Posted: Nov. 1, 2006
RETIREMENT IS NOT AN OPTION
By Celia Cohen
James T. Vaughn Sr. is not a quitter. Outside his home in Clayton, he has a yard sign telling voters to re-elect him to the state Senate, planted there like a regimental flag on a battlefield.
In case anyone is inclined to miss the fervor of it, the yard sign is done in patriotic red, white and blue with a rambunctious figure of a Democratic donkey kicking a little you-know-what.
Jim Vaughn wants another term. Despite cancer of the larynx. Despite pneumonia. Despite being the oldest legislator on the ballot at 81. Despite having to spit so often -- a side effect of beating back the cancer or the pneumonia or both -- that his friends joke they are going to get a brass cuspidor to put beside his desk in the Senate chamber, like a frontier legislature.
Vaughn is thin, and his voice is hoarse, but his handshake is firm, and he still has the gaze of the state trooper he once was, the look that warns not to give him any guff. He gutted out the last legislative session, driving himself to Christiana Hospital in Stanton for his cancer treatments and then driving to Dover. On the last legislative day, he stayed until the operating and construction budgets were passed in the wee hours of July 1.
The cancer was gone when the pneumonia hit in September, probably because his immune system was depleted, and he spent 10 days or so in the hospital, but there was never a thought of giving up the campaign.
"He's been sitting around for four months, and I think he's had enough of that," said Sylvia Vaughn, his wife.
Public duty is all Jim Vaughn has known. From early manhood on, from 1943 until today, he has taken the oath. The Marine Corps. The state police. The Smyrna police chief. The Smyrna school board. The state corrections commissioner. The Delaware Senate. The Vaughn name will go on after him through his son, Jim Jr., who is the president judge of the Superior Court.
This election on Tuesday is regarded as Vaughn's most perilous since he went to Dover in 1980 by the grace of 300 votes. With the Republicans outnumbered in the Senate by 13-8, the party has targeted Vaughn and state Sen. David P. Sokola in Pike Creek Valley as their best opportunities for picking up Democratic seats.
If not for Vaughn's ailments, it is hard to think he would not be regarded as an easy favorite to win. The 14th Senatorial District, which spans New Castle County and Kent County along the Delaware River and takes in Delaware City, Middletown, Townsend, Smyrna and parts south, favors the Democrats in registration.
More to the point, the Republicans came at Vaughn in 2002 with Smyrna Mayor Mark G. Schaeffer in a race that was a festival of insults, but the flurry hardly mattered as Vaughn won easily with 59 percent of the vote. This time the Republicans could not agree on a candidate, and their effort has been hampered by a primary.
The Republican nomination went to John Feroce, a former Army Reserves major who is a newcomer by Delaware standards, moving here in 1999, but he has the advantage of being a nimble 38 years old. His candidacy, however, is shadowed by Barbara J. Allsop, who lost the Republican primary by a scant 30 votes and hung around to run on the ticket of the Independent Party of Delaware.
The contrast between Vaughn and Feroce is as marked as the difference between the country mouse and the city mouse.
Vaughn is one of the reasons the state Senate remains the last outpost of the conservative downstate Democrats. They are led by state Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the president pro tem from Bridgeville, and state Sen. Nancy W. Cook, the Joint Finance Committee co-chair from Kenton, and Vaughn is the sheriff who locks up their unwanted bills in the Judiciary Committee he chairs -- like gay rights legislation.
Feroce has a political background -- he was a state senator in Rhode Island and ran for lieutenant governor there -- and got to Delaware because his wife Kristie, a University of Delaware graduate from Maryland, works in banking. They live in Middletown.
Feroce is hoping to connect with other newcomers in the growing district. "The new development folks, they're my base. They're mine and mine alone," he said.
The two candidates have never met. Vaughn and Feroce probably are not very far apart in their politics -- Feroce says on gay rights that he does not support "special rights" -- but their outlook is.
Ask Vaughn what issues matter, and he says, "Same old issues. Keep the finances straight, health care, education, environment, prisons. Can't let any of them down."
Ask Feroce, and after coming out strongly for term limits, he says, "I live the current problems. We have day care issues, we are in traffic, we are in the fire halls listening to development concerns that impact my neighborhood."
If nothing else, Feroce plans to outlast Vaughn. "Unless I win on the 7th, it's not over," he said. "I believe inevitably I will be the senator here. So maybe it doesn't happen Tuesday. There's a name recognition [for Vaughn] that's tough to overcome. If the newcomers don't vote, then I have a tough time."
Vaughn's concerns are more focused -- like the question of whether he can carry out the responsibilities of a state senator for a four-year term.
"Get my voice strengthened a little better. I hope so," he said, not quitting yet.