Posted: Feb. 28, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

State Rep. Wayne A. Smith, the Republican majority leader from Brandywine Hundred, threw the House of Representatives into turmoil Tuesday evening by abruptly announcing he was resigning his seat, only weeks into the new legislative session, to run a health care trade association.

Once influential enough to consider running for governor, Smith is leaving at a time his authority is waning in a fractious caucus, where he survived a scare to turn him out of the leadership post he held for 10 years in a challenge from state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart.

A special election will have to be held for Smith's seat. Under state law, House Speaker Terry R. Spence has 30 days after Smith's resignation becomes effective Monday, March 12, the day before the General Assembly returns from a six-week break for budget hearings, to call for an election. The vote occurs either 10 or 11 days later -- probably in late April.

Smith's departure is a new blow to stability and leadership in an already rundown Republican Party.

The Republicans have been bleeding statewide offices for nearly 10 years, until they now hold only two of the nine posts, and their control of the House, the party's last stronghold in state government, could be threatened in 2008. The Republicans, who currently outnumber the Democrats 23-18, have been in the majority since 1984.

By all accounts, Smith is exiting for family and financial reasons to take over the Delaware Healthcare Association, a lobbying alliance formed by the state's best-known medical facilities, including Christiana Care, Bayhealth, Beebe, the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children, Nanticoke and St. Francis Hospital among them. The association has been looking for someone to replace Joseph M. Letnauchyn, the president and chief executive officer who left late last year.

Smith, who is 44 with his wife Lisa and four children to support, has given up some prime earning years to his tenure in the House, where he was first elected in 1990. He has had jobs with George & Lynch, a construction business, and Janney Montgomery Scott, an investment firm.

Smith said his decision to leave the House was wrenching but made palatable by being able to stay involved in public policy through health care issues. He said his job options have been limited because he would have to tell any potential employer he would need "60 or 70 days off a year" for his legislative responsibilities.

"Being majority leader was a treat. My caucus kept me around for 10-plus years, which is truly amazing," Smith said Wednesday. "I've got four kids, and the knocking on thousands of doors [to campaign] got a little old. Health care is a weighty issue, it's not going away, it's a good fit, and I guess I've got enough policy wonk in me."

Smith's departure looks a lot like what routinely occurs in the Congress, when influential members skip out as their own stature or their party's is teetering, and they get out before rising reformist impulses ban them from switching to a lucrative lobbying venture. In Dover it was a shock.

Smith's announcement hit like a thunderclap. There has not been a shakeup this unexpected and unsettling since state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry switched back to the Democratic Party in 1995.

Smith set up his timetable -- he asked House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan last week for his cell phone number so Smith could call Tuesday evening -- but he dropped it on his fellow Republicans unawares during a meeting, scheduled some weeks ago, for the caucus and the state party leadership to brainstorm about a comeback.

It was such a jolt that Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, said, "We thought we misunderstood him."

House Minority Leader Clifford G. "Biff" Lee said his emotions went ricocheting. "When he told me last night -- and he told me before the meeting in confidence -- you could have knocked me out of the chair with a feather. I was shocked, damn near devastated, and then I got mad and then I thought that was stupid, since he's such a family man. You just think, this is the right move for him and his family, and I believe we'll see Wayne Smith back in politics," Lee said.

Smith is quitting at a ticklish time for the House, which still has to decide what to do about state Rep. John C. Atkins, the Millsboro Republican who is on probation after an arrest for a fight with his wife and who displayed his legislative identification card in Maryland while beating a traffic stop on suspicion of drunken driving.

Smith chairs the House Ethics Committee in charge of members' conduct. He said he timed his resignation so the committee work would be wrapped up and ready for House action.

The next step on Atkins will be up to the next majority leader, selected through an internal vote of the Republican caucus. Dick Cathcart, who ran against Smith for the post, appears to be an early frontrunner, even though he would have to give up another leadership position as the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, the budget-writing panel, to accept it.

Others who have been mentioned are state Reps. Deborah D. Hudson, Gregory F. Lavelle and Donna D. Stone. There also has been talk of state Rep. Joseph W. Booth, but he is a Joint Finance Committee member who could take over as co-chair if Cathcart becomes the majority leader.

Smith, a Brandywine Hundred fixture who went to Concord High School and the University of Delaware, was a transitional and perhaps transformational legislator when he arrived in Dover 17 years ago.

Before he got there, lawmakers thought of themselves primarily as Republicans or Democrats as well as upstaters or downstaters, but Smith was in the vanguard as a politician regarding himself as a conservative and injecting more ideology into the mix. His advent into the leadership pushed it even further.

Smith fought school busing and gay rights legislation. He also knew when to be a statesman and partnered with Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to keep the state financially sound during an economic downturn.

Smith's shining moment politically came when the legislature had to redraw the districts, as it does once a decade to account for population shifts, before the 2002 election.

As the majority leader, he could have demanded a safe district for himself, but instead he oversaw a map that created better districts for other Republicans and threw himself into the same district as David D. Brady, then a Democratic state representative. Smith scrambled to pull out a 400-vote victory, and his political stock shot to its peak as the Republicans roared to a 29-12 majority.

Five years later, Smith's sacrifice and savvy are ancient history. Not only did Cathcart challenge his leadership, but Smith could not even persuade the House in January to pass a bill, fervently favored by most New Castle County residents, to repeal a state ban on leaves, grass and other yard clippings in trash collections.

Still, Smith insisted his standing in his caucus was not the reason for his departure, nor has it dropped. "It's been fractious and rebellious since the day I got elected," he said. "It hasn't been like [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee on old Traveller. It's a bucking bronco that's just been busted."

The page on Smith is likely to turn quickly as the Republicans and Democrats prepare for an epic battle over his seat. Blindsided as they were, neither has a candidate ready to go. Both parties are desperate to win the special election as a gauge to the changing political climate in Brandywine Hundred, which was once solidly Republican but not anymore, and as a proxy war for the coming clash over the control of the House in 2008.

As one Republican said, "Those voters have no idea what's in store for them."

The irony is, both parties were preparing somewhat for a special legislative election -- except it was supposed to be in Millsboro, where Atkins lives, and not in Brandywine Hundred, where Smith is.