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Tom Gordon will run against Paul Clark; Gordon seeks his old job

Written by ADAM TAYLOR The News Journal

Setting the stage for what some are calling a battle between the ethically challenged, former New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon filed campaign paperwork Monday to try and take his old job back from incumbent Paul Clark.

Gordon, a Democratic county executive from 1997 to 2004, was the subject of a federal corruption investigation during his second term. The case was dismissed after he pleaded to lesser charges.

Clark’s wife, Pam Scott, then a land-use attorney with clients in the county, had to resign from her job shortly after Clark took office 18 months ago.

The county Ethics Commission ruled that Clark or Scott would have to step down in order to prevent a conflict of interest. Clark, a Democrat, had previously served as council president while Scott was with the Saul Ewing law firm.

"It’s amazing," said Charlie Copeland, a former Republican state senator. " The two most ethically challenged politicians in the state going up against each other."

Copeland said the race reminds him of the 1991 gubernatorial campaign in Louisiana, when Edwin Edwards, who had been acquitted in two racketeering trials, ran against David Duke, who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

"I lived in New Orleans at the time and one of the bumper stickers was, 'Vote for the crook. It’s important,' "Copeland said. " I can’t imagine what the bumper stickers in New Castle County are going to say."

Another run

This is the second time Gordon, 59, of Hockessin, has tried to return as county executive. The former county police chief ran against Chris Coons in 2008. Coons won easily, taking 65 percent of the vote.

Gordon said, because he’s running against Clark, things will be different this time. Bill Shahan, an employee in the county Land Use Department, is also running as a Democrat.

"I think I can win," Gordon said. "This isn’t my first rodeo. I know that when my phone is ringing off the hook with people asking me to run, Paul Clark has a serious problem."

Sherry Freebery, Gordon’s former chief administrative officer, was indicted with Gordon. The indictment accused them of engaging in a criminal enterprise that included using county police officers to campaign for candidates of their liking. It said Freebery accepted a "loan" of more than $2 million from a county landowner who needed county approval for a golf course project. And it alleged that the county settled a sexual harassment lawsuit to avoid public disclosure of a sex scandal that included intimate relations between Gordon and Freebery.
The indictment came in May 2004, as Freebery was running against Coons for county executive. Coons took 67 percent of the vote.

While the case ended in convictions, with Freebery admitting to a felony and Gordon admitting to two misdemeanors, then-U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly, who prosecuted the case, admitted the result was "disappointing."

Gordon and Freebery had been charged with racketeering, wire fraud and mail fraud. In the end, Freebery admitted to lying on a bank loan, a felony, and Gordon pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for failing to provide accurate tax information for two employees who performed political work on county time.

Conflicts, criticism

In the voters' eyes, Gordon believes his Sherry Freebery problem is not as bad as Clark’s Pam Scott problem.

"He eviscerated the land use code for his wife’s benefit," Gordon said. "The case against me was dismissed. I pleaded guilty to something else. I should have known what the employees were doing, but I didn’t. That was wrong."

Clark’s campaign spokesman Dan Bates, in a statement, said there is no comparison between the candidates' blemishes.

"County Executive Paul Clark welcomes the opportunity to share his accomplishments and contrast it to Gordon’s tarnished record," Bates said. "Guilty pleas and federal indictments are part of a disgraceful past. It is time to move on and move New Castle County forward."

Most people Monday seemed to think that Gordon’s transgressions were worse than the conflict that existed when Scott was a go-to land-use attorney for Saul Ewing.

Many of her clients were developers who needed county approvals at a time when Clark was council president. Scott resigned in March 2011, four months after her husband became county executive and after the Ethics Commission ruling.

Republican Councilman Bob Weiner said Clark’s team has lacked transparency, but he said Gordon’s people used to bypass him entirely on issues in his district and take matters directly to civic groups.

"I had bloody battles with both administrations," Weiner said. "But Clark is junior varsity [in regard to lack of transparency]. Gordon is varsity."

Democratic Councilman George Smiley, a staunch Clark supporter, said he thinks Gordon is confused when he criticizes Clark for having a demoralized county workforce.

"He recently made comments that employees were happy on the job and loyal to him," Smiley said. "All the current and former county employees I’ve talk with said they felt nothing but fear and intimidation out of the Gordon administration."

More revelations?

Chuck Mulholland, president of the Civic League of New Castle County, said the contest has the potential to be one of Delaware’s nastiest campaigns in recent memory.

"I would suspect that there is going to be more digging and more exposure about past events from both sides," Mulholland said. "I’m sure a lot of things that haven’t come out before are going to come out."

Others said because Gordon probably won't raise nearly as much money as Clark, that Gordon will spend the summer attacking Clark's record and Clark will spend his time defending .

Fred Sears, a former Wilmington councilman who now heads the Delaware Community Foundation, said he's not sure Clark will go negative on Gordon.

"Paul is probably going to win, so he won’t have to," Sears said. "And he might be too much of a gentleman to do that anyway."

Sears said he worked on Gordon’s first campaign and still likes him personally.

"But he lost me as a voter during his second term," Sears said. "What he and Freebery did was embarrassing. Still, Tom is so likeable. If gets out there and works hard, he could make it a close race."

Mill Creek resident Christine Whitehead said she doesn’t think Gordon can win, and she hopes Gordon doesn’t drain too many anti-Clark votes from Bill Shahan, the third Democrat in the race.

"Two wrongs – Clark and Gordon – do not make a right," Whitehead said. "One good man will win the primary – Bill Shahan."

Gordon said he hopes to get support from county unions. Clark used the threat of layoffs to get the unions to agree to 2.5 percent compensation reductions in recent contracts.

FOP President Mike Zielinski said the police union generally contributes to campaigns and thinks Gordon is a favorite to get support.

"He’s a former police chief and treated us very well when he was county executive," Zielinski said.

Some noted the irony that Gordon is running as the reform candidate who wants to clean up Clark’s conflicts, while Clark is running as the lesser-tarnished candidate.

"Paul Clark has been ethically challenged, and Tom Gordon has been legally challenged," said John Flaherty, president of Delaware Coalition for Open Government. "Both are good men, but both could use a dose of humility."

County GOP Chairman John Rollins said the primary battle can only help Republican candidate Mark Blake's long-shot campaign in November.

"Clearly, choosing between Paul Clark and Tom Gordon is not the kind of change voters will be seeking," Rollins said.

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