Former Superior Court judge Bill Lee launched his campaign for the governorship last week with a traditional three county tour, saying the Minner/Carney administration has allowed Delaware’s economy to falter and its education system to become mediocre. But first, the Republican hopeful had to deal with a problem of his own making.


    Republican William S. Lee began his quest for the governor’s mansion last week, but almost immediately found himself embroiled in controversy following a statement made during a downstate radio program.

    In the July 22 interview with WGMD radio, the former Superior Court judge said he favored issuing drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens, a remark that brought an immediate firestorm of protest from fellow Republicans. Lee’s campaign almost as quickly said the candidate had changed his mind.

    “He retracted the initial statement after careful consideration,” said campaign manager William S. “Brud” Lee Jr. “The outcry from those listening to WGMD gave him pause to look at his own position and to discuss it with law enforcement and policy officials.”

    The younger Lee said his father indicated he favored using drivers’ licenses as a way of tracking those in the country illegally and making sure they had the proper training to drive on Delaware roadways.

    Upon reconsideration, Lee said the former judge said he now felt other issues had priority.

    “He came to the conclusion that it’s simply not a good idea to issue any official documentation to those who are in this nation illegally,” Brud Lee said.

A tough road ahead to win votes
    Lee did not bring up the issue in a July 24 interview with the Post, instead concentrating on the shortcomings of the Minner/Carney administration and why neither Democratic Lt. Gov. John Carney nor state Treasurer Jack Markell were qualified to lead the state.

    Over the past eight years, Lee said the state’s economy has fallen to the worst in the nation, and that the state sees only minimal results despite record per-student education spending.

    “That’s just been a precipitous fall,” he said. “And I think the failure to address the problems of our schools, things have simply not gotten better; in some cases worse, in some cases better, but generally, we spend $15,000 on every student and we provide mediocre education.”

    Lee also said private investment in Delaware has fallen while government has become the largest industry in the state and that the government makes deals with polluters instead of enforcing environmental laws.

    Lee acknowledged that with a Republican minority in voter registration, it will take work to persuade Democrats to cross the line and vote for him. But he thinks most of those who voted for him in 2004, where he racked up 46% of the vote against incumbent Ruth Ann Minner, would be inclined to vote for him again.

    “We also feel the two Democratic candidates for governor will develop some of the arguments that I have been making over the last four years,” he said.

    Some of those ideas include making government more efficient and requiring performance audits of state agencies with an eye toward downsizing some and eliminating others, Lee said. He specifically mentioned the Delaware Economic Development Office.

    “In truthfulness, if you could just pick one where you’d throw everybody out, DEDO would probably be the answer,” Lee said.

    “We’ve had no economic development,” he said. “It’s been horrible.”

‘It is my hope there will be no new taxes’
    Lee plans to eliminate wasteful state spending by reining in departments that fall under the executive branch and encouraging the other branches of government, including the General Assembly and the courts, to do likewise.

    “The fact is there is substantial money to be saved by making Delaware government less top heavy in terms of where our money goes,” he said.

    The first thing he’ll do is ask for a list of essential state personnel – the front-line troops – Lee said, so that if he needs to shut down government by vetoing a budget he doesn’t like, those people would keep working, he said.

    By eliminating some Cabinet positions and not starting new programs, Lee feels the state can get by in the short term without bringing in any new revenue sources.

    “There will be no new programs,” he said. “We’re going to get control of government.

    “It is my hope there will be no new taxes; we can’t be absolutely sure of that, because we have to deal with certain rising expenses built into the system,” he added.

    Lee also said any budget he submits would include cost of living increases for state workers.

    Beyond that he foresees a “zero-based, hold-the-line” budget for the first year of his administration, Lee said.

    These and other decisions will involve making what he called “tough choices,” but as a retired judge, the one who presided over the Thomas Capano murder trial, and as a Marine Corps officer, he’s prepared to make those decisions, he said.

    As with the national campaign for president, the respective ages of the candidates also have been a topic of interest. In January 2009, Lee will be 73, one year older than Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who has taken some flak that he might be too old to handle the job.

    Lee doesn’t think that applies in his case.

    “I’ve been blessed with good genes, good luck and remarkable health,” he said. “I’m physically able to do everything I could do 20 years ago.”

    Overall, Lee sees no good reason for continuing the Democratic 16-year-hold on the governor’s mansion, and every reason for finding someone new to run the ship of state.

    “The scope of the failures of this administration are so great that you can’t pick an area of government where we have anything to brag about,” he said. “For a state that has always been the best, we’re just in remarkably bad shape.”

    Lee will face challenger Mike Protack and possibly David Graham, who has suspended his campaign, in a head-to-head battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination during a Sept. 9 primary. Assuming he wins that contest, and Lee says he has no reason not to, he will face either Carney or Markell in the general election Nov. 4.

Email Jeff Brown at jeff.brown@doverpost.com.