Posted: Jan. 14, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner did not go to a costume party dressed as a Nazi, as Prince Harry did in the British version of a wardrobe malfunction, but what she did was equally as shocking by Delaware standards.

On the verge of her second term, the Democratic governor resurrected a pair of past-their-prime-time Senate ex-presidents pro tem, nominating Richard S. Cordrey as her finance secretary and Thomas B. Sharp as her labor secretary.

Talk about your Rocky Horror Cabinet Show. The only way Minner could have made more of a splash would have been by appointing Tom and Sherry. Or maybe Harkins.

Funny thing about those other names.

Sharp -- or more precisely, "T.S., a Delaware State Senator" -- surfaces in the federal indictment against Thomas P. Gordon, the New Castle County ex-executive, and Sherry L. Freebery, his chief aide, with prosecutors alleging that Freebery had county workers prepare campaign literature for Sharp on county time. Although there is no evidence that Sharp knew about any such activity, this still ought to be good for labor relations.

It was on Cordrey's watch as a commissioner at the Delaware River & Bay Authority that Michael E. Harkins, the executive director who was once a secretary of state, committed his excesses and landed on the wrong side of federal law. Cordrey himself repaid travel expenses. This ought to be good for financial management.

Cordrey and Sharp do not just bring baggage. They bring entire luggage racks.

"This reminds me of the USAir meltdown over the holidays," said Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III, a Republican. "This is no way to start off your second term."

Cordrey, a Millsboro Democrat and agri-businessman whose legislative tenure stretched from 1970 to 1996, generally was well-regarded as the Senate's ranking member, a post he held from 1977 until his retirement. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he was instrumental in enacting safeguards for state finances and the Financial Center Development Act, banking legislation that energized the economy.

Sharp, a Democrat who represented the Stanton area but now lives in Selbyville, had a different sort of reputation during his Senate career, which lasted from 1974 to 2002, the last six years spent as president pro tem. Despite his job as a building and grounds administrator for the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District, he had the edge of someone who always suspected he was being looked down on as the sheet metal worker he once was.

Sharp proposed bringing back the whipping post. He threw out Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a respected fellow Democrat, as the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. Sen. Karen E. Peterson, a Democrat who has Sharp's seat as well as a jagged history with him, considers him a browbeater with an attitude that says, "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

By all accounts, Minner consulted no one about these appointments. She surprised the legislators. She surprised her own staff. She apparently cooked it up herself and then met quietly at Woodburn, the governor's house in Dover, with Cordrey and Sharp during the last 10 days or so to talk about it.

Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Senate's current president pro tem, seems to have been the first outsider to know. He said he spoke with Minner on Wednesday and was given a hint that she would be appointing two people with whom he had worked.

"I put two and two together," said Adams, who had only good things to say about his predecessors, especially Cordrey for his legislative work on state finances. "I support them absolutely."

After Adams heard, the rest of the Senate Democrats learned later on Wednesday about Cordrey but not Sharp. That waited until Thursday afternoon, when Minner invited all Senate Democrats and House Democrats to her office in Legislative Hall and broke the news.

People who were there say Minner did something that probably never has been done before. She made 28 legislators speechless. Almost all of them thought she was joking.

The Republican legislators found out about an hour later as the governor's office issued a press release. The reaction was the same as the Democrats'. The Republicans thought it was a prank, too. The House Republicans actually sent a staffer to the governor's office and the press room to check it out.

Senate Minority Whip Liane M. Sorenson, a Republican, was told of the appointments by a lobbyist who saw the press release. "I went in and told my caucus, and everybody laughed," she said.

It is a mystery why Minner would want Cordrey and Sharp in her Cabinet and why they would want to be there, not counting the six-figure annual salaries.

There is precious little evidence they even like each other. In the 10 years Minner was in the Senate from 1982 to 1992, Cordrey and Sharp as the president pro tem and majority leader kept her a backbencher. Now they would be working for her.

What work it is, too. As Cordrey and Sharp know very well themselves, legislators treat Cabinet secretaries like errand boys and girls. Cordrey is 71, and Sharp is 64, and it has been a long time since anyone told them what to do.

Minner did accomplish something with these appointments. She changed the subject from the Delaware Compensation Commission and its controversial salary recommendations.

If the governor had a nickel for everyone who was stunned by her selections, her raise would pay for itself -- and not just the $132,500 annual pay she is in line for, but the $165,700 the commission wants her to have.

To go into the Cabinet, the nominees must be confirmed by the chamber where they served. Their fellow Democrats have a 13-8 majority, and while the caucus largely has protected Minner during her first term and governors generally get the Cabinets they want, these votes will be difficult.

Minner has put a lot on the line here. If the nominations are defeated or withdrawn because of the uproar, it would blight her second term, perhaps her lieutenant governor and the Democrats' future opportunity to elect a governor.

"After the election, when we had the first governor not facing election in 60 years, we didn't know if she was going to be Ruth Ann unleashed or Ruth Ann irrelevant. I think this is the Ruth Ann unleashed part," said House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Republican.

The irrelevant part could come. Adams, the president pro tem who is adept at counting votes, was not predicting confirmation when asked about it. All he said was, "I hope so."