and Freebery is the lone ranger. Not only was Coons prominent on the recent Primary Night, but Gov. Ruth Ann Minner attended his first fund-raiser last summer.

The governor insisted her presence was not an endorsement -- certainly no more than the appearance by U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. before about 500 Democrats at a political rally for John F. Kerry.

Coons' campaign finance report for 2003 is fat with telling contributions, while Freebery's filing is threadbare, showing only a single entry of about $3,100 from her own pocket for bumper stickers and other campaign paraphernalia. She says her fund raising has yet to begin.

Coons' report comes across as a message meant to be read beyond his fellow Democrats to Republicans and the voters at large, signaling a broad base. He is the only countywide candidate from either party to work seriously on a war chest so far by collecting nearly $69,000 in contributions and ending the year with almost $65,000 in the bank.

His donors include state Cabinet officers like Finance Secretary David W. Singleton and Health & Social Services Secretary Vincent P. Meconi, labor unions like the New Castle County Emergency Services Employees and the Delaware Building Trades, and company chiefs like Charles O. "Chad" Holliday Jr. of DuPont, Bruce L. Hammonds of MBNA and Ted T. Cecala of Wilmington Trust.

Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker's campaign sent a check. State Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard did not, but his wife Josephine did.

The clues are murkier in the Democrats' council president primary, which has been slower to unfold. Clark, Hollins and Kempski collected no contributions whatsoever last year, and Kempski was the only one officially to declare her candidacy, which she did on Monday. Clark plans to hold his first major event -- a fund raiser -- next month, and Hollins expects to announce formally in April.

While it remains to be seen what sort of crowds Clark and Hollins draw, Kempski's announcement was thin in Democratic leadership, except for a show of near-solidarity from her four fellow county row officers, all Democrats. Three of them came -- Recorder of Deeds Michael Kozikowski, who is Kempski's brother, Clerk of the Peace Kenneth W. Boulden Jr. and Sheriff Michael P. Walsh. The fourth, Register of Wills Diane Clarke Streett, was elsewhere -- a prior commitment, she said.

On the Republican side, there is a certain buoyancy that comes from watching the congestion in the Democratic field, as well as from waiting for a break in U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly's long-running investigation that has left both the Gordon administration and the county electorate in a political limbo.

The Republicans have not won elections for county executive or council president since the 1980s, and they trail in voter registration, which is 45 percent Democratic and 32 percent Republican in a total of 339,390 voters.

With an eye toward capitalizing on the unrest, the Republican leadership is leaving little doubt it would like to field a ticket of Castagno and Lopez, doing what it can to scare off any challengers to Castagno and leaving Bowman out in the cold.

Castagno's candidacy publicly was pumped up last weekend by U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle at a well-attended Lincoln Day dinner in Dover. His 2003 campaign finance report shows $12,750 in seed money coming in from party stalwarts like state Chairman Terry A. Strine, county Co-Chairman Tom Ross, former Secretary of State Glenn C. Kenton and state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson's campaign.

The party cannot be quite so obvious about Lopez, who is an admissions officer at the University of Delaware, but an organization is being assembled for him largely out of the network of the late U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. The campaign manager is to be James D. Taylor Jr., a Wilmington lawyer whose colleagues at Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling include William E. Manning, who was part of Roth's kitchen cabinet, and Richard A. Forsten, counsel to the state Republican Party.

Lopez is so new to the race that he has yet to file a statement of candidacy or begin fund raising, but Bowman hardly is farther ahead. His campaign finance report shows him with $303 in the bank.

Where candidates stand also can be gleaned from where they are situated. In the Democratic race for county executive, there are indications that Coons may sub-lease space in state headquarters in New Castle.

In contrast, Freebery is setting up shop in Newport in the same office complex that state headquarters recently left behind. There must be symbolism in that somewhere.