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Chris Coons: He's No Christine O'Donnell, but a Heck of an Auctioneer

3 years ago
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BRIDGEVILLE, Del. -- Forget debates or TV ads. If you really want to get to know a candidate, listen to him do a stream-of-consciousness, too-fast-to-be-too-careful, 75-minute turn as an auctioneer.

"Simple rules: Don't move any large body parts while I'm talking," Chris Coons -- the Senate candidate who is not Christine O'Donnell -- told the Sussex County Women's Democratic Club. And he was off, riffing on everything from QVC to O'Donnell's seeming confusion over whether the founding fathers intended to separate church from state in the First Amendment.

No bids on an antique wooden nursing chair? "This is how things worth millions of dollars just slip right under your nose, and you later discover the United States Constitution was found on the back of that painting you nearly won!" Coons declared, as the audience erupted in laughter. "I can't tell you whether or not the First Amendment is in it! But I'll tell you my opponent's response in her words!"

How to rev up interest in a graphic annotation of the Constitution? Piece of cake. "Accessible to all, something that anyone could easily understand. It's got pictures and words. It is a comic book version of the U.S. Constitution," Coons said deadpan amid more loud laughter. He offered to sign it and "circle my favorite part," but drew the line when purchaser Bob Wheatley, a Laurel contractor, asked him to inscribe it "To Christine, from Chris."

If Americans know anything about Coons, it's probably that O'Donnell has called him a "Marxist" (the phrase "bearded Marxist" was part of a joke headline on a college newspaper article he wrote about becoming a Democrat). Here's a primer: He's short, balding and 47, a self-described "clean-shaven capitalist" with a law degree, a divinity degree, a wife, three children, serious policy chops and six years as executive of New Castle County. He fully expected to run against veteran Republican Rep. Mike Castle and is doing his bemused best to adjust to Hurricane Christine.

Delaware's Democratic slate is like a company of traveling actors, appearing together repeatedly in their tiny state. The Truman-Kennedy dinner and auction at a firehouse here drew Coons, as well as Gov. Jack Markell, Sen. Tom Carper, outgoing Sen. Ted Kaufman, Attorney General Beau Biden and House candidate John Carney.

It was Carney who best captured the party's shell shock the night of the Sept. 14 primary, when the moderate Castle – a 30-year fixture in Delaware politics – went down to defeat at the hands of O'Donnell and the Tea Party movement. Carney said he'd been getting really good at laying out how Coons was going to beat Castle, "and then all of a sudden, like that, boom! It went up in smoke!" The audience took that as an allusion to O'Donnell's youthful dabbling in witchcraft, and went wild.

Witchcraft, foreclosure troubles, a crusade against masturbation – it's no wonder O'Donnell, 41, became a ubiquitous national presence practically overnight. As I drove to Delaware on Saturday, in fact, a panelist on the NPR program, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," suggested a Christine O'Donnell Halloween costume – a witch hat, an edited copy of the Constitution and a chastity belt.

Big, bright O'Donnell signs line the highways in southern Delaware, her stronghold, while Coons signs are small and rare. But Coons is well known, not just as a Senate candidate but as executive of New Castle County, which includes Wilmington and 61 percent of the people in the state.

As he wandered through the Blackbird Creek Fall Festival the other day in Townsend, at the southern end of New Castle County, he never had to tell anyone who he was. "We've been watching you hold your own with great dignity," said a woman volunteering at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service booth. He says he tries for restraint and patience. It's clear during the pair's debates, however, that Coons at times has a hard time concealing his irritation with O'Donnell.

In a year of backlash against government size, spending and taxes, Coons is running on a record that shows both his ability to solve problems and his willingness to raise taxes -- three increases in property tax rates, about a 50 percent rise overall, since 2006. O'Donnell likes to badger him about all kinds of things -- his Ivy League education, his affluent background, his understanding of the Constitution – and mentions the tax increases every chance she gets.

A conservative group, Let Freedom Ring, is giving her backup with a radio ad that combines a tax attack with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's description of Coons as "my pet." The ad opens with barking as a dog owner says, "Here boy, sit. Roll over. Now raise taxes. That's good. Three barks for that. Three times you raised taxes in New Castle County. Good boy, Chris. Now, play dead." An announcer adds: "We don't need a pet. We don't need a dog. And we sure don't need a tax-raising professional politician."

Two of Coons' three tax-increase proposals came before his re-election campaign in 2008. Voters didn't seem too upset – and he didn't even have an opponent that year. The line of attack is not sticking now, either, judging by polls that show Coons with double-digit leads. One reason is the Democrats' voter-registration edge in Delaware (47 percent to 29 percent Republican). Another is that Coons made deep cuts in county services and personnel (and cut his own pay) before proposing the tax increases. A third is that even with all the increases, county property taxes are very low.

"The average homeowner in New Castle County, Delaware, pays $502 a year in county property taxes," Coons said in an interview. "We are among the lowest states in the country in terms of the local property tax burden. I think the average citizen of New Castle County gets a pretty good value for what they pay."

Coons is the type of candidate who will share with a voter a recent "fascinating" conversation he had with an ophthalmologist (sun exposure leads to cataracts, so more use of sunglasses could save government health programs a lot of money down the line), or discuss at length how he thinks energy policy will proceed after the failure of a cap-and-trade bill (a series of small measures to expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency and tighten regulations on emissions).

Let's face it, a race between Coons and Castle, a fellow policy nerd, would have been boring. Imagine a campaign season without O'Donnell spoofs on "Saturday Night Live," or a TV ad that starts out, "I am not a witch," or a declaration that "God is the reason I'm running," or a college degree finally received after a decades-long battle over unpaid tuition. When the rush of attention hit, Coons said many national reports on the Delaware Senate race didn't even mention him. "That's OK," he said, laughing. "I'm not running to be exciting."

All bets could be off if more people got a glimpse of Coons hamming it up non-stop at an auction. "A custom-fitted vase for the shortest flowers in America," he says, pointing to, well, a short vase. An official Joe Biden Senate key chain that's "real brass, ladies and gentlemen. It is cold to the touch." A container of fudge or, in his words, "a nutless fudge box. Fudge sans nuts. Chocolate fudge that is lacking walnuts."

Will his prowess as an auctioneer catapult Coons to O'Donnell-like media stardom? Probably not. But he can take some consolation in having a transferable skill. If elected, he'll know how to stage a filibuster, and how to make it funny.

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Filed Under: Senate, Campaigns

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26 Comments

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John Vilvens

At the time the consitution was writen there was the church of england as Iran is a islamic state. The idea was not the seperation of church and state. The idea was there would be no church of this country. That people have the right to believe in what ever religion they choose. O'ddonnell is right. Is does not say there is a seperation of church and state it was design to limit government whe it came to a person freedom.

October 27 2010 at 11:17 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Hi Margot!

I really wish you had shown a clip of Chris Coons doing his auctioneer schtick. I've heard he's really good. He volunteers his time doing this at a lot of auctions, for schools and such. As far as the comment on Christine O'Donnell's signs being stolen, that works both ways. I drive from Newark to Wilmington to work daily and Coons' signs are disappearing, being replaced by O'Donnell's. Her people are doing the same thing. It happens in every election. I just hope she gets her signs down FAST after she loses next Tuesday. There's a law in Delaware that says that candidates have to remove their signs in a certain amount of time, and I, for one, do consider her signs litter.

October 27 2010 at 9:31 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Eye in the Sky

I don't know in which part of Sussex Co., Delaware Miss Jill Lawrence drives every day for the past year, but her assertion that Christine's signs "line the highways in southern Delaware, her stronghold, while Coons signs are small and rare" is utter nonsense. Christine's signs are routinely stolen and signs for Democrat candidates spring up in their place immediately. (Witness statements, including license numbers, have been received by the Del. State Police on this issue.) There can be no doubt about her left-wing bona fides, but, as if to make sure that we all understand "where she's comin' from," she goes on to describe cap-and-trade as a "series of small measures to expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency and tighten regulations on emissions." Yeah, right. This is roughly analagous to calling the Holocaust the mere expression of an age-old Germanic longing for meaningful social change. Few Americans are naive enough to expect objectivity from any American "journalist" today, and Jill Lawrence doesn't disappoint.

October 27 2010 at 12:47 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Eye in the Sky's comment
rutgersdevil

I have seen signs supporting candidates of both parties being removed from private property, specifically the frontage of commercial property (CVS, etc.), along Highway 1 in Rehobeth (Sussex County). Imagine the gall of these people asserting their first amendment rights to not have their personal property used for political endorsements.

October 27 2010 at 12:14 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Jill

Actually, the "series of small measures" was the way Coons thinks policy will proceed since cap-and-trade failed. It is not a definition of cap-and-trade.

November 30 2010 at 8:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kenneth

I am glad I do not live in Delaware. They are faced with a tough decision. Elect Christine to stop this out of control agenda and put balance back in government. Or elect Chris C. who will fall in step with Obama. Not to mention their is something about the man I do not trust. He comes across as a snake oil salesman.

October 26 2010 at 8:54 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
oken43

You are so right. Of course anyone with a brain knows that for the last 200 years the first amendment's verbage has been interpeted by all members of the judiciary, legislative and executive branches to be read as a separation of church and state. Anyone who knows the history and context of the debates which caused it to be enacted knows that it was meant to enforce a separation of church and state. But you are so right, as is Christine, no where does it specifically state that there must be a separation of church and state. Boy, she really nailed that one.

October 26 2010 at 8:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to oken43's comment
Kenneth

You are correct. If most people would pay attention to the exact words of the question. The answer she gave was on the money. Too many people are reading into the question and her answer. What did they teach you in school read nothing into a question.

October 26 2010 at 8:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
AL

Jill, There is nothing in the first amendment that states: "Separation of church and state" The first amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" So in spite of Mr. Coons and the media making fun of O'Donnell for her ignorance of the first amendment, should look in the mirror. Her answer to a loaded question by CNN asking what SCOTUS decision did she disagree, should have cited the Selo decision that was the beginning of the destruction of the right to private private property, by destroying the eminent domain rules applied to government to confiscate private property from one to the benefit of another.

October 26 2010 at 1:17 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to AL's comment
truthforfreedom

Chris Coons has let his ego run away with him. It's too bad he has the wholehearted support of the media. He is a liberal who will vote lock, stock and barrel with the dems and that is dangerous. I'd much rather see O'Donnell pull this off just to be rid of one more democrat. She can't do damage, as she will go along with her party and perhaps learn to be a leader. It's too bad she's been treated so badly by the media.

October 26 2010 at 10:41 AM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to truthforfreedom's comment
debij

Come on. Give the man a little credit for having his own brain. He knows that if he votes for something that is against the interest of Delaware, he won't be re-elected. If O'Donnell and the other Pee Party people get in office, your rights will go right out the door because while they speculate whether Coons would vote with the Democrats, they KNOW that they will vote lock step with the Republicans. We all know from high school civics classes that Democrats are for social programs and to help the people, while republicans help big business. Do you REALLY want to have the deregulation of Wall Street that contributed to the bad economy under Bush, and the ignoring of regulations that ended up with one of the worst ecological and economic disasters in the Gulf area? Do you really want someone LOWERING taxes while we try to figure out how to pay for the billions-a-day war debt Bush raised going after the man who threatened his daddy? President Obama is still trying to clear up the deficit that was left him when Bush ignored the people of this country and went into Iraq, even ignoring Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden - it might take years to recover from unrestrained arms spending, not to mention the human toll (lives lost and lives ruined - even though the man never had a plan in mind for the wounded - he never gave extra money to the VA). We need someone who IS a leader, not someone who MAY LEARN to be one.

October 26 2010 at 6:50 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
legalcld

Texas & New York are both dropping deportation cases against ILLEGALS!! So what the government is saying is BREAK OUR LAWS AND WE'LL REWARD YOU!!! And now a new train system in CA where all ILLEGALS will be given jobs? Time to vote everyone of these idiots in washington out$$$

October 26 2010 at 10:00 AM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply
ddiscipio

If I lived in Delaware I would vote for O'Donnel as she is truthful and thats exactly what awe need in Washington these days.....NY and going "Broke" with Taxes....

October 26 2010 at 9:58 AM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ddiscipio's comment
debij

If you lived in Delaware, you'd see her for what she really is: an unemployed deadbeat who tries to avoid paying her taxes until they catch her and she says "It's an honest mistake". She's run for Senate 3 times - and she wouldn't be running this time if it hadn't been for Sarah Palin coming in to stump for her. She's said just about anything and everything to get into office - including running as a write in when she failed to get the nomination on a past election for senate which cost the republicans a seat because of her inability to understand what a partyline was. However, if she gets to Washington, she will be beholden to Palin and Rove, who are her handlers and will tell her everything she is to do - and if she even tries to do anything they don't approve of, they will cut her off.

October 26 2010 at 6:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
oken43

Truthful, really? So you believe she went to Oxford? Really? Funny they have no record. She said she went to Princeton. Really? They have no record. She said she went to Clearmont. Really? They have no record. From the resume she has constructed it sounds like she wants to be an Elitist.

October 26 2010 at 8:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

A girl in high school, goes with a guy for three weeks. He and she look into a group and witchcraft. The relationship ends and they go their separate ways and today she is branded a witch. I hope they never look into my life.

October 26 2010 at 9:31 AM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dc walker's comment
Kenneth

Ted.. I disagree other countries and many Americans look at this as a equal opportunity. Our constitution lists the qualifications for a senator. Their is nothing listed that politicians have to have a law degree. That is the standard that the people have been led to believe by politicians.Perfect example when have they ever passed a law that would place caps on any type of law suit. How would you get a lawyer to daft a law that would restrict the practice of another lawyer. Our whole way of life in the last twenty years is based on filing law suits where the lawyers walk away rich with little or no effort. Open your phone book to the lawyer section and read all the full page ads for lawyer looking for injury cases. We need to chase all the lawyers out of politics. Government is nothing more then a large corporation not a court house. Corporations are run by business people and people with common sense and sound business judgment.

October 26 2010 at 3:54 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
debij

Cutie: She was the one who brought it up. If she hadn't said anything about it back in the day, we wouldn't know. We didn't brand her - she did that herself. But then I know her. I wouldn't call her a witch. But I'd call her something close.

October 26 2010 at 6:56 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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