Posted: Dec. 5, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The season is wrong for mowing the lawn, but never mind. John Atkins looks ready to turn his attention to the next political season, anyway.

Atkins became fanatical about the landscaping around his Millsboro home as a diversion in the springtime, when he was being run out of the state House of Representatives over an orgy of self-inflicted damage.

Atkins, a three-term Republican, was the talk of Delaware politics, the good-ole-boy charm and high jinks that had been his best assets barreling him to his downfall.

There was his arrest and probation for a wee-hours quarrel with his wife Heather at their home. There was his cover-up of a traffic stop earlier that night in Ocean City, Md., where he was not booked for drunken driving after some pre-Halloween partying with Heather at a racy nightclub but did push his House ID card on the police. There was the wheedling to try to have the Millsboro police chief, the attorney general and even judges bail him out.

It was an untenable legal and political rap sheet for anyone, let alone a legislator who cultivated an image of conservative family values in a reflection of his down-home Sussex County district.

The House wanted nothing to do with Atkins. Before its members could vote last March to throw him out for bringing the chamber into disrepute, he quit.

Atkins was an ex-representative with time on his hands. He went to work tending to his lawn and his tattered reputation, and both apparently are the better for it.

As of Monday, Atkins came off a yearlong probation, his record purged of an offensive touching charge, for completing the first offenders' program for domestic violence without incident. It included anger management classes and an alcohol evaluation that showed he was not a problem drinker.

With his legal problems behind him, there is every expectation that Atkins, now 37, will try to make a political comeback next year for his old House seat, currently occupied by Rep. Greg Hastings, a Republican who won it in a special election after Atkins' resignation.

Not for nothing has Atkins gone to almost every Sussex Central football game as the team came within one win of the state championship, or attended a recent session with mobile home owners, a political bloc in his district, or just generally been seen around Millsboro.

"I'm going to get through Christmas and the New Year and enjoy time with my family, and then I'm going to take a hard look in the spring," Atkins said.

"For five hours of my life last October, I made some bad decisions, but for five years of my life, people know I was a darn good legislator. I can never say enough times that I made mistakes. I think I've learned a lot, and I've matured a lot. This incident made me realize how much family and friends mean. It's all going to come down to whether people think I'm sincere."

Sussex County political leaders do not want to talk much about Atkins, although clearly they are bracing for his return.

"There are only some things you can control, and that's not one of them. I have no inside information. I haven't seen him for quite a while, and I don't think I'm going to get a Christmas card from him," quipped Ron Sams, the Sussex County Republican chair who was instrumental in electing Hastings.

"People are still asking questions about John Atkins. John has to make his decision about what he wants to do. Right now it's all conjecture. Ultimately it's up to the voters in the district," said Tom Chapman, the Sussex County Democratic chair.

Politics certainly would be livelier with Atkins back, even a well-behaved Atkins. He went to Dover in 2002 as part of a class of new Sussex County representatives who transformed the House, bringing new weight to the state's southernmost county and giving a more conservative tilt to the Republican majority caucus.

Atkins arrived with Republican Rep. Joe Booth and Democratic Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, both considered future speaker material, as well as Republican Rep. Gerald Hocker, regarded as an eventual senator. Atkins was the runt of the litter, younger, more playful and irrepressible, a life-of-the-frat-party type.

Atkins brought down the House with his first bill, a law-and-order measure, the stunned members laughing themselves speechless as he explained that a "Saturday Night Special" under his legislation was a "deadly weapon," but not always -- "where I come from in Sussex County, a Saturday Night Special is a hot woman and a six-pack of beer."

Atkins also confounded the special election to replace him. Although he was not officially a candidate, he did nothing to discourage a write-in campaign that was teasing and unpredictable. It made people take notice when he polled 14 percent of the vote. Hastings won with 43 percent against Democrat Lynn Bullock with 38 percent and a minor-party candidate with 5 percent.

These days Atkins is the subject of a new guessing game, speculation that he will change parties and run as a Democrat against Hastings. There is no love lost between Atkins and the House Republicans who were in charge when he was forced out. The Democrats may or may not welcome him, but they do not appear to have another candidate who could stop him.

"John Atkins would have an impact, whatever party he ran on. That was demonstrated in the special election," said Chapman, the Democratic county chair.

It would be ironic if Atkins, who turned his district Republican after the retirement of Rep. Charlie West, a 13-term Democrat, turned it back. It would be even more ironic if Atkins were part of a Democratic takeover of the entire House, where the Republicans' two-seat majority looks precarious in 2008.

Atkins acknowledged he has thought about switching his registration. As conservative as he is, it would not necessarily be a problem in Sussex County, a last redoubt for conservative Democrats like Sen. Thurman Adams, the president pro tem, and Sen. Bob Venables, usually described as the most conservative legislator in Dover.

"There are senators in Sussex County as conservative as I am. My district is represented by two Democratic senators, Bob Venables and George Bunting, and it was represented for 26 years by Charlie West. It's not like we'd be electing a Democrat for the first time," Atkins said.

As volatile as Atkins is, it could be political dynamite if the House were divided after the 2008 election with 20 Republicans, 20 Democrats and Atkins. He promised no combustion. "If I'm elected as a Democrat, I'm a Democrat," he said.

For now, Atkins is relieved at being free of his legal troubles and focused on nothing more serious than his beloved University of Delaware football team, a semifinal win away from a championship game, which he would not mind going to Chattanooga to see in person.

It is enough to restore the old rakish Atkins. "The most important thing right now is my family and the Delaware Blue Hens. I'm off probation, so I don't have to get a permit to travel."