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Celia Cohen on Delaware Politics: Grapevine


Elections are like a blind date. You never know what you might get stuck with. Not to mention it can sometimes take a while to decide if the first impressions were right. Take this election. Please.

The Delaware voters look very much like they intend to play it safe with the usual collection of candidates in suits, not so much as a soul patch or a tattoo among them, at least not in sight. If Tom Carper has one of those “bad to the bone” tattoos hidden on a part of his anatomy off-limits to the electorate, and nobody is saying he does, that is his business.

It does not take Professor Trelawney’s divination class at Hogwarts to foresee the voters falling for the old normal with Carper for senator, Jack Markell for governor, John Carney for congressman, and Matt Denn for lieutenant governor, a lineup of Democrats who have been on the statewide ballot a total of 25 times.

Let other states have their madcap Tea Parties. This one is partial to reunions.

Like a television serial, though, the 2012 election is part of a trend that is slowly and subtly moving Delaware to a new place. It is not quite the same old story it appears to be.

That ’70s Show, Delaware version, is about in its last run. Generational change is here, and it is cosmic.

The politicians who came of age in the 1970s remade the state. Back in those days, politics belonged to the big bellies, wide white belts and fat cigars of the back rooms, until it was supplanted by this new forward-looking class drawn to the inspirational side of public life. It was universally slimmer, too.

The ones with staying power became synonymous with Delaware politics. This is no exaggeration, not when the bumper stickers could read simply “Joe” or “I Like Mike.” Tom Carper was part of it, too, and so were others who appeared farther down the ballot.

Now they are going, going, if not gone.

Joe Biden is in a better place. He nimbly pirouetted from the First State to First-in-the-Line-of Succession, the Democratic vice president of the United States. Not that he left Delaware behind. Instead of the influential immediacy he had as a senator, he turned into a sort of grand patron. He can give and he can get.

Nothing was more telling about Joe Biden’s new heights than Beau Biden’s re-election as the Democratic attorney general in 2010. The Republicans were so spooked about giving Joe any extra incentive to campaign against them that they let Beau run as the only statewide candidate to be unopposed by the other major party in 124 years.

This might have been the biggest dive since Captain Nemo went 20,000 leagues under the sea.

Joe Biden’s election as vice president was the most graceful exit from the Delaware ballot anyone could want. Unlike what happened to Mike Castle.

Politicians can be a lot like athletes. Their trajectory almost always ends in loss. The athlete’s skills give out. The politician goes for one election too many. This does not take away from what they did in their prime.

In Castle’s case, he won more statewide elections than any other Republican in Delaware history, a sturdy public figure who shouldered his share as a state representative, state senator, lieutenant governor,
governor and congressman.

Then the political wind shear got Castle. He was whipsawed one way by generational change and another way by the new politics of polarization, and the frenzied atmospherics cost him the Senate primary against Christine O’Donnell in 2010.

There are worse legacies than to go down as the last Republican moderate standing.

It leaves just Tom Carper as the only candidate whose appearances on the statewide ballot stretch back to the ’70s. A new Senate term would give him 13 wins, more than any other Delawarean, and keep him in office for 42 years as treasurer, congressman, governor and senator. The political shadows are creeping toward him, the better to be checked out in 2018.

Meanwhile, other remarkable runs are coming to an end, too.

The General Assembly is piping out some towering senators and representatives who were known as much for their legislative craftsmanship as for their legislative craftiness.

In the Senate, there was Thurman Adams, a Democratic president pro tem who was firm in his conviction that the Senate was equal to the governor and his native Sussex County was equal to the other two counties, or maybe a little more than equal. Adams left the Senate in 2009 only when he had to answer that Great Roll Call in the Sky.

There was also Nancy Cook, a Democratic senator known as the queen of Legislative Hall, because nothing ever transpired there without her notice. She was the center of everything as the chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which drafts the budget, and it was said she not only knew where the bodies were buried, she planted a lot of them. Cook lost her seat in the Tea Party fervor that swept through Kent County in 2010.

In the House of Representatives, there was Bob Gilligan, a Democratic representative whose leadership talents made him a force whether he was the minority leader or the speaker. His legacy was his promise to be the speaker of all the House, not just his party, and he was. When he stunned everyone by announcing his retirement on the last night of the legislature, the Republicans cheered him along with the Democrats, and the governor made a rare appearance in the chamber to wish him farewell.

There was also Bill Oberle, a Republican representative who accepted a leadership post here and there but was happier in the back row, where he could work out of the public eye, a gritty master of the legislative arts conjuring up votes. He was in such demand that people often could not find him in Legislative Hall and they had to find him. He was so good, when he retired in 2010, he was presented with a sign recognizing his mythic skills. It read, “Nobody gets in to see the wizard, not nobody, not no how.”

Politics is like nature. It abhors a vacuum. A new generation is rushing in.

No surprise, but here is the situation. Even without a rising Republican in sight, there are five Democrats with ambitions for the state’s four highest offices.

No political shoehorn is big enough to make room for Chris Coons, the Democratic senator, and Markell and Carney and Denn and Beau Biden as a pair of senators, the governor and the congressman all at the same time.

Elections are like a blind date. Someone is going to get jilted.