Posted: Feb. 18, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Almost exactly a year ago, state Sen. Karen E. Peterson's tires were slashed while she was attending a New Castle County Democratic fund-raiser. It was an anniversary she did not particularly want to observe, but someone made sure she did.

Peterson's tires were vandalized again Tuesday evening while she appeared at a civic association meeting in her Stanton area district, and this time she was not alone.

State Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, a fellow Democrat whose district overlaps with Peterson's, went to the same meeting and had his tires punctured, too. No one else's tires were damaged.

Both legislators' cars bore the General Assembly's distinctive gold license plates with the lawmakers' initials on them. Peterson lost all four tires to what a car mechanic said was an attack by an ice pick, and Gilligan lost two, the front passenger-side tire he noticed at the time and another that went flat after his car was towed, although he was unsure which.

The New Castle County Police are investigating, and Sherry L. Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer who used to be the police chief, said a dog brought to the scene picked up a scent.

Both lawmakers are taking the malicious mischief-making philosophically, Peterson perhaps a little more so than Gilligan. "She's used to it. This is all new to me," Gilligan said.

The evening began in a routine way for the two legislators. The Murray Manor Civic Association, which is mostly retirees, was having its monthly covered-dish supper for about 40 people at the Farmhouse, a remodeled farmstead located in the community and usually rented out for wedding receptions, according to A. Bruce Frederick, the civic association president.

Peterson was invited to the meeting to show a video she had of the flooding last September in nearby Glenville. Her appearance was announced in a flier that circulated throughout the community.

Peterson has grown cautious about parking since Feb. 6, 2003, the day two of her tires were slashed outside a Democratic event at the Plumbers & Pipefitters union hall near Newport, also in her district. When she arrived at the civic association meeting, she deliberately drove up to a light by the front door.

"I made up my own parking place," she said.

The legislators did not plan to stay long, because they also were to meet with another civic association that same evening. Gilligan figured they were inside from 6:50 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. He was the first to leave. When he noticed a flat tire on his car, he went to Peterson to ask for a ride to the next event.

"She looks at her car. It's sideways," Gilligan said. "I liked the meeting up to that point. It was good company and good food."

There is no telling why the legislators were targeted. Gilligan, the minority leader in the state House of Representatives, is the dean of the chamber where he has served since 1972 and where the weapons of choice are more typically the double cross or the stab in the back, not a jab to the tire. The last two times Gilligan ran for re-election, in 2000 and 2002, he did not even have an opponent.

Peterson has had more tumult in her return to politics. A two-term County Council president in the 1980s, she left public office to concentrate on her administrative job in the state Labor Department until she lost it to infighting after fellow Democrat Ruth Ann Minner became governor in 2001.

Peterson charged back into politics in 2002 by going for a legislative seat made available by the retirement of Thomas B. Sharp, a Democrat who was the Senate president pro tem. She won a rancorous Democratic party that split the union vote by beating Timothy P. Sheldon, who had the backing of both Minner and Sharp, and then defeated Republican Kevin L. Wilkes in the general election by getting 58 percent of the vote.

When Peterson's tires were cut last year, lingering bad blood from somewhere was blamed, and it was this time, too. "We think it's just some political backlash," said Frederick, the civic association president.

Peterson is considering a race for governor against Minner and is not about to be put off by this second round of flattened tires.

"I have to run for governor," Peterson quipped. "I need police protection."