Posted: Jan. 27, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Nominees have been known to quake, maybe seeing their livelihoods, if not their lives, pass before their eyes as they braced for the inquisition from the state Senate's Executive Committee.

Not Richard S. Cordrey, though, and not Thomas B. Sharp, the Cabinet nominees who spent a combined quarter-century ruling the Senate in Dover as successive Democratic presidents pro tem, Cordrey accruing his power through 19 years at the top and Sharp by giving opponents the back of an iron-fisted hand.

The shakes all seemed to be on the other side, from the senators who had to vote on them.

They did, too, voting almost unanimously on Wednesday for Cordrey as the finance secretary by 20-1 and more grudgingly making Sharp the labor secretary by 12-9, one vote to spare over a simple majority. Sharp did not get a single Republican vote in the Democratic-run chamber.

"Cordrey handed us our hats. Sharp, too, Cordrey more," said a rueful Sen. Colin R.J. Bonini, a Dover Republican who tried to take them on. Bonini cast the lone vote against Cordrey.

This was not the way it was supposed to be. Cordrey and Sharp brought issues, real issues, to their hearings, the sorts of issues that they would have known how to use to fillet nominees.

Cordrey was a commissioner at the Delaware River & Bay Authority when his friend Michael E. Harkins, the executive director and a Republican ex-secretary of state, ran amok and turned the operation into a personal travel bureau.

Sharp was mentioned in a federal corruption indictment as a beneficiary of an allegedly illegal campaign machine that had New Castle County staffers ordered on county time to do political work, although there was no evidence that Sharp knew it. There was also the question of what was euphemistically called his "management style."

When the Senate holds confirmation hearings, the Executive Committee sits on the two-tired podium in the front of the chamber, and the appointees sit facing them at the desk reserved for the president pro tem during legislative sessions.

First Cordrey and then Sharp settled into their old place, and it was as if they had never left. "It's been a little over two years since sitting in this seat, and I'm getting real comfortable," Sharp said as someone yelled, "No! No!"

By the time they got there, the odds for confirmation were in their favor. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat beginning her second term, had done what rarely happens in the cozy little world of Legislative Hall, absolutely bowling over the political establishment in surprise by calling Cordrey and Sharp out of retirement.

They were the last names anybody expected. People laughed and thought it was a joke when they heard. Cordrey and Sharp seemed to be sitting ducks -- and by extension, the governor, too -- but instead, they were unstoppable.

If the military has "shock and awe," Minner had "shock and guffaw," and it worked. The confirmation hearings were not entirely cakewalks. Cordrey and Sharp had to step on a few candles, but it was nothing they had not done before.

Not only had they retained an intimidating presence, but their old friend Thurman G. Adams Jr., the current Democratic president pro tem who also chairs the Executive Committee, stacked the deck for them.

Adams took the unusual step of limiting each senator to three questions at a time, so no one could get on a roll against them, the way Sharp in particular used to demolish nominees.

The Senate chamber was filled for the hearings, a mark that these sessions were not the run-of-the-mill appointments to, say, Justice of the Peace Court. Representatives wandered in, veteran lobbyists and members of Minner's administration were there to watch, and Republican state headquarters sent someone to take notes.

Never mind. There was not much of a show.

Cordrey brushed aside criticism of his tenure at the Delaware River & Bay Authority, saying safeguards had been in place and if there was any fault on the commission's part, it was in depending too much on management to run the daily operations at the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

"I don't consider my serving on the DRBA a blemish on my record," Cordrey said. "Our boats are floating, the bridge is standing."

Sharp likewise swatted away the fallout from his association with former New Castle County Executive Thomas P. Gordon and Sherry L. Freebery, his top aide, Democrats facing federal corruption charges. Sharp said he personally has been accused of nothing and then went a step farther.

"Tom Gordon was the best county executive we ever had," Sharp said. "I will proudly tell you, they are friends of mine."

Bonini and Sen. Charles L. Copeland, another Republican backbencher, made something of an effort to challenge Cordrey and Sharp.

Copeland landed a glancing blow by asking Cordrey, who has served for 30 years on a prestigious panel that estimates the states revenues, why he had missed 40 percent of the meetings in recent years.

"It's a good question, sir," Cordrey said.

Bonini asked Sharp why he had allocated state money for sidewalks in his own neighborhood as an outgoing senator, as Sharp prepared to sell his Stanton-area home and move to Selbyville.

"Should I have told them to leave that house out?" Sharp said. "I came here as a candidate for the Department of Labor. I don't know how we got on the subject of sidewalks."

After the Executive Committee hearings, as the full Senate prepared to vote, Sen. Karen E. Peterson was the only Democrat to speak against Sharp. She has his former Senate seat, and he backed her opponent in a Democratic primary, but she said her opposition was not based on politics but on his "suitability."

A former Labor Department administrator herself, Peterson questioned whether Sharp could carry out the department's mission, as for example, should someone who once wanted to bring back the whipping post be in charge of prisoner-to-work transition programs?

The Senate Republicans, an eight-member bloc, voted as one against Sharp in a payback. "We did not feel we were treated with respect and dignity," said Sen. John C. Still III, the Republican minority leader.

With the votes out of the way for better or for worse, the prime topic in Legislative Hall returned to the controversial pay-raise proposal for top state officials. While Cordrey and Sharp had been voted in, the money looked on the way to being voted out.

No doubt the legislators wished it had been the reverse.