Posted: Oct. 11, 2005
GOOD LUCK SCALING A POLITICAL PLATEAU
By Celia Cohen
Thirteen is an unlucky number only on one side of the aisle in the Delaware Senate, and it is not the side where the majority sits.
The 21-member chamber is split between 13 Democrats and eight Republicans, and it has been that way for seven years, since the 1998 election. Not only are the Republicans on the wrong end of an unlucky number, it seems as if they broke a mirror, too.
Thirteen votes gives the Democrats a veto-proof majority they can use to protect Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a second-term Democrat, if they all vote as a bloc to stop a three-fifths supermajority required for an override.
The Democratic-run Senate also provides a counter to the House of Representatives, where there is a Republican majority that otherwise is strong enough to override a veto. The 41-member chamber has 25 Republicans, 15 Democrats, and one independent who used to be a Republican.
As the next election year approaches, the Republican Party has set a priority of changing its luck in the Senate, which the Democrats have controlled for 32 years, ever since a pair of Republican senators agreed to vote with the other side in exchange for plum posts. It was done by a secret deal, forever after regarded as one of the most perfidious acts in state politics.
Since then, Democratic control of the Senate has been right up there with death and taxes for things to be counted on. Theoretically the Republicans are choosing a good year to try to break the streak, but only theoretically.
Senators serve staggered, four-year terms. There are 11 seats up in 2006, and the Democrats must defend nine of them, the Republicans only two.
"I like those odds," said Sen. John C. Still III, the Republican minority leader from Dover. "We're going to defend our two seats, and go after some of theirs."
The problem for the Republicans is that Senate seats have become virtually life peerages. The incumbents draw the districts to favor themselves, and they use the power of their office to do favors for the constituents they wanted to begin with. It is a re-election formula that rarely goes sour.
When the votes were counted in the 2004 election, for example, not one new senator had been elected. In fact, five of the 10 senators with expiring terms ran unopposed.
The Republicans have been hoping for some openings through retirements, mostly because Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem from Bridgeville, is 77, and Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat, is 80.
Adams, the longest-serving senator, was elected in 1972, and Vaughn in 1980. Still, the Republicans may be hoping in vain.
"Some say I'm not running and Jim Vaughn's not running, but there's a possibility that may not be true," Adams said, and it was all he would say.
The Republicans are planning to go after Sen. David P. Sokola, a Democrat whose Pike Creek Valley district is in Republican territory. Sokola, elected in 1990, held his seat in 2002 with only 51 percent of the vote against Republican Michael J. Ramone, who is expected to try again next year.
Still, the Senate minority leader, promises there are other Republican challengers who will be stepping forward early next year, but he was not saying whom. The Democrats figure that Sen. Nancy W. Cook, the Kenton Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, will be targeted because her district is in conservative-trending Kent County, but they appear unworried about it.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are fighting back. Thomas J. Koch, a transplanted Californian who moved to Old New Castle three years ago and immediately immersed himself in state politics, staged an elaborate ceremony Monday to declare against Sen. Dori A. Connor, a Republican representing a district stretching from Wilmington Manor through New Castle, Bear and Glasgow.
Koch looks as though he knew what he was doing by landing in the senatorial district, where the registration is solidly Democratic, and by working on his party credentials as the 2004 campaign manager for Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., a Democrat who won his second term that year.
Connor, however, is one of those senators who not only seems to hold a life peerage, but a hereditary one, as well. She took her seat in 1997 in a special election after the death of Republican Robert T. Connor, her husband who had been in the Senate since 1980 and in the House for 10 years before that.
If there appear to be Connors in government going back to William Penn, Koch is hoping to trump it with a little personal history of his own. When he told his grandmother he was moving to Delaware, she told him their family traces its arrival in the New World to the Kalmar Nyckel, the Swedish ship that sailed in the 17th Century to what is now Wilmington.
By design, Koch scheduled his announcement before about 60 people on a day the modern Kalmar Nyckel was docked in New Castle. Also by design, he stacked his list of speakers with Democratic officeholders who knocked off incumbents or beat long odds to win.
Every speaker but Carney qualified. Jack A. Markell defeated a four-term Republican to become state treasurer. Matthew P. Denn lost to Bob Connor for the state Senate but came back to be the insurance commissioner. Paul G. Clark lost a New Castle County Council race before he was elected the County Council president. Valerie J. Longhurst needed two tries to oust a long-serving Republican in a New Castle-area representative district.
Maybe Koch was hoping the speakers' luck would rub off on him, because the state Senate is not a place where the luck ever seems to change.