Former Delaware Congressman Mike Castle: Life Out of Office
Rebuilding the Castle: Two years after losing his first—and likely his last—election, Mike Castle has settled into a new life. And for the first time in 45 years, it’s a life largely outside of politics.
Photo by Ron Dubick
Mike Castle and Carl Schnee are a study in contrasts. At 6-4, Castle is about a foot taller than Schnee. Castle is Roman Catholic, Schnee is Jewish. A lifelong Democrat and retired lawyer, Schnee was appointed U.S. attorney for Delaware by Bill Clinton and ran for attorney general in 2002. Castle, meanwhile, established his Republican bona fides early: he dated Pete du Pont’s younger sister (!), organized Young Republican teams in New Castle County softball, basketball and touch football leagues, and won election to the Delaware General Assembly in 1966, kicking off a political career spanning 45 years, during which he carried the GOP banner in successful bids for the statehouse, the state senate, lieutenant governor, governor and Congress.
Despite these differences, Schnee and Castle have been friends for nearly half a century. They partnered in a law firm from 1975 to 1981, and were part owners of the Bottle & Cork through the 1970s, when the Dewey Beach bar was the hottest spot at the beach. (“We had no idea what we were doing,” says Schnee, “but we had a lot of fun.”)
So it was only natural that, two years ago, Schnee would ask his old friend to speak to his current events class at the Academy of Lifelong Learning in Wilmington. Castle accepted the invitation just prior to the primary election of Sept. 14, 2010, which turned into the only defeat in his political career—a stunning upset at the hands of Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell, in turn, was drubbed by Democrat Chris Coons in the Nov. 2 special election for the U. S. Senate seat held by Ted Kaufman, who did not run for re-election.
Now, here it was, late November, and as his class of 250 or so mostly senior citizens settled into their seats, Schnee wondered if they were still interested in hearing from the former congressman. He got his answer a few moments later when Castle arrived through a side door, triggering a wipe-your-eyes emotional moment. “When they saw him,” says Schnee, “every one in that class got up and gave him a standing ovation. It was really touching.”
It’s possible that 73-year-old Michael Newbold Castle has received more love and respect in his post-political life than in all his decades in elected office. He has been feted at numerous public and private functions since leaving office in January, 2011. That same month the Delaware Chamber of Commerce presented him with the prestigious Josiah Marvel Cup Award; he was the commencement speaker at UD graduation ceremonies last May (“Life is going to throw you curveballs,” he told the graduates, “like a one-point defeat in a national championship game or a loss in a U.S. Senate race.”); a 16-mile greenway along the C&D Canal was named after him, and in a tribute at the Grand Gala last December, he was lauded by many of the state’s leaders, including Democrats Coons, Congressman John Carney, Gov. Jack Markell, and Vice President Joe Biden. The latter called Castle “one of the finest, most decent men I’ve known in my career.”
More significant, perhaps, is this observation from Priscilla Rakestraw, former Republican National Committeewoman for Delaware: “Candidates—even from Southern Delaware—still stand in line to talk to him.”
How then did this “decent man,” a man Dale Wolf, his former lieutenant governor, calls “the best statesman Delaware has ever produced,” a man who had never lost an election and became Delaware’s longest-serving Congressman—how did this stalwart of the Republican party lose to a woman who had never held political office; who, in fact, had held few if any jobs?
More poignantly, as if speaking of a death in the family, Wolf asks, “How did we lose him?”
There are several answers to that question, but perhaps the most succinct and accurate comes from Rakestraw, a no-nonsense veteran of the political wars whose Toyota Rav 4 still has an “I Like Mike” sticker next to her “VoteGOP” license plate. “He was defeated by the passion of the supporters of Christine O’Donnell,” she says.
“Passion will always trump knowledge,” adds Rakestraw, suggesting that those supporters—mostly from Southern Delaware—weren’t exactly versed in the issues. “They didn’t really know what cap and trade was,” she says.
O’Donnell’s media appeal—“the entertainment factor”—also played a big role in the campaign. Rakestraw says O’Donnell’s supporters “were fed by Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson because she was great for ratings. She became the darling of the media. She had charisma.”
Financial aid came from The Tea Party Express, a California-based group which, after helping to defeat Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, quickly moved to Delaware and spent $216,000 on O’Donnell’s campaign. And former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin added her endorsement.
Then there was “the Markell factor.” Observers such as Allan Loudell, news anchor for WDEL AM and WXDE FM, posit that as many as 3,000 Republicans re-registered as Democrats in order to vote for Markell against John Carney in the 2008 gubernatorial primary. “Many of those party-switchers—mostly Chateau Country/Brandywine Hundred/Newark-area Republicans—didn’t bother to switch back to the GOP,” Loudell wrote in his blog, “partly because many failed to anticipate bitterly fought primaries in their party,” and partly because they knew “the real ‘action’ in New Castle County is with the Democrats because their primaries end up becoming general elections by default.”
The Castle campaign, meanwhile, focused on the anticipated November battle with Coons, arguing that their candidate was the one who could beat any Democrat. They simply didn’t view O’Donnell as a serious threat to unseat a Delaware political icon—until it was too late.
They weren’t alone. Says Dr. Joe Pika, the James R. Soles Professor and professor of political science and international relations at UD: “Most observers felt she wasn’t formidable. She had run before and was not especially effective, and she turned off traditional Republicans. Then suddenly this outside money poured in, and her supporters caught fire in kind of a grass-roots, Southern Delaware uprising against the Republican establishment.”
Toward the end, Castle’s people realized something was amiss, but they couldn’t put their fingers on it. Says Dale Wolf: “I was on his campaign committee, and at the last two meetings there was a sense that something was going on here that we weren’t on top of.”
On Election Day, Rakestraw worked the phones from morning till night. “There was some apprehension,” she says. “We realized it would be close, but we believed Mike Castle would win. But we misread and underestimated the passion.” Then, she says, when Sussex County numbers came in before the other two counties—unusual in itself—and O’Donnell took a big early lead, “I knew we were in trouble. This wasn’t my first rodeo.”
Noting the low turnout, particularly in New Castle County, she shakes her head. “I will never understand why people don’t vote.” In the two years since that election, Rakestraw says, “Hundreds of people have told me, ‘I wish I had switched back.’”
At Castle campaign headquarters, when the results became final, “I was devastated,” she says. “Mike seemed stoic. But you could tell it was a body blow.”
“I don’t know if ‘stoic’ is the word,” says the most famous victim of the Tea Party.
Mike Castle is settled into his new job now, not to mention his new life. He joined DLA Piper, the largest law firm in the world, in May of last year—four months after his congressional term ended. As a partner in the firm’s government affairs practice, he splits his time among Piper’s Wilmington, Washington, D.C., and, sometimes, its New York offices. According to a Piper press release, his job is to “leverage his extensive legislative and legal experience to advise clients on financial services, international trade, energy, corporate, tax, labor, legislative, political and health care matters.”
His Wilmington office is on the 15th floor of the old Citizens Bank building on the 900 block of North Market Street. It is small, with one window, and as of August its walls and cabinets were still bare—no pictures, plaques, awards or diplomas. On his desk were lined yellow legal pads covered with his handwriting.
Castle is slightly stooped now, and walks with a bit of a limp due to a knee that he says should be replaced. He is far removed from the fiery competitor who in his 20s and early 30s did battle on local softball and football fields and basketball courts. Stories of his hate-to-lose attitude in those days are plentiful. Ruly Carpenter, owner and president of the Philadelphia Phillies from 1972 to 1981, relates one such story, prefacing it with, “Mike will kill me for telling you this.”
Carpenter and Castle are lifelong friends. Carpenter graduated from Tower Hill School a year behind Castle and played with and against him in baseball and touch football. Back in the late 1960s, Carpenter’s football team was playing Castle’s team on a field behind the DuPont Experimental Station. “The ref threw Mike out of the game for arguing,” says Carpenter, “but Mike continued the ‘dialogue’ on the sidelines, so the ref told him to get out of sight, over a hill next to the field. Well, Mike walks up and over the hill, and play resumes, but a few minutes later these trash cans come flying over the top of the hill and roll down to the field. Everybody just started laughing. That was Mike: hot-tempered.”
The Mike Castle of today seems anything but volatile. This direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin is open, affable, and appears to be devoid of ego, a rare quality in a successful politician.
Of his election night reaction, he says, “I was obviously dismayed. I didn’t expect it, although I knew it was a possibility.”
Castle had received a phone call earlier from his friend Murkowski, who had been savaged by the Tea Party in her primary. (She opted to run as a write-in candidate in the Alaska general election and won.) “She told me, ‘These people are dangerous.’ But I assured her that we had it under control.”
The first strategic mistake Castle and his advisers made was to husband their resources. “We didn’t spend a great deal of money in the primary,” he says. “We were basically keeping everything in check for the general election. Then the problem became turnout.”
What’s more, Castle says, anti-O’Donnell fodder like her dabbling in witchcraft didn’t surface until after the primary, so the campaign couldn’t capitalize on any of those revelations.
Another major miscalculation was not debating his opponent, who later proved no match for the articulate Coons. “I didn’t engage with her, and in retrospect, that was probably a mistake,” Castle admits.
He refuses to blame his staff, all of whom are friends. “Hey, whatever the problems are, they start at the top. So if you want to blame somebody, you’d better look in the mirror. I don’t blame anybody other than myself.”
And he grants his opponent her due. “I give them credit, particularly the Tea Party Express people. They had a lot of passion and energy and turned out their voters. And we didn’t. We became concerned too late.”
Castle considered running as a write-in candidate, but decided against the idea. “The Republican Party turned out and elected Christine O’Donnell, and I respected that,” he says.
Also, the primary battle had been, in Loudell’s words, “full of vitriol and animus,” and Castle didn’t want to drag his wife through another nasty fight. It was a decision the former Jane DiSabatino apparently favored. After the primary, she told Rakestraw, “I have my husband back.”
Castle endorsed the Republican ticket, but not O’Donnell. He calls her “ideologically inflexible, and I don’t think that’s a way to run a country. I had no interest in supporting her. I thought she was totally unqualified to serve in the United States Senate, and I didn’t think she had a chance to win the general election.”
He calls the 2010 primary “a wound to the Republican Party” in the state, “in terms of both fundraising and recruiting candidates for office.” Castle was the party’s major “rainmaker.” The other was Michele Rollins, the party’s candidate for Castle’s congressional seat, who lost to Glen Urquhart, another Tea Party favorite, in the primary. (Urquhart then lost to John Carney in the general election.)
In fact, says Castle, “The Tea Party has ripped the Republican Party asunder” across the country, citing Colorado, Nevada and Delaware as states where Republicans might have won if establishment candidates had been nominated. As an aside, he calls the choice of Tea Party standard-bearer Sarah Palin for vice president “just awful.”
But he blames both parties for their inflexibility, resulting in little being accomplished in Washington over the past two years.
Such rigidity is anathema to a politician known for his willingness to reach across the aisle, who never denied the “moderate Republican” appellation. “I always felt my mission was to help Delawareans,” Castle says. “My staff understood this. I don’t think we ever asked anybody [who contacted us] what their political affiliation was. We just tried to help people.”
“He was very independent-minded, willing to buck the party leadership,” says Pika. “But he was dedicated to solutions, and carried the baton for moderate decision-making—which may have come back to haunt him.”
Often accused of being a RINO
(Republican in Name Only)—especially by the O’Donnell camp—Castle actually hued pretty closely to the GOP agenda. He voted against the stimulus, against ObamaCare, co-sponsored repeal of that legislation, and favored extending all the Bush tax cuts. His major breaks from the party included support for environmental legislation and stem cell research.
Jason Scott of Delaware Liberal says Castle morphed from his early RINO position into a true Republican toward the latter part of his career, and some Democrats who once backed him felt betrayed by his support of George W. Bush’s economic and war policies. Scott faults Castle for “trying to make everybody happy. He would vote for the Bush agenda, then in his press releases claim he regretted having to vote that way.”
In the end, he says, “Castle’s history of being a centrist worked against him for both Democrats and Republicans when the Republicans went off the deep end” with O’Donnell.
Castle says he has “mixed feelings” about being out of office. He doesn’t miss spending so much time in Washington, where congressional duties often extended what he expected to be a three-day week through the weekend. That left him little time for his wife and functions back here in Delaware.
“What I do miss are the people, including my staff, and a lot of members of Congress. I miss Delawareans, I miss helping people.” He pauses. “We got a lot done.”
He stays informed on politics in the state and nation, but says he will never run for elective office again.
Still, the polls showed he would have defeated Coons somewhat easily, and that knowledge—knowledge that might make an ordinary man bitter—elicits from Mike Castle an almost wistful nod to what might have been: “The Republicans who voted against me would’ve been better served having a Republican there [in the Senate seat] —even if it was a moderate Republican.”
He says he has given little thought to what his legacy will be. “I still, even today, even though I’m out of politics directly, I look to the future—what’s next. I don’t think in terms of being remembered, being honored.”
What’s next for now is his job at DLA Piper, a job he indicates may be the one he ultimately retires from. It enables him to stay in touch with friends and former colleagues in Washington, but more important, it allows him to live in Wilmington—one of the criteria he presented to law firms who approached him after he left office.
The former state-legislator-lieutenant governor-governor-congressman and his wife have already taken a couple of small vacations, and plan to do more traveling in the future. “Jane is quite happy that I’m home now,” he says. “And so am I.”