Posted: Dec. 9, 2010
A SPARE HISTORY FOR A LEGISLATIVE COUP
By Celia Cohen
A legislative coup does not come along every day, let alone every decade.
Even thinking there could be a coup in the works is remarkable. No wonder Delaware's political class is consumed by the hubbub over what normally would be a routine vote, set for Tuesday in the Senate, to have Tony DeLuca continue as the president pro tem.
It is even more remarkable that the challenge is arising from Michael Katz, a doctor from Centerville with only two years in the Senate, too little time to have made much of an imprint or built himself any sort of following.
It could not be happening except for the collusion coming from DeLuca's own blunderbuss style. Not to mention his one-man decision to reconfigure a $50,000 door for his Legislative Hall office in Dover. Not to mention the growing misgivings among voters over double dipping, like DeLuca's day job as a Labor Department administrator.
There are senators who have just had it.
The decision-making on the pro tem is supposed to be settled within the majority caucus. It should have been over when Deluca commanded more votes than Katz among their fellow Democrats.
This time, however, the vote for pro tem seems to have taken on a life of its own. The math helped.
The 21-member Senate has 14 Democrats and seven Republicans, and Katz was said to have five Democrats voting for him. Could 5 Democrats + 7 Republicans = Katz?
It remains a dumbfounding equation. There have been only two cross-party votes for pro tem over the last six decades or so, each of them seismic.
It also could take one of the most engrossing historic parallels of all time to pull it off.
Still, this is a time of strange political forces. If Christine O'Donnell can beat Mike Castle for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, anything goes. It has before.
Jan. 4, 1949. Getting organized was not coming easily to the Senate. It had 17 members at the time, and the Republicans were in control by a slim count of 9-8.
The Republican caucus had two senators who wanted to be the pro tem. While they squabbled, Vera Davis -- a woman! in 1949! -- sashayed over to the Democrats and offered them more aides and more seats on the committees if they would make her the pro tem. It was a deal.
Davis, a Kent County senator, was a formidable politician. She arranged to get the Democrats' support with the help of Bert Carvel, the newly elected Democratic governor who was looking for more leverage in the legislature.
Davis stayed a Republican, but her incensed party made her pay for the coup. She lost her Senate seat in the next election but was not gone for long. She returned to the House of Representatives, even serving as the majority leader, and became the first woman ever elected to statewide office as treasurer in 1956.
Jan. 9, 1973. The Republicans assumed they were in control of the Senate. They outnumbered the Democrats by 11-10. The Republicans had a small tiff over pro tem, because J. Donald Isaacs wanted to take over from Reynolds du Pont, but the Republicans thought Isaacs was placated when they made him the majority leader. Ha!
Isaacs and Tony Cicione, another Republican senator, made a secret deal with the Democrats to make Isaacs the pro tem.
Gene Bookhammer, the Republican lieutenant governor who was presiding on the first day of the legislative session, sensed something was up. He noticed all of the Democrats wore red carnations, but Isaacs and Cicione were the only Republicans who had them.
As the Republican majority leader, Isaacs was supposed to offer a resolution making du Pont the pro tem. Instead, he blindsided his caucus mates by yielding to the Democrats, who were ready with their own resolution giving the top post to Isaacs himself.
The Republicans have never been in control of the Senate since.
Mike Castle was a Republican state senator that day. In an interview a quarter-century later, despite moving on to be lieutenant governor, governor and congressman, he still sounded grim.
"It was an act of treachery, basically," Castle said.
Aug. 30, 1954. This was a different kind of drama, among the most memorable in legislative history. The Senate was meeting in a special session to consider a judicial nomination by the governor, the same sort of session scheduled for Tuesday.
It was in the day of the 17-member chamber. The Republicans were in control, but one Republican senator had died and another was recovering from a stroke. They held a scant majority of 8-7.
It took nine votes to confirm a judge. The Democrats refused to provide the final vote until all the Republicans voted -- including the senator who had the stroke. He was John Burris, the grandfather of the present-day John Burris, the Republicans' 2000 candidate for governor and former House majority leader.
An ambulance was dispatched to bring Burris from Sussex County to Dover. He was met there by Caleb Boggs, the Republican governor who was near tears at Burris' entrance on a stretcher. Boggs took Burris' hand.
Burris said, "I'm sorry I had to come, but I'm very glad I had the strength to do this for you."
The voting on the confirmation was over in a matter of minutes. Burris was a hero.
It could pay to keep in mind the part about the ambulance. Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, was scheduled for hip replacement surgery this week and expected to skip the special session.
Sokola is whispered to back Katz. There is speculation about an ambulance. Wow.