Posted: March 22, 2013
By Celia Cohen
The most liberal legislative agenda in decades began a march through the Delaware General Assembly this week.
A minimum wage bill Thursday in the Senate. Tax legislation the same day in the House of Representatives. A measure to repeal the death penalty next week in the Senate.
Still more is to come, namely a series of gun bills and a proposal for same-sex marriage.
"All kinds of interesting stuff going on," quipped Jack Markell, the Democratic governor.
Easy for him to say. Not so easy for the legislators. These are the sorts of gut-check votes that can resonate with the electorate and imperil the re-election of the senators and representatives.
Markell, meanwhile, was just re-elected with 69 percent of the vote to a second term and can never run for governor again. He does have his political prestige on the line, though, after putting the power of his office behind the legislation for taxes, guns and same-sex marriage.
The state has not seen such a liberal agenda since the 1960s, when the moon was in the seventh house, Jupiter was aligned with Mars, and love was supposed to steer the stars.
In those days, as today, the president was a Democrat, the governor was a Democrat, and the legislature was entirely controlled by the Democrats.
Charlie Terry, the Democratic governor elected in 1964, and his fellow party members in the legislature pushed through a minimum wage bill, gave state workers the right to unionize, modernized the New Castle County government, and created Delaware Tech.
They also reformed the Justice of the Peace Courts, where the system of paying the magistrates by the number of charges they processed could easily be manipulated to pad their own pockets. In one notorious case, where meat was stolen from a market, a magistrate lodged a separate charge for every single steak and chop. It was clearly time to switch the magistrates to a fixed salary.
Over the next two elections in 1966 and 1968, however, the Republicans won the presidency, the governorship and the General Assembly, incredibly even overturning the House, where there had astoundingly been 25 more Democrats than Republicans.
Maybe it was a backlash, but it could also be argued it happened because the times were insufficiently liberal.
There was that unpopular war going on under Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Terry left the National Guard on the streets in Wilmington after the subsequent riots until it turned into the longest occupation of an American city since the Civil War and the state became a laughingstock.
Even with all of that, the Democrats in the legislature blamed their losses on a pocketbook issue. They had raised the auto registration fee.
Time will tell what happens to the current incarnations of the Democratic president, governor and legislature, but it probably pays to note there are 120,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote here, and the gap has been getting wider every month.
The early round of roll calls on the minimum wage and tax bills was not surprising. The Democrats had their way, even with the tax legislation requiring a three-fifths vote for approval.
The Senate easily passed a minimum wage proposal, sponsored by Bob Marshall, a Wilmington Democrat, to hike the rate in steps from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour. It now goes to the House for its consideration.
The vote was 12-9. All of the "yes" votes were cast by Democrats, and the "no" votes came from the chamber's Republicans plus Bob Venables, a conservative Democrat from Sussex County.
The House adopted four tax bills, all sponsored by Valerie Longhurst, the majority leader from Bear, and sent them to the Senate. The measures deal with taxable income above $60,000, estate taxes, corporate franchise taxes and gross receipts taxes. They preserve measures put in place in 2009, when state revenues were plummeting, although some are at reduced levels.
The bills cleared essentially on party line roll calls, except that John Atkins, a conservative Democrat from Sussex County, voted against all of them and John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, joined Atkins to vote against the gross receipts bill.
This is the way it goes, an echo of the 1960s in the 2010s, after the moon has had men walk upon it, Pluto was kicked out as a planet, and Twitter outshines the stars.