Posted: Feb. 6, 2014
LONG TIME PASSING
By Celia Cohen
Lonnie George announced his retirement as the president of Delaware Technical Community College last week, just about the same time Henry Waxman and George Miller, a pair of Democratic congressmen from California, said they would not run for re-election.
Bye-bye, Class of '74.
It came in as the Watergate Babies, and they have hung around for 40 years.
Whether they went to Capitol Hill in Washington, as Waxman and Miller did, or whether they went to Legislative Hall in Dover, as George did as a 28-year-old Democratic state representative, they are all just about out of public life.
Pat Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont, will be the only Watergate Baby left in the Congress, and there are already none in the Delaware General Assembly.
There are some still involved in lawmaking in other ways, like Bob Byrd, a lobbyist who was elected a Democratic state representative as a hotshot 25-year-old, the "baby" of the Watergate Babies.
What a class they were, storming into politics like the cavalry coming over the hill, a new generation bent on taking charge after Vietnam and Watergate, the twinned scourges of war and presidential disgrace. Bill Zaferos, a legislative reporter in Delaware, wrote about the Watergate Babies on their 15th anniversary in 1989:
It was 1974, and the image of Richard Nixon loomed grimly over the political landscape like an antithetical Mount Rushmore, casting a shadow over the entire political process during that pivotal election year . . .
From that shadow a group of legislators emerged who thought they could reshape government and regain the public trust. They were the Watergate Babies . . . swept into Congress and statehouses . . .
They were a class that wanted to change the world in an era when the world needed change.
They really did think they were going to change the world. As Lonnie George was quoted on the 15th anniversary, "We were going to solve all the problems of the state in the first year. We were worried about what we were going to do with the second year of our term."
It did not exactly work out that way.
The rookie legislators were swept into a dark-of-night tax raid on what was then the Getty Oil refinery in Delaware City, only to have the state execute an ignominious about-face and abandon the tax hike when J. Paul Getty himself, the richest man in the world, threatened to shut the plant down.
Next they were hit by the mismanagement and terrifying near-collapse of the Farmers Bank. Decades before "too big to fail," Farmers was too essential to fail, because all of the state's money was in it and so were the pensions of a lot of downstaters. The state and the FDIC had to bail it out.
Still the Watergate Babies' day was coming. After the 1976 election of Pete du Pont, a Republican governor who was also a change agent, some serious initial friction and mutual distrust between them eventually gave way to bipartisan cooperation and an enormous turnaround.
The state's finances were fixed, budget safeguards were adopted, taxes were cut, and the economy was restored with a considerable assist from the passage of banking legislation called the Financial Center Development Act.
A new generation of leadership was in place, too.
There were 15 legislators who were Watergate Babies, 11 Democrats and four Republicans, and one-third of them rose to the top of the political ranks.
Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, was the first woman in Delaware to be the governor. Lonnie George was a speaker and the president of Delaware Tech. Tom Sharp, a Democrat, was a Senate president pro tem and returned for an encore in Minner's Cabinet as a secretary of labor. Chuck Hebner, a Republican, was a speaker.
Nancy Cook, a Democrat, was a chair of the Joint Finance Committee and stayed in the legislature the longest. She got to the Senate early in 1974 in a special election and lasted until the Tea Party shakeup in 2010, and in her time, it seemed that nothing happened in Dover without her. There is a reason she was known as the "Queen of Legislative Hall."
"You can measure it any way you want. It was the most successful class of legislators ever to hit Legislative Hall," said Bob Byrd, the legislator-turned-lobbyist.
The Watergate Babies did bring about change, although not as instantly as they envisioned. Lonnie George, who was in so much of a hurry at the time, looked back with 40 years of hindsight at what they had to learn.
"Over time, what I came to realize in our democracy with the diversity in thinking and opinion, in a legislature you could make things better incrementally. Over time, you can get to where you want to be," George said.
"In '74, a lot of folks got involved in public life and wanted to make a difference. Now it's about 40 years later, and it's time to step aside. There's a baton, and it's time to pass it along."
Not that they are really done. The Watergate Babies had babies.
Melanie George Smith, a Democratic representative, chairs the Joint Finance Committee. Tom Cook is the secretary of finance. Rebecca Byrd works as a lobbyist with her father.
The political torch is being passed to a new generation, but not too far. Call it Watergate Babies 2.0.