Sunshine & Smiles
Delaware’s Return Day

By Doug Denison, James Fisher and Jonathan Starkey — The News Journal

Delaware’s biennial display of political civility, the 201-year-old Return Day, came back to Georgetown on Thursday, complete with politicians trading gossip about next moves, a surprise appearance from Vice President Joe Biden and ceremonial hatchet burials marking the end of the election season.

Gov. Jack Markell and Republican challenger Jeff Cragg rode atop a carriage together in a parade through Georgetown’s Circle in the middle of town, with Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Repulican Sher Valenzuela also in tow.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and his Republican opponent, Kevin Wade, walked beside each other along the parade route while Alex Pires, Carper’s boisterous Independent challenger, rode alone in a black convertible.

Thousands attended the event, which is held on the Thursday after each election year in Delaware, and the weather cooperated. Winds were chilly but the rain stayed away.

At the end of the day, the leaders of four Sussex County political parties – Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Libertarians – poured dirt from a metal pitcher into a wood-and-glass box with a small hatchet inside, symbolizing the shelving of partisan bickering until the next election season.

“Burying the hatchet – it means a lot this year, to get this country back going again,” said Georgetown Mayor Mike Wyatt.

Return Day also is known as a social affair for the state’s politicians, and many are known to make nods toward future political runs and even poke fun at opponents.

Staffers for Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, who won a second term on Tuesday, distributed stickers that alluded to his widely expected run for the governor’s office in 2016. The sticker scribbled out the phrase “Matt Denn 2016,” and replaced it with, “Who cares? Have another drink!”

Another sticker poked fun at Carper challenger Alex Pires, spelling his name “Al Expires” after he picked up just 3.8 percent of the vote on Tuesday. Attorney General Beau Biden and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons staffers passed out stickers that were more banal. Both say they’ll seek re-election in 2014.

Party regulars

Former state Sen. Nancy Cook held her regular party for state Democrats behind the Sussex County Courthouse on the edge of downtown. Members of the Markell administration attended, including Finance Secretary Tom Cook, the governor’s chief of staff Tom McGonigle and Secretary of State Jeff Bullock.

Prominent lobbyists such as Robert Byrd and Rhett Ruggerio attended, as did winners and losers from Tuesday’s election, including Bryan Townsend, the Democrat who defeated Senate President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca in a September primary, and Andy Staton, who lost a contest for a new coastal Senate district.

Republicans also weren’t left out. Ernie Lopez, who defeated Staton on Tuesday, walked through as did former U.S. Rep. Mike Castle and Colin Bonini, a Dover-era state senator who lost to Chip Flowers in the 2010 election for state treasurer, who mused about his future.

“I’d like to run statewide again,” Bonini said. “I will decide by the end of 2013.”

Some who didn’t have elections this time around also showed up. Coons says he’ll run for re-election in 2014 and celebrated Return Day.

“Return Day is a reminder of what Delaware gets right and I wish the rest of the Congress would learn from Delaware, which is the ability to put the campaigning past us and get busy with the hard choices involved in governing.”

Members of the state GOP also held a reception on the roof deck of The Brick hotel on the Circle, celebrating their winning legislative races.

Democrats swept the statewide contests on Tuesday, but Republicans picked up a seat in the Senate, with Greg Lavelle beating Democratic Sen. Michael Katz and Lopez winning the new coastal seat created by redistricting last year.

Biden made an appearance at a Return Day reception held at Delaware Technical Community College’s campus in Georgetown but did not attend the parade after a 2008 appearance caused long security lines and a closing off of the Circle. Some in attendance on Thursday were admittedly happy about the ability to move around more freely.

“This is a return to normalcy. This is much better,” said Susan Timpson, 59, of Bear. “Everybody wanted him to come the first year, because we were so excited. But this is how it should be.” Still, she suspected the vice president knew what fun he was missing.

“I think it’s probably killing him, because he wants to be here,” Timpson said.

Ken Towers, 55, a volunteer helping to prepare the hundreds of pounds of slow-cooked pit beef given out for free at Return Day, said attendance was high because security measures weren’t in place. It also meant the beef could be barbecued on the Circle, instead of being banished to a back street.

“We’re lucky Biden didn’t come this year. It’s a blessing,” Towers said. “If we got nailed again with security this year, we would have lost Return Day.”

Signs of the times

Return Day dates to the early 19th century and scattered through the crowd were people in period clothing. Carl Haller, 70, of Georgetown indulged his historical bent by displaying his collection of political posters in the courthouse on South Bedford Street. It includes a poster from every one of Biden’s Senate races since 1984, when he ran for his third Senate term.

On the day before Election Day, Haller said, he drove around Sussex County and collected as many yard signs as he could. But his hunt wasn’t over. He’d heard about a Valenzuela poster printed in Spanish, but hadn’t been able to track one down.

The modern designs of many campaign signs today, he said, aren’t as interesting as posters from elections past. “I miss the pictures on the posters. It personalizes them,” Haller said. “In the ’80s, they had more pictures.”

Left out of the official festivities during Return Day are candidates who didn’t win primary races, and never made it to the general election. So Keith Spanarelli, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate against Carper, attended his first Return Day this year as a visitor, not the elected official he’d hoped to be.

“I’m impressed,” he said, scanning the crowd along the parade route. “I’ve got to congratulate everyone who stepped up to run. I’ve got a lot of respect for them, having walked in their shoes. It’s not easy. It’s really not.”