Posted: Oct. 8, 2013


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Not just the federal government can go dark. Back in the bad old days, Delaware had a government shutdown, too.

It lasted for six days. The state never had anything like it, before or since.

A rancorous standoff between Pete du Pont, the rookie Republican governor, and the General Assembly, fortified by a veto-proof Democratic majority, left the state with no budget and no way to spend any money from July 1 at midnight until July 6 at 4:35 in the afternoon in 1977.

Funny, nobody remembers worrying about the shutdown itself. The budget fight, yes. The shutdown, no.

Not even Glenn Kenton, the Republican secretary of state who was calling so many of the shots for the administration that the Democrats sarcastically tagged him as "Governor Kenton."

"I don't recall specifically, other than I went to the Rudder," quipped Kenton in a witty reference to the Rusty Rudder, the noted drinking spot in Dewey Beach.

"Maybe that's what Obama ought to do."

Nor does Lonnie George, the Democratic state representative who was the budget master for the legislature then and the president of Delaware Tech today, remember anything about the government in shutdown.

"My recollection is it didn't, but now I can't figure out why it didn't," George said.

Some of it was due to the calendar. The shutdown included a long weekend for the Fourth of July holiday. From Friday, July 1, when it began, until Wednesday, July 6, when it ended, there were only two workdays.

Apparently there was simply too little time and too much plotting going on, not to mention all-around exhaustion, for it to dawn on anybody that the state was officially closed for business. As crises go, this one was more political than practical.

It was the Great Budget Veto and Override of 1977. It was raw, it was harrowing, and it was political brinksmanship to the hilt, but it was also a turning point that changed Delaware and made it a better place.

The times were awful. As if it was not bad enough here, with the budget routinely running in the red and the top income tax rate the highest of any state, the country was twisting in the twin grip of inflation and recession. Also, Jimmy Carter was the president. Enough said.

There was not much common ground between du Pont and the Democrats, here in the governor's first year in office. He thought they were part of a failed system. They thought he was an outsider, coming to Dover after three terms as a congressman.  

As the deadline for a new budget approached, there was a three-sided argument taking place, according to newspaper accounts at the time in The Morning News.

The governor and the Democrats had roughly agreed on the size of the budget and some taxes to pay for it, but the Republicans refused to vote for any taxes, and the Democrats insisted the Republicans had to.

The negotiations broke down on Thursday, June 30, which was supposed to be the last day of the 1977 legislative session, and the deadline for a new budget passed at midnight. The Democrats decided to go it alone and draft their own budget, but not just any budget.

Lonnie George said openly the Democrats wanted a budget that would "stick it to Pete." They left out raises for some of his top lieutenants.

Du Pont slammed the Democrats for the "spite cuts." He panned their budget figures as "right out of Alice in Wonderland."

The Democrats did not get their budget passed until the wee hours of Saturday, July 2. The governor immediately threatened a veto, but first he had to wait for the budget to be put in proper form and printed. He waited through Sunday, July 3, and Independence Day on Monday, July 4.

The budget got to du Pont's desk on Tuesday, July 5. He had his veto message ready, and it had taken time, too. It was drafted over the weekend by Dave Swayze, the governor's counsel, who had sweated over it. Literally.

Because of a family obligation, Swayze had left for Nashville, Tennessee, after June 30, never imagining the budget would be left undone. He needed to do some legal research on the veto message, and the only place around with a Delaware code was the Vanderbilt law library.

It was closed for the long holiday weekend, but fortunately, Swayze had a brother-in-law who was a law student there, and even more fortunately, he located the Tennessee governor's counsel who agreed to find someone to let them in. Unfortunately, it was sweltering hot, and the air conditioning was off.

"We ended up working in our skivvies, researching and drafting portions of the veto message," Swayze said.

Du Pont vetoed the budget on Tuesday, July 5. He also summoned the legislators back into session, because he wanted them to pass a continuing resolution to let the state spend money at previous levels until July 15.

Somebody had finally realized there was a crisis here, but never mind. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans wanted anything to do with a continuing resolution. It was tabled.

The Democrats prepared to override du Pont's veto. By law, they had to wait a day between a veto and an override vote, so it was set for Wednesday, July 6.

The override would take a three-fifths majority, and the Democrats were nervous. They had a vote to spare in the House of Representatives, but none in the Senate, and they could not be sure that nobody would cut a side deal with the governor and sink them.

Their votes held, though, with every Democrat voting yes and every Republican voting no. The Democrats' budget was law. Even more to their relief, it turned out to be balanced.

Still, the governor and the legislature were seriously shaken. This was no way to run a state government. Besides, it could rile up the voters to throw them all out. They pulled back from the brink, and bit by wary bit, they came together.

In partnership with the legislature, du Pont had a wildly successful administration. He became the first consecutive two-term governor since the 1950s. The state's finances were rebuilt. The economy was restored. Delaware believed in itself again.

There were still slights and spirited clashes, but the budget always got done. It still is. People do not expect anything else.

"Not at all. I couldn't imagine it happening now. We've built a brand reputation around our sound finances. It started back then. We have a mission -- get it done," said Melanie George Smith, the Democratic state representative who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee.

Yes, Melanie George Smith, the daughter of Lonnie George. She was four years old in the summer of 1977. She must have taken in those budget lessons with her morning Cheerios. This really could be said to pass from one generation to another.

If only the federal government could learn it, too.