Posted: March 21, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If anybody had asked the Delaware Democrats which four Republicans they wanted to run the state House of Representatives, they would have said Reps. Terry R. Spence, Richard C. Cathcart, William A. Oberle Jr. and Vincent A. Lofink.

Noody asked, but surprise! The Democrats' favorite Republicans are in charge.

When the resignation of former Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith forced the House leadership to be reconstituted last week, the lineup that emerged was Spence remaining as speaker with Cathcart as majority leader, Oberle as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, and Lofink as co-chair of the Bond Bill Committee.

All are friends of labor, the backbone of the state Democrats. In a 41-member chamber that has 22 Republicans, 18 Democrats and a vacancy for Smith's seat, the four votes of Spence, Oberle, Cathcart and Lofink are controlling. If they vote with the Republicans, the Republicans prevail. If they vote with the Democrats, the Democrats do.

It ought not to be overlooked that Oberle's office is decorated with a poster of Harry Truman, who was not only a Democrat but a practitioner of "Give 'em Hell" politics.

The House Republicans' majority was expected to be threatened in the 2008 election, but now it appears as though the Republicans decided to hold an early fire sale and give away their last base in state government, with the governorship and the state Senate already in Democratic hands and almost certain to stay that way.

It is like a variation of that old punch line -- Take the House. Please! -- and the Democrats are the ones laughing.

"I've got some friends over there now," quipped state Sen. Anthony J. DeLuca, the Democratic majority leader.

"See my smile? I went to Happy Harry's and got white strips for this smile," said Michael A. Begatto, the executive director of AFSCME, the state's public employees union.

When Begatto ran into Wayne Smith, now patrolling Legislative Hall in Dover for a health care trade association, Smith told him, "You're having a good year, buddy."

Spence, Oberle, Lofink and Cathcart represent a daisy-chain of districts descending from the outskirts of Newark to lower New Castle County, and they have been allies for years.

Oberle, the dean of the House Republicans with 31 years in the chamber, is the first-among-equals, a shadow speaker who knows how to count votes and make the House operate. He was instrumental in getting Spence re-elected in a competitive race in 2006 with help from some friendly labor unions and also getting re-elected as speaker.

Politically Oberle is tough to pigeonhole. On the liberal side, he has his ties to labor, and he is the prime sponsor of a gay rights bill, but on the conservative side, he is a law-and-order legislator with his hair in a buzz-cut like a cop and wide support within the police. He also fought louder and longer than anyone against tax and fee hikes adopted during a financial downturn in Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's first term.

The Oberle Four were influential when the session convened, with Cathcart giving Smith a scare in a challenge for majority leader, but with Smith gone, the power is out in the open. All of them are packing titles and flashing institutional clout.

"It just fell into that. I don't know how it happened," Spence deadpanned.

In retrospect, Republicans probably did not appreciate how much Wayne Smith meant to the Republican wing of the Republican Party.

Smith was the political mastermind behind the redistricting that gave his caucus a gaudy 29-12 majority after the 2002 election, a cushion against the slippage since then, and he was the linchpin that kept it right with the party's base of pro-business and conservative contributors. Now the linchpin has been pulled.

Cathcart became the majority leader by winning a three-way race last week against Reps. Gregory F. Lavelle and Pamela S. Maier. As part of the leadership, Cathcart had to give up his post as the Joint Finance Committee co-chair, the most coveted committee assignment there is, functioning as the House's ranking member on the panel that crafts the state's operating budget.

The replacement was Spence's choice. With virtually no notice to anyone, Spence moved Oberle from co-chair of the Bond Bill Committee, which writes the state's construction budget, to Joint Finance co-chair, and then slipped Lofink into the top spot on the Bond Bill Committee.

It was a serious slap to the House Republicans from Kent County and Sussex County. Their votes were Cathcart's ticket to majority leader, and they had every expectation of being rewarded in some way -- probably with Sussex Rep. Joseph W. Booth becoming Joint Finance co-chair.

Instead, all that trickled down was one paltry seat on the Bond Bill Committee. It went to Kent Rep. Donna D. Stone -- but only after Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr., an upstater from Brandywine Hundred, stepped aside for her. (Sussex Rep. Clifford G. "Biff" Lee remains as majority whip.)

Hard feelings abound, Cathcart's among them. Even Cathcart thought Spence should have taken care of the downstaters who delivered his votes. "I made no promises obviously. I talked to the speaker about taking that into consideration," Cathcart said.

Spence said he made his committee assignments to put experienced legislators in those posts, and Oberle argued that Spence's decisions were smart politics, tailored to a state that increasingly is trending Democratic.

"It's a move to the middle, and that's good for the long term in maintaining the House," Oberle said. "Wayne Smith was one of the smartest people I've ever been around in my life, but he was so ideologically driven."

It is making for a tense caucus. "I think we're pretty daggone fractious," Booth said.

The Republicans are acting very much like a majority in its last days. When the House went into session this week, Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan took a seat next to Spence on the speaker's podium so they could talk.

Gilligan could be the next speaker after the 2008 election. He looked like the co-speaker for now.