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Delaware Puts Its Political Winners, Losers on Parade

Charles Hillinger's America

November 10, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN, Del. — "Hear ye! Hear ye! Here are the official election returns!" shouted town crier Ronny Dodd, 52, as he stood on a balcony of the 1837 colonial-style, red brick Sussex County Courthouse.

Dodd, the Georgetown undertaker and longtime town crier, was decked out in an 18th-Century black top hat, white dickey and tails. He was carrying on a tradition dating back to 1791.

It was Return Day in Georgetown, population 1,800, Delaware's biggest and most venerated celebration occurring two days after the November election every other year.

More than 20,000 Delawareans were on hand from all over the tiny state (96 miles long, 9 to 35 miles wide; population 600,000), from Wilmington and Dover, from hamlets like Dinah's Corners and Dutch Neck Crossroads.

They had come as they always do, to enjoy the public peace-making ceremony, to see the winners and losers of the state's political races ride side-by-side in a parade of horse-drawn carriages a mile down Market Street and around the town circle in front of the courthouse.

Music and Food

They had come to hear band concerts, to munch on Delaware delicacies such as barbecued ox, muskrat, oyster and soft crab sandwiches, funnel cakes (sugar-coated fried dough), crab cakes and clam chowder.

They had come to see Democrats and Republican political leaders bury a symbolic hatchet in a pile of sand and to see opponents shake hands with one another on a platform in front of the Georgetown courthouse.

Of course, those assembled in the town circle knew from listening to the radio, reading newspapers and watching television who had won Delaware's lone U.S. House of Representatives seat, state legislative posts and other state, county and local offices long before the town undertaker made his announcement.

But Dodd's declarations are part of the time-honored tradition of Return Day, a public holiday in Delaware. There's nothing like it anywhere else in the nation.

Delaware's governor, Mike Castle, and the state's two U.S. senators, Joseph Biden Jr. and William Roth Jr., rode in horse-drawn carriages in the two-hour-long parade--but not beside opponents. They were not up for reelection this year.

"This is a day with a lot of virtues. It's a time of healing for us. The candidates worked hard against one another for several months. Now they are pulling together for the greatest good of the state," Castle said.

"Return Day could only happen in a state the size of Delaware where we all know each other so well."

As always happens in American politics, there was bitterness in many Delaware campaigns this year, heated rhetoric, pointed accusations.

Tough Campaign

Atty. Gen. Charles M. Oberly, 39, and his challenger, Dallas Winslow, 42, a Wilmington attorney, engaged in a tough campaign.

Delawareans wondered if Winslow would show up. They knew Oberly would. Winners always do. But sometimes losers just can't swallow their pride.

During the campaign Oberly demanded that Winslow publicly apologize to his father for accusing him of illegally contributing to Oberly's campaign. Winslow accused Oberly of violating election laws in permitting 15 major drug dealers to plea bargain and avoid jail sentences.

Oberly won the election by only eight-tenths of 1%. At first Winslow said he was going to demand a recount.

"Of course I have every intention of riding in an open carriage seated next to my opponent on Return Day," Winslow said after he lost the election. "Delaware is lucky, indeed, to have such a tradition. This is a nice way to calm things down."

Although the two grew up in the same neighborhood and have known each other all of their lives, both said they're not sure their relations will ever be the same again. But they smiled and waved to the crowds as the carriage moved along the parade route. They did not, however, look at each other or engage in casual chitchat.

Loser Credit Given

"I give Mr. Winslow a good deal of credit for being here," said the attorney general. "It's easy to be a winner. It shows a lot more character to be a loser on a day like this."

Another spirited race was that between state Treasurer Janet Rzewnicki, 33, who defeated Bonnie Benson, 29, a Milton attorney. "I wasn't the one doing the mud slinging," Rzewnicki told reporters before the parade. "I'm proud of my campaign and I have no regrets," said Benson.

Joe Conaway, 48, facing loss of his appointed job because of the election after serving 14 years as Sussex County administrator, was master of ceremonies. Some had wondered if Conaway would show. To that he retorted:

"Look, those losers who don't come and ride in the parade next to the winner might as well forget about running for political office again. The people of Delaware expect both winner and loser to be here."

When Joe Flickinger, 40, victor in the race for New Castle County registrar of wills, passed by in his horse-drawn carriage, parade spectators shouted: "Where is the loser?" Flickinger shouted back: "Maybe he's sick. Who knows. I don't know where he is. . . . "

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