Posted: Jan. 12, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Before there was Joe Biden, who vaulted to vice president, before there was Bill Roth, who was a household name from his Roth IRA and Roth-Kemp tax cut, there was John Williams.

He was another standout senator from Delaware. Further confirmation, as if it were needed, to show how smart it was for Framers of the Constitution to create a chamber in the Congress where members from little states would not get lost in the pile of big states.

Williams, a Republican, was the smallest of the small. He was a down-home Sussex County chicken feed dealer who went to Washington in 1946. He was not much to look at, and he had a voice as thin as a single harmonica note, but it did not stop him from earning a towering reputation as the "Conscience of the Senate."

Williams put a lot of people in jail for uncovering corruption among tax officials and exposed influence peddling by the secretary of the Senate.

Williams also had a rule. He thought it was time to quit running if another term meant turning 70 while still in office. He followed his rule himself. He retired in 1970 at 66.

It was like George Washington walking away after two terms as president when there was nothing to stop him but principle. Delawareans were so impressed, it became a standard known as the "John Williams Rule."

Williams has been gone a long time. The voters here may not consciously be aware of him or his rule, but it is in their DNA. They tend to enforce it. They may be lenient for an extra term here and there, but after that?

They made Mike Castle follow it. Mike Castle, who won more statewide races than any other Republican in Delaware history. Castle was re-elected as a congressman in 2008 when he was 69, but he did not get to be a senator in 2010 when he was 71.

The same went for Roth, another Republican. Never mind his national profile. He was 73 when he skirted the rule and won in 1994, but he was out when he tried it again at 79 in 2000.

Birthdays and elections come and go. It is time to look at the John Williams Rule again.

Biden, as the Democratic vice president, belongs to the country these days, but he is probably on the borderline. Elected at 29 as one of the youngest senators ever, Biden will be 69 on Election Day. (All that speculation about swapping in Hillary Clinton does not affect the rule much. She would be a 65-year-old candidate for vice president.)

For Tom Carper, the Democratic senator who will be on the ballot, it seems too early for him to be reading the fine print on the rule. He turns 65 later this month.

When John Williams made up his rule, he was talking about federal office, but it has had a way of trickling down to the General Assembly in Dover, too.

Look at Nancy Cook, a state senator who was one of the most formidable legislators ever. Her Kent County district sent her back in 2006 when she was 70, but not in 2010 when she was 74. 

Strangely enough, the voters from Williams' home base in Sussex County are the ones most likely to shrug off the rule.

They kept electing Tina Fallon, a Republican representative from Seaford, until she retired at 89. Thurman Adams, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem from Bridgeville, did not exit until he was 80 and there was a recall election conducted by the one Great Voter in the Sky.

The biggest guessing game in Legislative Hall, as the new session opened this week, was wondering about Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker. Gilligan just turned 70 and began his 40th session. His legislative tenure is a Delaware record.

Gilligan threw himself a "70/40 Party" last week. Nearly 300 people, including the governor, showed up for it at the Mill Creek fire hall, and almost all of them were looking for clues that could show whether Gilligan would be running again.

People noticed the party was not a fund-raiser and Gilligan mentioned he would be visiting his daughter in Hawaii in the fall. The fall? Prime campaign time?

Gilligan himself has not said what he will do. In the meantime, it is better not to ask him what he thinks about the John Williams Rule.

"We live in a different society than when John Williams was alive," Gilligan fumed.

"People in their 70s are citizens. People in their 70s pay taxes. People in their 70s are contributing members of society. People in their 70s are vibrant. People in their 70s have a right to run for office. Ever hear of age discrimination?"

Gilligan was not done yet. "If your health is good and you feel good, it's up for the people to decide, not some rule from John Williams. We would be better off if John Williams had run."

Sooner or later, one way or another, everyone's time in politics runs out. John Williams decided to go like the old soldier, just fading away, but he faded away undefeated and unbowed, the voters with him until the end.