Posted: Dec. 4, 2012
A HISTORY-MAKING PRESIDENT PRO TEM
By Celia Cohen
Delaware likes its firsts, as only the First State can. So let it be said Patti Blevins is just a formal roll call away from becoming the first woman in more than 60 years to be the Senate's president pro tem as well as the first Democratic woman elected to the office.
That is plenty of history-making, even if Blevins actually will be the second woman to run the Senate.
The first was Vera Davis, a wily Kent County Republican who pulled a fast one on her own caucus and cut a deal with the Democrats to slip in as the pro tem for a slim single term from 1949 to 1950.
In between Davis and Blevins, the General Assembly has had women as majority leaders and minority leaders, majority whips and minority whips, but not president pro tem of the Senate or speaker of the House of Representatives, even if the dearth was diminished with Ruth Ann Minner elected as a Democratic governor for two terms from 2001 to 2009.
It changes Wednesday as the Senate meets in Dover for a one-day special session, called by the governor to consider some judicial nominations, and has to reorganize itself after the election by swearing in its members and voting on a pro tem.
Blevins has the field to herself, after she won the unanimous support of her fellow majority Democrats, and frankly, the Senate can use the calm.
Blevins will be replacing Tony DeLuca, a political strongman whose act grated on other senators, not to mention the public. He barely scraped up enough votes to be re-elected as pro tem two years ago but not enough to keep him from losing his seat in a Democratic primary in September.
Blevins is pledging to run a more thoughtful and efficient Senate, modeled on what Bob Gilligan, the recently retired Democratic speaker, did in the House, and she is set to make good on it immediately in the special session.
"We'll go in promptly at 4 p.m.," Blevins said.
Maybe this should be expected, as noted by Carol Hoffecker, the Delaware historian who wrote Democracy in Delaware, a book about the legislature.
"Women have become more visible as members and leaders in Delaware's General Assembly," Hoffecker wrote. "The presence of more women has influenced the legislature's culture and concerns. Typically, women legislators are no-nonsense folk intent on furthering particular legislative agendas."
Hoffecker cited Blevins as an example, and it is borne out by the experience of Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor who presides over the Senate.
Denn has worked with Blevins for years, first as a young lawyer on children's issues when he chaired the Child Protection Accountability Committee, then as the insurance commissioner when Blevins chaired the Senate's insurance committee, and most recently as lieutenant governor while she was the majority leader.
"I've worked with her an awful lot over the years, and she was an extremely accomplished legislator even before she was in leadership. If you want a bill passed, you go to Patti Blevins. She knows how to get things done," Denn said.
"That skill as the pro tem is a tremendous asset."
Blevins' elevation also bodes well for Jack Markell, the Democratic governor going into his second term, because it could change the very nature of the Senate.
Decade upon decade upon decade, the Senate has been imperious. Maybe it is because the Senate has the power to advise and consent. Maybe it is because the Democratic caucus has been solidly in the majority since 1973. Maybe it is because it is named after something that dates all the way back to ancient Rome.
Whatever, the Senate can be like dealing with a Soviet border patrol.
Blevins once again is more inclined to follow the example set by Gilligan, who conceived of the House as less of a foil and more of a partner with the governor, no matter the party.
"I've always wanted to work in partnership with the governor. This governor is extraordinary, and I really look forward to our caucus as a whole doing what needs to be done," Blevins said.
Blevins was a long time coming to the Senate's prize post -- with a derailment along the way.
A native Delawarean, Blevins grew up north of Wilmington. She was living in Elsmere when she was drawn into local politics by a land use issue and got herself elected to the town council in 1985 and mayor in 1989.
It was a baptism by water. A bad storm flooded the town, the water rising so high in some basement apartments that people floated out the windows. Blevins still marvels that nobody died.
After 18 months as mayor, Blevins moved to the legislature by taking out a Republican senator. She got her first taste of leadership in 1996 when she was named co-chair of the joint Bond Bill Committee, which drafts the state's construction budget.
Blevins ran for pro tem in 2002 and appeared to have the support, but after some vote-switching skullduggery, the post went to Thurman Adams, and she paid for the loss by being removed as the Bond Bill co-chair.
Blevins got back on the leadership ladder in 2006 when the caucus elected her as the majority whip, and she became the majority leader in 2009 when Adams died and DeLuca vaulted himself from majority leader to pro tem.
Now step by step by step, Blevins is finally there, a living example of what can happen once she did internalize the classic advice that Sam Rayburn, a masterful speaker of the U.S. House, used to give -- "To get along, go along."
There is one break with the past Blevins will not be making. Like Adams and DeLuca before her, she intends to name herself the chair of the Senate Executive Committee, the panel with vast leverage that flows from its jurisdiction over the governor's nominations.
Even for a kinder, gentler pro tem, privilege has its power.