Posted: Jan. 12, 2005
THE FOG OF POLITICS RETURNS TO DOVER
By Celia Cohen
When the new Delaware General Assembly convened Tuesday in Dover for the 2005 session, there was something familiar about the state Senate.
Like all 21 of the senators and all of the leadership.
The state House of Representatives was not exactly into an extreme makeover, either. Five new members out of 41 representatives. No changes in leadership.
Same governor upstairs. Same lieutenant governor presiding over the Senate.
As much as the people were the same, however, and as much as the opening day of the six-month session was filled with the customary protocol, congratulatory air and inevitable low humor, Legislative Hall was less static than it might have appeared.
The infusion of new blood, slight as it was, made the legislature less homogenized -- with women now accounting for one-third of both chambers and a miniscule up-tick in minority members to one Latino and four African-American lawmakers.
Meanwhile, there was a stirring of unease below the congeniality in the crowded corridors, a sense that the tone of this session and sessions to come could be increasingly testy. In a government of the entrenched, there is the potential for familiarity to breed what it can.
Delaware politics is not supposed to be practiced that way. If anything, the state's smallness inclines its officeholders towards coziness and the failings it brings.
Maybe not this session. It appears to be opening with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, leery of the Republicans and the Republicans leery of her. Minner is going into her second term, which she says will be her last in politics. The Republicans are a 26-15 majority in the House and a 13-8 minority in the Senate.
Not that this brooding atmosphere was not much in evidence during the first day of legislative business. Instead, there were the usual testimonials of good will and displays of lightheartedness.
House Speaker Terry R. Spence, a Republican, redeemed himself from his Election Night outburst, when he threatened to bury four new Democratic representatives, by pledging allegiance to "unity, bipartisanship and loyalty."
Senate President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Democrat, offered more of the same, saying, "I know working together, we can do the right thing for the people of Delaware."
Adams reached across party lines to ask Chancellor William B. Chandler III, a Republican, to swear him in as the Senate's ranking member. (Then again, both are from Sussex County, and there is a school of thought that Delaware really has three major political parties -- Democrats, Republicans and Sussex County.)
Adams noted drolly that Chandler had to suspend the famous Disney trial in the Court of Chancery to come to Legislative Hall, forcing the judge "to explain to Mickey and Minnie and Donald Duck where he would be."
Such bubbling good humor of the day spilled as usual into schoolhouse pranks. Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., the senior Republican who presided as the House organized itself, mentioned that he was sitting on a telephone book, because someone had screwed the speaker's seat as low as it could go.
From here on out, though, the politics turns serious. Both sides expect the worst.
It seems that the Republicans are bracing for a governor unchecked by any more elections, while Minner and her allies gird for an onslaught from a party that last won a gubernatorial election in 1988 and lacks a dominant figure to recapture the executive office.
A lame duck against a lame elephant would not be a pretty fight.
House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith put the Republicans' concerns politely. "The big unknown is a governor who doesn't have an election in front of her. It gives her more personal freedom but more limited clout," he said.
David A. Crossan, the state Republican Party's executive director, was much blunter. "You are going to see a more aggressive Republican Party," he said. "This is a very political governor. Her agenda is about revenge and vengeance."
Gregory B. Patterson, the communications director for Minner, responded mildly, saying the governor's agenda is about education, the environment, the economy and the health of Delawareans, as she expressed in her campaign and will continue to advance in her inaugural address next week and the State of the State.
Still, there are dark mutterings from the governor's camp over unfolding Republican tactics. The party set up a Web site at RejectTheRaise.com to encourage "outrage" over proposed pay hikes for Minner and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., even as both officials themselves said that high-end salaries were out of line.
In the Web site's first day, Crossan said it collected 436 names on an electronic petition.
This comes after C. Kenneth Grant, the Republican Party's communications director, dressed as a drag governor in the Middletown Hummers Parade on New Year's Day and paraded with a costumed donkey waving a green "money-money-money" sign. Photographs are posted at delawaregop.com on the party's Web site.
The early combat may be comic, but if it turns confrontational, it will represent a new twist in politics among people who know one another very, very well.
The more things stay the same, the more they change.