Posted: Jan. 11, 2007
By Celia Cohen
The Delaware General Assembly is a very strange place with lots of secrets and secret codes.
There was no better example than what happened Tuesday, the first day of the 2007 session, when state Rep. J. Benjamin Ewing, R-Bridgeville, took the floor. A gracious elder statesman known as the "Gentle Ben" of the legislature, Ewing praised state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, for donating a kidney last month to a family friend.
It was touching. It was sincere. It was also not just about the kidney. It was about the Joint Finance Committee, too.
Schwartzkopf spent the last term on the committee, the most coveted assignment in Legislative Hall because of its budget-writing powers. It is a 12-member panel, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, senators and representatives.
In backroom dealings, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has been threatening to kick Schwartzkopf off the committee. It seems that Schwartzkopf, who can be as generous with his lip as he was with his kidney, and much more often, has not hesitated to tell a Republican or two what he thinks of them.
While Schwartzkopf favors the same sort of language as Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly a good Republican himself, the House Republican majority has not been amused -- most notably state Rep. John C. Atkins, R-Probation, even if being on the wrong side of Atkins is a badge of honor these days.
If there was anyone who could advance Schwartzkopf's cause to stay on the Joint Finance Committee, it was Ben Ewing, and there he was, very conspicuously the first representative to stand and commend Schwartzkopf. It was a secret code message of support.
Ewing may be a Republican and Schwartzkopf a Democrat, but there are more similarities than differences between them. They are both Sussex Countians, the strongest geographical bond in Delaware. They were both state troopers, which is an even stronger bond, even if they served a generation apart, with Ewing a 75-year-old retired lieutenant colonel and Schwartzkopf a 51-year-old retired captain.
Still more important, there is no legislator closer to Ewing than state Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem, who is a fellow Bridgeville resident. Adams was never a state trooper, but he was the next best thing.
Before Delaware went to the Cabinet form of government in the 1970s, the state's departments were run by commissions, and Adams was on the Highway Commission, which was in charge of the state police. He had a gold badge and the power of arrest.
If Ewing was for Schwartzkopf, then Adams had to be for Schwartzkopf. Word circulated that the House Republicans might not want to throw Adams' fellow Sussex County Democrat off the Joint Finance Committee, because Adams had the power to retaliate by scrambling committee assignments for the Senate's minority Republicans.
At the last reckoning, Schwartzkopf was expected to keep his seat. Sometimes a speech about a kidney is a speech about a kidney, but not in Legislative Hall.
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In the U.S. House of Representatives, where jubilant Democrats have climbed out of the minority, the caucus has come up with something called "100 Hours" -- celebrating their new-found clout by pushing through bills on such matters as the minimum wage rate and stem cell research in 100 hours of legislating.
In the Delaware House of Representatives, where nervous Republicans worry they could fall into the minority in 2008, the caucus concocted "Nine in Nine" -- trying to bolster themselves by jump-starting nine initiatives on everything from government salaries to a hated trash ban on lawn clippings during nine legislative days in January.
The "Nine in Nine" plan was announced at a press conference Wednesday, after the House Republicans had decided to cancel its session Thursday.
State Rep. Wayne A. Smith, the Republican majority leader, seemed flummoxed when asked if the canceled session meant the "Nine in Nine" plan was really a "Nine in Eight" plan -- "'Nine in Nine' had such a darn good ring to it," he said -- but state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Greenville Republican, came to the rescue.
"I'll be working," Hudson said.