Posted: Nov. 30, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Downstate knows its politics.

Although it appears the days are gone when it could elect one of its own to the pick of the statewide offices, outnumbered as it is by the voters upstate, its political practitioners figured out long ago how to compensate.

They can still have their way in the back rooms of Delaware politics.

The General Assembly is one big back room, and so guess who is going to be running the place when the Senate and the House of Representatives return to Dover for the new session?

Lower slower Delaware has the power.

All it took was closed-door caucuses, the domain of people who play politics for keeps. When the voting was done, the top leadership posts in three of the four caucuses were won by downstate -- specifically by Sussex County with an assist from allies in Kent County.

The Democratic speaker? Pete Schwartzkopf from Sussex County. The Senate's Republican minority leader? Gary Simpson from the Sussex side of Milford, the little city that straddles the two downstate counties. The House's Republican minority leader? Dan Short from Sussex County.

New Castle County, which has 60 percent of the population, was outgunned. It came out of the caucuses with just the Democratic president pro tem going to Patti Blevins from Elsmere.

How in the name of the C & D Canal did that happen?

"Heh, heh, heh," Schwartzkopf said. "We know how to count votes."

With Schwartzkopf installed until the next election, it gives Sussex County either the speaker or the pro tem for 29 of 38 years from 1976 to 2014. That is some record.

Just when it looked like downstate was fading -- three of the four caucuses in the last session were run by upstaters -- it comes back. Apparently the lower counties were just reloading after losing a generation of leadership that included some legislative legends.

Like Richard Cordrey, a Sussex County Democrat who was the pro tem for a couple of decades. Like Thurman Adams, another Democratic pro tem from Sussex County with so much clout that the Senate Republicans went along with his preference for minority leader.

Like Jim Vaughn Sr., a Kent County Democratic senator famous for killing bills with his "desk drawer veto." Like the one and only Nancy Cook, also a Kent County Democratic senator, who ran the Joint Finance Committee and had such an ever-present reach that she was known as the "Queen of Legislative Hall."

Cordrey retired, Adams and Vaughn died, and Cook, although she was conservative, was not conservative enough for the Tea Party during its surge two years ago and lost her seat.

For the next session, it certainly did not hurt the downstate chances at leadership that upstate has tilted so far Democratic that the Republican caucuses are dominated by downstate conservatives.

As a matter of fact, with only five Republican legislators left in all of New Castle County, the wonder is that two of them emerged as the minority whips with Greg Lavelle in the Senate and Debbie Hudson in the House.

"I think it's almost ingrained to have upstate and downstate in the leadership. There's practical and symbolic significance," Lavelle said.

Not to mention that Lavelle and Hudson come from districts that cover Chateau Country, where there is a wealth of Republican contributions. Campaign checks can be a great equalizer.

As it stands, the Senate Democratic leadership will be Blevins as pro tem, Dave McBride as majority leader and Margaret Rose Henry as majority whip, and the Republican lineup will be Simpson as minority leader and Lavelle as minority whip.

On the House side, the Democrats will have Schwartzkopf as speaker, Valerie Longhurst as majority leader and John Viola as majority whip, and the Republicans will have Short as minority leader and Hudson as minority whip.

It should probably be noted that the women in the legislature won an outsized share of the posts. They constitute about 25 percent of the membership but took 40 percent of the leadership.

Not bad at all, although nothing like Sussex County.