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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