Beau Biden alters usual political path

Jonathan Starkey — News Journal

WILMINGTON, Del. — Attorney General Beau Biden’s announcement last week that he would not seek re-election so he could focus on a 2016 race for governor came in typical fashion: he issued a written statement and offered no public comment.

It’s become routine for Biden, a high-profile public official who has made a habit of avoiding the public spotlight and the media. He has made few appearances and said little publicly about his health since receiving treatment in August at a Texas cancer center. He responded to intense criticism about his office’s prosecution of a child rapist from a prominent Delaware family who received probation over prison time by issuing a written statement and declining media interviews.

Thursday, on one of the most significant days of his political career, he described the end of a chapter in his public service in an e-mail.

“The Office of Attorney General is a four-year commitment,” said Biden. “Its responsibilities are too significant, and the voters’ trust too important not to give it my complete and undivided attention. It should not be, nor can it become, a two-year staging ground for another elected office.”

Biden’s approach to public office in 2014 is surprising to many.

“In this day and age, for a modern political figure to not open themselves up for scrutiny, accountability, is unprecedented,” said John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, and a former Delaware-based aide to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, the attorney general’s father. “It’s perplexing.”

It’s also a reminder that for Beau Biden, who is arguably the state’s most popular politician, the normal rules don’t apply.

Molly Magarik, Biden’s political director, said his health did not impact his decision not to seek re-election as attorney general. Biden, 45, underwent surgery in August to remove what his doctor called a “small lesion” from his brain. He also suffered what was described as a “mild stroke” in 2010, causing him to miss several weeks of work. His Texas doctors said in a February statement that Biden received “a clean bill of health” about three months earlier.

But his surprise announcement, and his unwillingness to answer questions publicly, has only fueled speculation that Biden’s health remains an issue and a threat to his political career. It was an unusual declaration, that he would not continue in public service so he could seek public service two years later.

“If you’re not standing up to the total media review of your situation, you always run the risk that people are going to say there’s a health problem,” said former Delaware Gov. and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican, who held a walking news conference after suffering a stroke ahead of his 2006 election.

“Most people have a normal curiosity as to exactly what the problem was and what the treatments were. And then the doctors saying he is OK would be the icing on the cake. As it is, it just has people raising the question.”

Health questions

Republicans, and a few Democrats, have raised the issue of Biden’s health repeatedly since his announcement that he was not running for office this year, despite having hired a campaign staff and raising $1.2 million.

Sen. Greg Lavelle, a Sharpley Republican who is among those mentioned as potential candidates for governor in 2016, said “it’s clear to me (Biden’s health) is playing a role in any decision he makes.

“That’s an analysis of a political run that I’ve never heard before,” Lavelle said. “He raised a million and a half dollars to run for attorney general not to run for attorney general?”

Flaherty said Biden should be more open to questioning to avoid speculation about this health.

“He’s allowing a lot of questions to surface, a lot of rumors to go rampant,” Flaherty said. “I think he needs to start saying, ‘I was sick last year. I’ve been sick before. Other people have been sick in the past.’ ”

State House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Democrat from Rehoboth, Del., criticized those still questioning Biden’s health. He said the statement in February from his doctor should have quelled speculation.

“He’s working. He’s out there. He’s just not out there doing press conferences,” Schwartzkopf said. “It’s almost like Obama, where he gives them a birth certificate and they still want to see his birth certificate.”

Kathleen Jennings, who works for Biden as the state prosecutor, said she learned about his intention to skip this year’s attorney general’s race before the announcement, but was surprised by his decision. She would not comment on whether she advised Biden one way or another, adding that the way he announced his decision, in an e-mail without public comment, was in character.

“I don’t think you can glean anything from the announcement … other than Beau is a careful guy,” Jennings said. “I work with him on a daily basis, I see him all the time. I know that he carefully weighs decisions before they’re made. This was an example of that. I’m sure he gave it a lot of thought.”

Still popular

The truth is, Biden isn’t a typical politician seeking office in Delaware.

In September, a University of Delaware poll identified him as the state’s most popular, and recognizable, politician. Of the 902 adults who participated, 64.2% viewed Biden favorably, versus just 16.9% who had unfavorable views and 7.1% who had never heard of the attorney general.

Biden topped long-serving politicians like U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who hasn’t lost a race in a career that dates back to 1976, in popularity and name recognition.

“Those numbers are very good,” University of Delaware political science professor Paul Brewer said at the time. “He’s up there with (Gov. Jack) Markell and Carper who have been around a long time and have won a lot of elections. I think that reflects the strength and popularity of Beau Biden in the state.”

Tradition broken

By not seeking election to a third term — his victory all but assured, with no opponents filed — Biden also is abandoning a tradition of politicians using their platform in public office to pursue a higher post.

Holding office while running for another “gives you a profile, an ability to shape an agenda that you wouldn’t normally have. He does give that up,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

“On the positive side, he doesn’t have to be accused of running for an office that he doesn’t intend to keep.”

Criticism that officials misuse their current office to seek a higher post “typically doesn’t go anywhere,” Madonna said.

Biden’s supporters say his decision to not use his post as attorney general as a launch pad into the governor’s office is one that everyone should support.

“I know everybody does it and there’s a wink and a nod, but he just couldn’t run for re-election as AG if, in his heart, he knew there was a very good chance he would not finish the four years,” said former U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman, who earlier served as a top aide to Joe Biden in the U.S. Senate and was appointed to assume Biden’s seat when he was elected vice president.

Magarik, Biden’s political director, offered a glimpse Friday about what Biden considers as his legacy from his eight years as attorney general. Magarik highlighted Biden’s creation of a Child Predator Task Force to prosecute crimes against children, a task force that has led to 180 convictions for dealing in child pornography and other sex crimes. Biden also successfully pushed for anti-bullying measures, and stricter sentences for possessing and dealing in child pornography.

Through Magarik, Biden declined to be interviewed. “He’ll talk about running for governor, about the challenges and opportunities ahead for our state at the appropriate time,” Magarik said.

New candidates emerge

Biden’s decision has had one immediate impact: a reshuffling of the state’s political landscape.

Some well-known public officials are openly discussing their interest in seeking the attorney general’s office.

Lt. Gov. Matt Denn says Biden’s announcement last week has led him to consider an attorney general campaign, which, if he won, would require him to leave the lieutenant governor’s office two years early.

Also in the mix for attorney general is Jennings, the state prosecutor.

“I’ve been approached by several people, both inside and outside law enforcement, in the wake of this decision urging me to run. There is really no doubt that my lifelong vocation has been criminal justice,” Jennings said.

Republicans are pursuing former U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly, who declined to comment when reached Friday. Ferris Wharton, the former federal prosecutor now working as a public defender who lost to Biden in 2006, also has been considered a potential Republican candidate.

But Wharton, who also is said to be seeking a Superior Court judgeship, said he had no interest in the race.

Biden’s interest in the governor’s race could have a “chilling effect” on Republicans and Democrats who might have had gubernatorial ambitions, Castle said. That’s because of the popularity of the Biden name, and his high-profile ability to raise campaign money.

“People have been watching for him to make a move and this is it,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a Dover, Del., lobbyist who hosted a fundraiser for Biden in August. “I really think it just comes down to, who in the Democratic Party is going to primary him? There’s nobody who is going to step up to that challenge. They would have serious difficulty in every facet of the game.”