Posted: March 3, 2008
AS THE 41ST DISTRICT TURNS
By Celia Cohen
This time last year, John Atkins was a combination of "A Nightmare on Legislative Avenue" and "General Hospital" with a little Richard Nixon thrown in.
He was considered a Freddy Krueger horror who would not go away by the others in the Delaware House of Representatives. His gall bladder ruptured. He was sinking in a black hole of legal, political and personal tomfoolery, which he worsened by taking the modified limited hangout route -- only conceding what he no longer could deny.
It was bad. It was bad even for someone who did what he did.
Atkins turned a pre-Halloween night of good-ole-boy carousing in 2006 into a public disgrace by wriggling out of a drunken-driving charge in Ocean City, Md., getting arrested for a squabble with his wife Heather in their Millsboro home, throwing his official influence around as a coping strategy, and then not coming clean during a House investigation into his antics.
Atkins finally quit Dover last March before his fellow representatives got around to expelling him, all but the gall bladder the doctors already had thrown out. He was lucky this was not the century for tar and feathers.
It should have been the end of Atkins, but this spectacle has been as much soap opera as scandal.
There was a sign it might not be over on the same day that the voters in the 41st Representative District in south central Sussex County replaced Atkins in a special election with Greg Hastings, a substitute Republican.
Atkins and Rep. Bob Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader, happened upon the same church barbecue that day for lunch, and they ate together. It was a reminder that Atkins was likeable when he was not self-immolating, had not a shred of shame in him, and still craved the legislative life.
Not even a year later, after diligent rounds of fire stations, senior centers, schools, veterans halls, sports events and especially WGMD, the scrappy radio station at the center of the political universe there, Atkins filed last week for a comeback, at a youthful 37 years old, for the seat he won three times by polling 60 percent of the vote or more.
Nothing about Atkins comes without daredevil embellishment, so he also switched parties to run as a Democrat. It was his ex-colleagues in the House Republican majority, after all, that took the lead in running him out of the legislature, not to mention that it would be a harder route back to challenge Hastings in a Republican primary.
The irony is, the 41st District was drawn in the last reapportionment at the beginning of the decade to lean Democratic, and Atkins won it as a Republican, anyway. Republican or Democrat, he is the same as he always was, a super-conservative in favor of chain gangs and against gay rights, in keeping with the hard right politics of the the state's southernmost county.
"It's a very forgiving community," Atkins said. "I don't think they've ever doubted that John Atkins was on their side."
As soon as Atkins reactivated himself, naturally a political Vesuvius blew.
Dave Burris, an ex-chair of the Sussex County Republicans, blogged that Atkins was a "disgraced piece of human garbage." Charlie West, a 13-term Democrat whose retirement in 2002 opened the seat for Atkins, got a hurry-up rump session of the district's Democrats to un-endorse Atkins in no uncertain terms. WGMD talk radio seemed to be on everyone's speed dial.
Republican officialdom is shrugging off Atkins as rejected goods -- "He can do what he wants," said state Rep. Biff Lee, the Republican majority whip from Sussex County -- while the Democratic Party leadership has unthawed only enough not to shut him out if he winds up as their nominee, no doubt because of his potential to help them take the House, now 22-19 in the Republicans' favor.
"John is allowed to run. John can do as John pleases, and he believes he has some public support out there," said Tom Chapman, the Sussex County Democratic chair.
The 41st District Democrats are looking for another candidate, but if they had a strong contender available, they would have put one up in three elections against Atkins or in the special election against Hastings, who is running this November for a full two-year term.
"John would be a formidable opponent against anyone, in a primary or the general election. He's done this three times successfully, and he's obviously well-known in the district, and he has the time for it," Chapman said.
For all the ruckus that Atkins caused, he appears to be getting the breathing room for a second chance, as was shown when Burris let fly with his name-calling. Sen. George Bunting, a Sussex County Democrat, and Rep. Gerald Hocker, a Sussex County Republican, did not come to Atkins' defense, but they did rule Burris' approach out of bounds in their comments to WGMD.
It is up to Atkins what happens next. It also bears remembering that voters do not like to be told whom they should not elect, especially in a place as independent-minded as the 41st.
Although Atkins had to be dragged kicking and screaming, he did what he had to do to clear his slate. He did the right thing politically by resigning his seat and legally by serving a yearlong probation that expunged his charge of offensive touching.
Atkins today has no more of a criminal record than anyone else in the General Assembly.