Posted: Feb. 10, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle clearly was tired of watching as more of his fellow Republicans seem to be exiting politics rather than entering, here at the start of an election year when the opposite ought to be happening, so he did something about it Saturday night at the annual Lincoln Day dinner in Dover.

Already this campaign season, Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams declared she was leaving instead of running for a fourth term. State Rep. Timothy U. Boulden, a 10-year veteran from Newark, also bailed. Both departures put the offices at risk for the Republicans.

The Lincoln Day dinner itself brought further discouraging notes. The Kent County Republicans who host it had hinted the event was to be state Rep. Donna D. Stone's coming-out party as a candidate for insurance commissioner, but she used it for getting out of that, deciding she is better off sticking with her Dover legislative seat.

State Rep. G. Robert Quillen, a Harrington Republican honored lavishly at the dinner as Kent County's "Elected Official of the Year," acknowledged that health problems might prevent him from running again.

With Castle himself looking something like the last of his kind -- he is the only upstate Republican left holding statewide or New Castle Countywide office -- he turned the evening into a showcase for party building.

In front of more than 500 people at the Dover Sheraton Hotel, Castle introduced Christopher J. Castagno, the New Castle City Council president who is running for New Castle County executive, and Paul J. Pomeroy, the Newark Region Republican vice chairman who is running for Boulden's legislative seat.

It was a bit unusual, featuring upstaters at a Kent County dinner, but Castle pointed out that the event has grown so large, he regards it as a statewide Lincoln Day celebration, and as a matter of fact, it does draw Republicans from all three counties.

The heavily downstate crowd did not seem to mind -- particularly when Pomeroy wooed his listeners by calling this event his favorite and explaining why. While he was attending last year, he took a cell phone call telling him his wife Catherine was ready to give birth to their first child, a son who was a year old on Monday. Baby stories still work in politics.

Castle discussed in an interview Monday why he did what he did. "I have become increasingly concerned the Democrats have a lot of young statewide officeholders. I think we have to prime the pump," he said.

"Sussex County has become almost reliably Republican. Kent County is pretty much Republican. At the same time we've been losing votes in New Castle County. The time has come to seize hold of this."

Castagno and Pomeroy are not just New Castle County Republicans, however. They are Mike Castle Republicans, centrist and pragmatic in their politics.

While Castle certainly has done his part to help Republicans farther to the right than he is -- such as state Sen. Colin R.J. Bonini of Dover and state Rep. John C. Atkins of Millsboro -- it still is telling that he is taking so public a posture with Castagno and Pomeroy.

"Delaware is not looking for ideologically conservative candidates," Castle said. "What we haven't done is elect anyone who is far right ideologically, although we certainly have elected into the conservative camp."

Castle's stand comes as a counter to the rightward drift his party appears to be experiencing under state Chairman Terry A. Strine, a movement conservative.

In the December edition of "Elephants Heard," the state party's newsletter, Strine urged his membership to "become part of the TRUTH SQUAD" by listening to conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News.

In addition, at a state party dinner next month, the guest speaker is scheduled to be Gary Aldrich, a former FBI agent and Clinton critic, now the driving force behind the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty. Its board of directors includes conservative icons like Oliver L. North, former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Howard Phillips, the president of the Conservative Caucus, according to its Web site.

As promising as Castle regards Castagno and Pomeroy, their political future is uncertain.

Castagno's Democratic opponent is likely to be Christopher A. Coons, a proven countywide vote-getter as the County Council president, if Coons gets by what could be a bloody primary against Sherry L. Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer. No Republican has been elected county executive in 20 years, although the Republicans are banking on fallout from a federal investigation into the administration of two-term Democrat Thomas P. Gordon to help reverse their slide.

Pomeroy is expected to be up against Terry Schooley, a past president of the Christina School Board, in a district that mildly tilts Democratic in voter registration.

While Castagno and Pomeroy are getting started, the Democrats already are two or three election cycles ahead in developing what is expected to be the next generation of governors, U.S. senators and representatives.

The Democrats have as current officeholders Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell and Coons. Wilmington lawyer Matthew P. Denn, a Democrat running for insurance commissioner, also is trying to get into the pack.

There is a common strain in this next political class, and it is the Delaware tradition of governing from the center. It would not be far-fetched to imagine all of them -- Democrats Carney, Markell, Coons and Denn and Republicans Castagno and Pomeroy -- at home in the other party.

This is less true of Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, a lawyer who is the senator's son, and Republican Charles L. Copeland, a state senator who is a du Pont, both of whom also are regarded as up-and-comers. There is such a thing as family heritage.

The Republican Party is at a point where it has to make its move. That became obvious at the Lincoln Day dinner, when William Swain Lee, the retired judge expected to be the standard-bearer against Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in the fall, attended as all but the Invisible Man.

It took Bobby Quillen, while receiving his award, to call attention to Lee, saying, "Bill Lee, you've got my vote, so hang in there."

Granted, the party is not supposed to trumpet candidates involved in primaries, and Lee has a pesky one with Michael D. Protack, an airline pilot with little political background. Still, there are always ways, especially considering that Kent County Republican Chairman Patrick W. Murray, a crafty ex-FBI man, is one of Lee's key advisers.

So along came Castle. In the eternal "Jeopardy" game that politics is, he presented Castagno and Pomeroy and then gave the question.

Castle asked, "Do you think the Republican Party has a future in this state?"