Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Civility the rule on Delaware's Return Day

Losers might find it difficult after bitter election, but tradition demands they play nice

Source: The News Journal

By Molly Murray

November 4, 2010

It's a long ride along the Return Day parade route when you're facing backwards -- as this campaign season's losers will do today.

"It's particularly hard because you're not that far from disappointment," said retired Superior Court Judge Bill Lee -- twice a candidate for governor in the general election.

And it's especially difficult for candidates who lose in local legislative races "because it's your neighbors who have rejected you," Lee said.

Return Day, the unique Sussex County and Delaware tradition that dates to the late 18th century, often is described as a time when political friends and foes gather to put their political differences aside.

That may be more difficult this year than in the past thanks to especially contentious and costly races from the top of the ticket down.

"What a fascinating tradition," said Stephen Hess, author of the 2000 book "The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette."

"Given that -- as measured by TV ads -- 2010 has been the most negative campaign of the modern era, Delaware's Georgetown gathering could be an important moment to show the world that Americans can also be good losers," he said.

So how is one a good loser? Or a good winner, for that matter?

The key, said Pamela R. Cummings, who recently retired from the University of Delaware where she taught classes in business protocol, is to be nice.

Cummings thinks back to her childhood and disagreements with her siblings.

"They would make us kiss and make up," she said. "It wasn't something we meant at the time."

But later, people realize "you have to get over it," she said.

Cummings said the state of politics has been especially distressing this campaign season.

"At least in sports, we have rules," she said. "We don't have rules in politics."

Delaware once had a reputation as a state of bipartisan compromise.

"There was a time when politics wasn't as nasty as it is now," Lee said.

Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, writes that "some people think that etiquette is fine for tea parties [not the political movement] but there's not room for it when political business has to be done. That's not true. The more controversy you have, the more etiquette you need."

A. Judson Bennett of Lewes ran one of the closest races for a seat on the Sussex County Council six years ago. He lost by three votes to longtime former county Councilman Lynn Rogers, a Milton Democrat,

"I didn't say very nice things about him" during the campaign, Bennett said. "But it wasn't personal."

Instead, Bennett said, he stuck to Rogers' voting record on land use issues -- a hot topic at the time.

Bennett said he's not so sure civility and politics mix.

"It's not for sissies," he said.
More important this year

Jonathan Russ, a Delaware historian and associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, said the mending of political fences and burying of the hatchet that Return Day symbolizes is significant beyond the history and tradition.

"This year of all years, it's absolutely critical," he said.

The U.S. Senate race between Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Christine O'Donnell put Delaware in the national spotlight.

Return Day will be an important event "if Delaware is going to maintain its reputation of having a more civil discourse," he said.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who was not up for re-election this year, said he believes there needs to be a national return day to mend fences and restore unity.

"Return Day is one of the important reasons why Delaware works," he said.

Once you have been to the reception, the parade, listened to the speeches and witnessed the burying of the hatchet, by the time you go home, you feel good and "the losers feel a little bit better," Carper said.

As for this season's nastiness, Carper said he believes "that was not Delaware money. That's not the way Delawareans are."

In 2006, Carper and his wife, Martha, were joined in the parade carriage by then write-in candidate O'Donnell and Republican candidate Jan Ting.

Carper said that Ting looked so miserable that at his wife's suggestion, they invited him to sit in the front of the carriage with them because "after all, it was Return Day."

During a campaign, you see the opposition so much, you get to know them, he said.

"A lot of times, you get to like them," Carper said.

This year, Carper plans to walk the parade route with outgoing Democratic Sen. Ted KAUFMAN, whose seat Coons won Tuesday. Outgoing Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., who was defeated in the Republican primary by O'Donnell, is expected to also walk the parade route in the company of present and former staffers.

Pamela Eyring, president and director of the Protocol School of Washington, said that because the candidates are together and out in the public "their behavior does matter. They should shake hands and greet each other."

There is also protocol to help the winners and non-winners get through the day. For instance, when the time comes to board the carriages, the losers should enter first and then welcome the victor, she said. This goes to the custom that the most important person is the last to board so as not to be kept waiting, she said. The guest of honor -- the winner -- should sit to the right, she said.

And everyone should put the cell phones away -- at least during the parade.

And the new "incumbent needs to showcase kindness and respect, she said. "It just comes down to courtesy."

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