New Republican party chair hopes to keep party rolling

April 16, 2013

How do you keep building on success?

That might be the question John Rieley, newly elected chair of the Sussex County Republican Committee, asks himself. Rieley recently replaced Jerry Wood, who died late last year after leading Republicans to victory in November with big wins in the newly formed District Six Senate seat (Ernie Lopez) and District 20 Representative seat (Steve Smyk).

“I think that a lot of it comes down to having good candidates that actually get out and campaign hard,” Rieley said. He also credited the party’s “tremendous volunteer base.”

“I don’t think it’s a lot more complicated than that,” said Rieley, a longtime Millsboro resident who has served as vice chair under five different committee chairs since 2003. Back then, he said, Sussex was mostly a purple county. Now it’s mostly red – Republicans hold four of five seats on County Council and 11 of 14 legislative seats – despite a continuing Democratic edge in registered voters.

But Rieley, an investment advisor for Edward Jones, said he doesn’t think Sussex has changed that much. It just appears that way compared to the more Democratic upstate.

“I don’t know that we’ve changed our values in Sussex,” he said. That includes Democrats. With their disadvantage in registered voters, he said, Republicans need to attract Democratic and independent voters to win.

Has the influx of new residents changed the county politically? Not necessarily. Rieley said the slight Democratic advantage has held fairly steady.

“You look at the Lewes and Rehoboth area and that seems to be trending more progressive, Democrat,” Rieley said, “whereas you get down to Bethany and the 38th District and that seems to be conservative.”

As the new chair, he’s been confronted with two recent controversies but he doesn’t appear overly concerned.

One involves John Fluharty, executive director for the state Republican Party, who attended a fundraiser in support of gay marriage.

In response, Sussex Republicans passed a non-binding resolution saying: “The Delaware Republican Party stands for traditional family values and all hired representatives of that organization SHALL publicly reflect that view.”

That was interpreted by some to mean they sought Fluharty’s dismissal. Rieley said that wasn’t the case.

“It didn’t mention anybody by name. It didn’t call for anybody to be fired,” he said. According to Rieley, it’s the kind of statement any corporation would have in its HR manual.

Or as Duke Brooks, Republican communications director, put it, “If you work for General Motors, you don’t buy a Mustang.”

That emphasis on “family values” might well have had an impact in November’s election. Nationally, though, support for gay marriage is growing. If the same is happening in Sussex, county Republicans could find themselves modifying their stance. In any case, Fluharty has remained as executive director.

The second controversy revolves around Sheriff Jeff Christopher and his continuing attempts to expand the powers of his office. Unlike some Maryland counties, such as Queen Anne’s, Delaware sheriffs have traditionally served as officers of the courts, not in law enforcement. Christopher contends that he should be the top law enforcement officer in the county. He recently lost in Superior Court, but he could still take his case to the state Supreme Court.

Rieley acknowledged the controversy, but didn’t take a position, leaving it up to the Supreme Court and to the voters.

“I think the sheriff’s race could be an interesting one,” he said.

He expects the Supreme Court to render a decision before the next election – which could affect the race – but said there’s interest in the office among both Republicans and Democrats.

“I think we’ll have an opportunity to vet the issue,” Rieley said. As county chairman, he would only say that he would fully support the decision of the state Supreme Court.

To digress briefly, while I expect the Supreme Court would rule against the sheriff, everyone should read Ron MacArthur’s story in the April 5 Gazette. It mentions the sheriff’s efforts to raise a “posse” and, yes, that’s the word that’s used. Anyone over the age of 15 is eligible, because, well, nothing says modern law enforcement like a bunch of teenagers acting as a posse.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Christopher says he has the right to summon the entire population above the age of 15 to help him “keep the peace.” In other words, he has the right to raise an army.

Is that likely to happen? No. Should voters, Republican and Democratic, in the next election make it clear they don’t support his efforts? Yes.

Rieley did have one prediction for when Republicans meet for their state convention later this month in Wilmington: The party’s new vice chair will be from Sussex County.

That’s because the only two candidates are Nelly Jordan, chair for Representative District 20, and Rep. Ruth Briggs King of District 37. In the ever-changing world of politics, that’s as close as you can get to a sure thing.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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