Posted: March 14, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Legislative Hall was so strange on the first day back, all that was missing was a hookah-smoking Caterpillar plopped on the Speaker's Podium and a White Rabbit hurrying by with a pocket watch and fretting about being late.

The General Assembly's return to Dover, after a six-week break for budget hearings, is always a little disorienting, like waking up from a long winter's nap, but the startup Tuesday was Alice-in-Wonderland-weird.

It was more than rustiness. It was more than the customary sense of telescoping time, with the session recessing amid the grinding cold of January and resuming with the teasing touch of March. It was more than the catching-up of people who have not seen one another for a while.

It was scandal. It was a special election. It was shifting power.

Political blood was in the air. "Have you ever seen anything crazier than this year?" asked Rep. Donna D. Stone, a Dover Republican spending her 13th year in the House of Representatives.

A great deal of it had to do with Wayne A. Smith. A great deal more of it had to do with John C. Atkins.

Smith used the break to transform himself from the House Republican majority leader, one of the most influential posts in the building, to the top executive at the Delaware Healthcare Association, an alliance of the state's most influential medical providers, such as Christiana Care, Bayhealth and Beebe.

Instead of serving as the legislative maestro upstairs, Smith was elbow-to-elbow downstairs, at a table outside the snack bar, with the lobbyists who do their orchestration offstage. He was the new guy, but he was no rookie, and they made room for him.

The legislature seemed to be caught in a time warp. The House and the Senate were praying over Smith, with Republican Rep. Joseph W. Booth and Democratic Sen. Margaret Rose Henry both mentioning his new incarnation as they gave the opening prayers in their chambers, while the Senate also was reading in delayed correspondence from Smith, asking to be added as a sponsor to some bills.

"Those communications seem to be outdated," quipped Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., the Democrat who presides over the Senate.

Smith's resignation set off chain reactions. The House Republicans' prime purpose of the day was to replace him as majority leader. After they voted in Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, who won a three-way race against Reps. Gregory F. Lavelle and Pamela S. Maier, it meant that House Speaker Terry R. Spence has to appoint someone to take over for Cathcart as the Joint Finance Committee co-chair, the most coveted committee assignment there is.

Cathcart challenged Smith for majority leader at the beginning of the session and fell short, but now he had it. An election delayed was not an election denied.

The House has not seen such upheaval in 20 years, although it was even more shocking back then. On a a single day in July 1987, the House Republicans met to choose a new majority leader after state Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., who remains in the chamber to this day, stepped down in mid-session, and hours later, Speaker B. Bradford Barnes keeled over at his Bridgeville home and died.

Cathcart's departure from the Joint Finance Committee left a vacancy not just for co-chair but for a spot on the budget-writing panel.

"Guess who's asking?" said Pam Maier, making a quick pilgrimage to Spence's office to put her name in for the seat after she lost out for majority leader. If nothing else, she got a hug.

Spence said he would take a day or two to make up his mind about the Joint Finance Committee positions. In the meantime, he also has another major decision to make. It is the speaker's responsibility under state law to call for the special election replacing Smith in the Brandywine Hundred district he represented since 1990.

The parties are ready to go. The Republicans' candidate is James T. Bowers, a Verizon sales manager who lives next door to Smith, and the Democrats' is Bryon H. Short, who has a small-scale neighborhood redevelopment business and used to be an aide to U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper when he was a congressman and governor.

All the parties need now is a date. It helped to make Spence's office a busy place with John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chair, among the callers. There is a good possibility the special election will be held Saturday, April 14. It could come the following Saturday, April 21, but the later date could intrude upon election officials' preparation for a referendum on Tuesday, April 24, in the Brandywine School District.

The special election has injected considerable jitteriness into the session. The Republicans are clinging to a 23-18 margin in the House, their only base with the governorship and the Senate in Democratic hands. The Republican majority is expected to be threatened in 2008, and the party dares not put itself in further jeopardy with the loss of a district it ought to hold.

Even with the special election, nothing has complicated the workings of Legislative Hall as much as Rep. John Atkins, R-Probation.

Atkins is the subject of a House Ethics Committee report, released over the break. It charges him with bringing the chamber into disrepute by throwing his influence around in the early hours of Oct. 29 during a traffic stop in Ocean City, Md., and an arrest for a fight with his wife in Millsboro. Atkins also badgered the Attorney General's Office and the judiciary, although the report did not get into it.

Legislative Hall was buzzing with speculation that Atkins was going to appear on WGMD radio, a downstate station that was broadcasting from the building, with some sort of expose.

"It would make me look like an angel," Atkins said. He hung around the broadcast table, but he never did go on. Maybe another day, he said.

Whatever is in the air in Legislative Hall, it is staying around.