Former CNN world affairs correspondent Ralph Begleiter chuckles when he recalls the scene.
Begleiter, a distinguished journalist in residence at the University of Delaware, had visited Switzerland the week before Labor Day to moderate a panel discussion as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 20th anniversary celebration.
“Whenever I tell people where I live, I almost always append that Delaware is a small state on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, halfway between the White House and the United Nations,” he says. “That time I asked, ‘You know where Delaware is now, right?’”
The hundreds of scientists and policy makers did indeed. One of its U.S. senators, our very own Joe Biden, had just been named a candidate for vice president of the United States of America.
To us here in Delaware, it may be the most significant event in government and politics since it became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Delaware may have produced other distinguished senators and three secretaries of state, but until August 23, it had never produced a nominee for an office as lofty as vice president.
It’s something we can all take pride in, regardless of your party affiliation, if for no other reason than this:
“Joe Biden has put Delaware on the map,” says U.S. Senator Tom Carper. “In politics, we are now the straw that stirs the drink, the tail that wags the dog.”
People across the country now know Delaware is not a city near Columbus, Ohio, Carper says. Or a state in New England, says WDEL’s Allan Loudell. Or, says beloved political guru Jim Soles, a county in New York or Pennsylvania.
“Now they know we’re a state like anyplace else,” says Gary Hindes, a former chair of the State Democratic Party and longtime friend of Biden. “A real state with a real economy and a really fine U.S. senator.”
If people elsewhere in the country have any idea about where or what Delaware is, they think of it as the home of large corporations, credit card companies and DuPont, Hindes says. Those same people may have an individual retirement account, a Roth IRA, named after our late U.S. Senator Bill Roth. Beyond that, they may know very little.
“The more I watched of the Democratic National Convention, the more I realized there are millions of people out there who don’t know where Delaware is,” says Carol Hoffecker, professor emerita of history at the University of Delaware. “Delawhere? is a real question.”
Here’s how Free Frank Warner, a liberal political blog, described Biden’s home state on August 23: “Delaware is one of those fake states with less than 1 million people and too few electoral votes to matter.”
Which is why Congressman Mike Castle points out a trend: The past two vice presidents came from electorally insignificant states—Tennessee (Al Gore) and Wyoming (Dick Cheney).
Yet most Americans have some knowledge, or at least buy a stereotype, about those places: Tennessee as home of Graceland and Memphis blues, Wyoming as home of “the Marlboro Man,” says Hoffecker.
Most of us know Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Alaska as the last great wilderness and home of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We know Senator John McCain’s Arizona as part of a legendary Southwest and home of the Grand Canyon. We know Senator Barack Obama’s Chicago as The Windy City, even if we don’t realize it’s so named for the bluster of its famous politicians.
On the Map: The Biden Factor, continues on Page 2
Yet Delaware is different than Tennessee, Wyoming and Alaska in one key way: It is geographically small. Being the fifth least populated state, yet the seventh most densely populated, increases anyone’s odds of seeing a key representative in the most mundane of circumstances—Mike Castle enjoying pasta at Attilio’s, Carper jogging along Brandywine Boulevard or Biden attending Mass at St. Ann’s, even if he does have two Secret Service agents near his side.
“In this context, we’re sufficiently small that we all know our politicians,” Hoffecker says. “Because of that, we demand that they be personable, that they respond to us in a personal way. That adds a different dimension to Biden’s candidacy than if he’d come from a bigger state. In New York or California, you won’t see your U.S. senator opening the door for you at Lowe’s. There is a retail politics approach in this state that is very real. It sets a different tone.”
Which may mean that the nation may also learn about The Delaware Way of governance, the collegial tone of things, as well as the practice of reaching across the aisle, of setting aside philosophical and ideological differences in order to do the right thing for the people.
“It’s noteworthy that all the senators who spoke at the Democratic National Convention spoke of McCain as a friend,” Hoffeckers says, and no one more than Biden. Could The Delaware Way be catching on inside the Beltway?
“Joe has been doing that in Washington for years, always working in the best interest of Delaware,” says longtime acquaintance Basil Battaglia, a former chair of the Delaware Republican Party. “A lot of people are committed to their parties. That’s just the way politics plays. But I think Joe understands it’s still a two-party system. I’m still pleased and proud.”
A Delawarean in the White House could mean certain advantages for our state. It may help Carper get the national park he has worked so hard for. It may help attract funding for locally important projects such as such as bridge work, canal dredging, beach replenishment, Amtrak maintenance, our air bases.
“If you look at the Bush-Cheney administration, they’ll direct economic sectors to their home states, and they’re not shy about it,” says Rhett Ruggerio, Democratic national committeeman and superdelegate. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, they say. So if corporations are looking for tax breaks, things like that, they might be directed to Delaware.”
A vice president from Delaware could also boost tourism. It could win a look at what Delaware has accomplished in terms of sales tax, gambling policies and smoking bans. It may mean more Delawareans may be appointed to positions in Region 3 federal agencies. And it could, according to former Governor Russell W. Peterson, help Delaware establish a new industry built around alternative energies.
A Vice President Biden, renowned for his expertise in foreign affairs and strong relationships with state leaders around the world, could attract a different look at Delaware as a place to do business. Last, the mere fact of his vice presidency could, Begleiter says, raise the profile of the University of Delaware.
“There’s been an idea kicking around for a few years about something like a Biden Center of International Studies,” Begleiter says. “The Biden name is as well known as [W.L.] Gore or DuPont.” (Both names are attached to major campus buildings.) “With something like a Biden Center, visiting scholars and government officials may make a stop in Delaware to give a policy speech or do some corporate consultation.”
That may be jumping the gun just a bit. But love him or not, that’s the kind of excitement and pride Biden’s candidacy has aroused. So pardon state archives director Russ McCabe for thinking only one thing could be bigger.
“Imagine a really sunny fall day in Georgetown, the Thursday after an election,” McCabe says. “Vice President Biden appears on stage in front of the beautiful, historic Sussex County Courthouse and introduces his running mate.
“Just the idea that it could happen—that’s died-and-gone-to-heaven material for some of us.”