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Delaware Grapevine by Celia Cohen: Politics and Government


In summertime in Delaware, even politics goes to the beach. It goes there, like Willie Sutton who robbed banks, because that is where the money was, because the beach in summertime is where the people are.

Politics packs its fundraisers. It packs its chicken dinners, picnic style. It packs way too many state legislators wearing shorts.

It packs its feuds. Talk about baggage.

As the weather turns warm, politics in Delaware sinks slowly south. It slides into the middle of the state in Kent County, where it gets stuck in Legislative Hall in Dover at the mercy of the General Assembly, until the deal-making, grandstanding, double-crossing and heel-drumming end on the last day of the session on June 30, like an out-of-sorts Cinderella saying, “The hell with the glass slipper, I want to go home.”

Afterward, it takes its leisure, still in Kent County, at the Delaware State Fair at the end of July in Harrington. There is something absolutely right about politics hanging around a barnyard. It takes one to know one.

Finally, politics gets where it is going and takes in the ocean breeze.

Not that this is idle time. Here in summertime at the beach, Delaware politics has had some of its most memorable moments.

This is where Joe Biden came when he needed his state to restore him. Biden was coming off an ugly run for president, not the blessing-in-disguise run in 2008 that turned him into the Democratic vice president, but the earlier one for the 1988 nomination that was so botched up, his candidacy never even made it out of 1987.

Biden’s first campaign collapsed under an uproar over plagiarism, the padding of his academic record and an episode of belittling a voter with a tirade of my-IQ-is-bigger-than-your-IQ. He took the bad headaches he was having and went home.

Within months, Biden was in mortal peril. The headaches were brain aneurysms, and there was a blood clot in his lungs, too. He needed half a year to recover.

When he was well enough to return to public life in August 1988, he chose the Sussex County Democratic Beach Jamboree, a classic of the political summer season, and the emotion was as engulfing as the sand dunes surrounding the gathering at a pavilion in Cape Henlopen State Park.

A crowd numbering upward of a thousand, far more than usual, thronged to the event to welcome Biden back. When a warm-up speaker mentioned that people had not expected him to survive, Biden murmured, “Neither did I.”

Folks could not get enough of Biden that evening at the beach jamboree, but it was not always so. Other years, when he was as regular as a senator, Biden was his usual self, a human filibuster, and the organizers always had him speaking last, ostensibly because he was the most important, but more likely because he would have to stop speechifying as dusk came on and the mosquitoes drove everybody away.

The beach jamboree always seems to be in the thick of politics. It was the place where the Democratic Party acknowledged in 2007 it had reached the point of no return and there would be a primary for governor the next year between Jack Markell and John Carney.

It was also the place where the party would knit itself back together the following election season, as Gov. Markell hailed congressman-in-waiting Carney, and happy days were here again.

The beach is not just for Delaware politicians, not with Washington, D.C., just a drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge away.

John McCain showed up a couple of years before he became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. It was early in the season, just before Memorial Day, and he arrived as the featured guest of Mike Castle, a political buddy who was having a fundraiser for his congressional campaign.

Castle is a connoisseur of beach politics. Once upon a time, he was even a part-owner of the Bottle & Cork, the lively nightspot in Dewey Beach, although he prudently divested before he ran for governor in 1984. The only bar a governor should be associated with is the bar association Castle joined as a lawyer.

When Castle was a congressman, he typically hosted the unofficial end of the Republicans’ summer circuit with a reception during the Labor Day weekend at a Rehoboth Beach country club, an idyllic setting for extracting campaign contributions. Besides, he was in the vicinity, anyway, at his beach house in Dewey.

McCain made quite an impression. He not only mingled with the Republican cocktail set, he let Castle talk him into going cross-county to Seaford to a retirement party for Tina Fallon, an 88-year-old Republican state representative.

McCain hammed it up, entreating Fallon to run for vice president, and he also joked about coming from a state with a long line of failed presidential candidates, namely, Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall and Bruce Babbitt. “Arizona may be the only state in America where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president,” McCain quipped.

Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, also made the trek across the bay bridge to Rehoboth. It was a landmark appearance. Frank, the first congressman to say publicly he was gay, was the keynote speaker in 2003 for the first big event of the Delaware Stonewall Democratic Club.

It is one of Delaware’s best ironies that Sussex County, where the conservative voters are, is home to Rehoboth Beach, where the gay people are.

Summer means Fourth of July parades, and Sussex has them here and there. Wherever there are marching bands and fire trucks and beauty queens in convertibles, there are crowds, and wherever there are crowds, there are politicians, and so they march. They smile, but it would be wrong to conclude they are actually happy.

Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, let out the secret when he once blogged that parades were right up there with ribbon cuttings, which he described this way:

“I just think that photos of politicians mugging with circus-clown-sized scissors are kind of strange. The scene just before the photo is taken is vaguely reminiscent of the milk-and-sugar table at Starbucks. A bunch of people wearing suits smiling politely while they gently but firmly elbow each other for position.”

Sussex sometimes has political events in wintertime, too, like the Republicans’ Lincoln Day Dinner in February. One year there was a problem when it was snowed out and had to be moved to springtime. Another year a bunch of conservative legislators all put the same Lincoln quotation in their speeches–“You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich”–which was another kind of problem.

Lincoln never said it. A 19th-century minister did, but his sayings and Lincoln’s apparently got mixed up after they appeared in the same pamphlet.

Better stick to summer, Sussex.


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