Del. tosses civility by wayside this election

By WADE MALCOLM– The News Journal

The two men stalked back and forth, like zoo animals glaring at each other from separate cages.

The edge of a concrete curb served as their fence. As they paced, they traded insults across the divide.

“You are a piece of American trash,” shouted Ryan Stevenson, holding a megaphone in one hand and a homemade “Just say no to Christine O” poster in the other. “Did you brush your teeth this morning? They have plaque on them. I can smell your breath from here.”

Across from him, the man with a Christine O’Donnell yard sign, who would not give his name, responded: “Too bad Obamacare won’t help me. I’ll be paying for your health care so you can get all the diseases you want. Tell your African president to go back to Kenya where he came from.”

For close to 10 minutes, the two shouted at each other from close range.

Raw is a strange political emotion for Delaware.

Once defined by a preference for moderates like Mike Castle, O’Donnell’s primary opponent, Delaware’s political landscape has grown as polarized this election cycle as it has in the rest of the country.

“The gentleman’s way of political discourse in this state has taken a vacation,” said Don Mell, a Republican strategist and Castle ally. “If it continues that way, we’ve lost the civility that’s marked this state’s politics for decades.”

This Thursday, candidates are expected in Georgetown for a uniquely Delaware celebration. Held for decades a day or two after a major election, Return Day brings together foes who have fought for weeks. With the rancor of the campaign trail behind them, winners and losers climb into the same carriage and parade through the streets of Georgetown. The event’s “burying of the hatchet” is a quaint reminder that Delaware is too small for entrenched enemies. After the votes are cast, candidates and their constituencies are supposed to work together.

But this year, Delaware’s congressional races match candidates with little in

On the campaign trail and on the airwaves, all four have labeled their opponent as foolish or even dangerous. Whispers about Return Day no-shows are growing.

Rhett Ruggerio, a former Democratic National Committee member and a Delaware political campaign veteran, predicts the dawn of a new era in politics — in his eyes, the death of the Delaware Way.

“If you’re a candidate and you’re running, you better be on the left or the right,” Ruggerio said. “Moderates don’t have activists. You don’t see people running around with picket signs saying, ‘I’m a moderate.'”

While most voters remain in the middle, the extremes have commandeered the debate, said Ruggerio, a self-described progressive Democrat.

“The signs were there for everyone to see this coming,” he said. “And no one saw them.”

‘Now it’s here’

Democrats and President Barack Obama surged to power in 2008 promising unity and post-partisan politics. But a toxic brew of mortgage failures, foreclosures, unemployment, terrorism and wars overseas have hardened the extremes.

There was a fervent backlash against Obama’s agenda, especially when stimulus relief didn’t sustain promised job growth and health care reform landed with a nearly $1 trillion price tag over a decade. The Congressional Budget Office expects the reform plan to reduce deficits, but the act’s thousands of pages contributed to a sense of overreaching bureaucracy.

Democrats contributed to the rancor, said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

“Liberals and conservatives are about as far apart as they’ve ever been,” said Madonna, who holds a political history doctorate from the University of Delaware. “Neither party has any commitment to bipartisanship. That’s why guys like Mike Castle and [Democratic Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter are political history. The men in the middle are gone.”

Nationwide, Democrats have mobilized against the conservative swell, dispatching Obama to partisan crowds in big cities and college towns. On the campaign trail — including during his stop in Wilmington earlier this month — the president has repeated a metaphor that accuses Republicans of driving the country into a ditch, a far cry from post-partisan ideals.

That even polarizes the environment more,” Madonna said. “There’s not going to be any sainthood bestowed on candidates on either side this year.”

In Delaware, Republican congressional candidates portray Democratic counterparts as socialist or communist. Democrats responded by branding Republicans as right-wing zealots. A recent Delaware Democratic Party mailer features a photo of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and some form of the words extreme or right-wing six times.

“Fight to preserve the Delaware Way,” the slogan-filled mailer exhorts.

“You see it in New Jersey, you see it in Maryland, you see it in Pennsylvania, but you never saw that in Delaware,” Ruggerio said. “Now it’s here. … And unfortunately, you have to fight fire with fire. You say they attacked, so we have to respond.”

Beginnings of rancor

Castle, a former governor, wore his moderate label proudly and successfully for 18 years in Congress, the embodiment of Delaware’s centrist politics.

But when he lost the Republican primary to O’Donnell in September, he joined a list of moderates around the country who were ousted by more polarizing primary opponents, among them Specter, a former Republican who joined the Democrats, and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Castle struggles to pinpoint when it became a “not good time to have that track record” and the rhetoric shifted to its current extremes.

A few key moments come to mind. The election of President Obama. The bailouts. The health care town hall meetings and the “lady in red.”

In the summer of 2009, Castle scheduled a health care meeting in each of the state’s three counties. Castle said he wished to do what he does when discussing a bill with his staff: Hear all sides of the argument and then consider a decision, something he often wouldn’t reach until right before voting.

For a panel to answer residents’ questions at a senior center in Sussex County, Castle assembled experts such as Kenneth Bock, who read several position papers on the topic to prepare his presentation.

“We never got to that point. None of us got to speak,” recalled Bock, deputy director at CHEER, a nonprofit serving seniors in Sussex County.

Instead, audience members expressed outrage over Castle siding — or even considering cooperation — with Democrats on issues like health care and cap-and-trade, a measure aimed at controlling carbon emissions not unlike a successful program Delaware has used to reduce harmful mercury emissions.

When the meeting veered into a spontaneous recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, one man yelled at Castle, “You probably don’t even know it.”

The episode might have slipped into obscurity.

Except someone in the audience captured the exchange on video and posted it to YouTube.

When Castle called on “the lady in red,” she stood and ranted about Obama’s birth certificate.

The woman uttered what has become a tea party rallying cry: “I want my country back.”

The birther conspiracy

So-called birthers suggest Obama was born in Kenya, the home of his father, or is a citizen of Indonesia and therefore not a naturalized citizen and not qualified, under Article Two of the U.S. Constitution, to be president of the United States.

For birthers, it doesn’t matter that Obama’s birthplace is Hawaii, where two state newspapers published the announcement of his birth in a local hospital. Hawaii’s governor, a Republican, confirms Obama’s birthplace.

Castle said he had never even heard the birther conspiracy before the woman in red confronted him in Sussex County.

“The only person’s birth certificate I’ve ever seen is my own, for God’s sake,” Castle said. “It just seemed unreasonable to me … which made me start to realize there was some resentment building up about him.”

What stunned Castle, Bock and the panelists more was the reaction from the rest of the room. The cheering for the unknown woman. And the booing when Castle tried to restore order by defending the president’s American citizenship.

“This was almost like a precursor to what ended up happening across the country with the town hall meetings,” Bock said. “I don’t think anyone expected that at the time.”

Images of the forum and the woman in red’s outburst spread, and as the summer continued, similar scenes became common.

On Aug. 11, 2009, a man stood nose-to-nose with Specter, a moderate from Pennsylvania, on live national television and called him “crooked.” A woman at the same meeting warned he had “awakened a sleeping giant.”

On Aug. 18, 2009, liberal Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts compared a discussion with one constituent to “arguing with a dining room table” after she asked why he supported a “Nazi policy” while holding a picture of Obama made to look like Adolf Hitler.

Signs of divide

The woman whose YouTube video appeared to embolden others remained unknown to the world, but people in Sussex County knew her well. She was 55-year-old Eileen McLaughlin of Millsboro.

Most knew her as the frequent local talk-radio caller and self-professed prophet who once predicted on air that 2009 would bring Hillary Clinton to the presidency and peace and harmony to all mankind.

WGMD host Jared Morris, a frequent target of hers, revealed the secret to the world by posting his own video of her unintelligible radio rants.

“With Castle, that was almost a moment of lucidity,” Morris said. “It was almost a feeling of, ‘We hate Mike Castle. We hate where the country is going, and it didn’t much matter who the messenger was.'”

Some peg it as the first public sign of the divide, when the environment for moderates became openly hostile.

“The demise of Mike Castle started with … Eileen,” said Steve Grossman, a former Castle supporter and Kent County Republican activist. “Because he didn’t talk directly to the people after that. He started managing his appearances.”

Castle hesitates to assign the Sussex County confrontation too much importance but won’t deny its impact.

“I don’t know if it was the moment or the cause,” he said. “It definitely was a factor.”

After that, Castle admits, he withdrew from some conservative groups. Leaders of the 9-12 Delaware Patriots — one of the largest grass-roots conservative groups in the state — said they invited him to multiple meetings, promising to keep the crowd under control.

Castle declined.

“We talked and couldn’t find any common ground,” Castle said. “We decided attending one of their meetings wouldn’t be productive.”

As soon as YouTube made her famous, McLaughlin shunned the attention. Lately, neighbors seldom see her outside, tending to her robust, overgrown rose bushes, like she did when she moved to the small ranch home several years ago.

Last week, there was a car in her driveway with an “impeach him” bumper sticker underneath the president’s name. But that’s as much as McLaughlin would share about politics when she answered her door, wearing red.

“I don’t want to give any interviews,” she said. “I don’t want to tell any stories.”

No regrets for Castle

Castle has no regrets for calling on McLaughlin, any more than he apologizes for his moderate record.

“It was either call on her or call on somebody else,” Castle said. “I don’t know that it would have mattered.”

Most of Castle’s supporters, his opponents and the congressman himself refused to draw a straight line from that moment to the extinction of moderation. That oversimplifies the answer to a cloudy question, Castle said.

The tidal wave had started building already, months before. McLaughlin just managed to grab the attention of the country and the state long enough to put it on notice.

The conservative movement in Delaware rolled forward, culminating with O’Donnell’s and Urquhart’s primary wins, without a speck of influence from the woman in red. McLaughlin couldn’t even cast a vote for or against Castle.

She’s a registered Democrat.

“Who knows what triggers a movement or triggers a reaction in people?” Castle said. “To this day, I still don’t even know who she was.”