Posted: April 18, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In politics there is a surprising amount of talk about ducks.

There are "lame ducks" nearing the end of their terms. There are things that "look like a duck and quack like a duck," so they must be ducks, no matter how heated the denials.

One of those look-like-a-duck-quack-like-a-duck moments is going on right now in the 41st Representative District in Sussex County, where there will be a special election on May 5 to replace John C. Atkins, the Millsboro Republican who resigned in disgrace three weeks ago as the votes built in the state House of Representatives to throw him out.

Atkins is not supposed to be running in this race. The Republicans have Gregory A. Hastings, a state school board member, and the Democrats have Lynn R. Bullock, a former mayor of Millsboro. A minor party has a candidate, too.

Still, the district is dotted with Atkins' campaign signs, and he wrote a widely-distributed letter thanking his supporters and recounting some of the projects he worked on. It has led to the suspicion that Atkins is looking and quacking like a write-in candidate.

It has unnerved the Republicans, who thought Atkins was a dead duck, troubling them no more. Instead, there is the looming possibility that a write-in candidacy would split the Republican vote and turn the district over to the Democrats, who already have a 500-vote registration advantage, although the district does tend to vote Republican.

Make no mistake about it, this is a district that understands write-in votes. In the U.S. Senate election last year, it cast 1,163 of them for Christine O'Donnell, the conservative write-in candidate -- the most of any Sussex County representative district and about 10 percent of her statewide total. Jan C. Ting, the Republican senatorial candidate, only polled 683 more votes in the 41st district than O'Donnell did.

The Republicans cannot afford to give another state House seat away, not after being blindsided with a loss Saturday in a Brandywine Hundred special election. If they lose again, their majority -- which was 23-18 when the session began -- will dwindle to a single vote, 21-20.

The upshot is, the Republicans have decided to turn Atkins into a sitting duck. They want the voters to do him in, not write him in. They want to make him unpalatable.

The Republicans are poised to release more of the sordid details found during the House Ethics Committee's investigation into Atkins' wild night of drinking, driving and domestic violence and the accompanying abuse of office as he tried to dodge the consequences. They have scheduled a press conference Thursday afternoon in Wilmington.

Republican Majority Leader Richard C. Cathcart says the press conference is the right thing to do. "I feel an obligation to release this stuff, because it's the public's right and the press' right to see that information," he said.

Cathcart concedes it also may be a political thing to do, a response to Atkins' letter, which he regarded as a campaign piece, not a thank-you note.

"All that's missing is, 'Please write my name in on May 5,'" Cathcart said. "Mr. Atkins still is defying his own resignation. It just doesn't seem he was getting the message."

Atkins insists his focus these days is on a produce stand his is starting as a new business, not on politicking or keeping himself in the public eye. "It's a thank-you letter, just like any other representative who resigns sends out. I don't have a comment on anything political," he said.

Charles M. Oberly III, the Democratic former attorney general who is Atkins' lawyer, accuses the Republicans of overstepping themselves. It has him entertaining thoughts of going to court to try to stop the press conference.

"I really think this is blackmail. The case is over. It was done when he resigned. The man is not a member of the General Assembly. For them to be releasing something, I've got problems with it. What it's about is, they're afraid they're going to lose the election," Oberly said.

Oberly says his client is not trying to stir up a write-in vote, despite the letter and the campaign signs. "John has not done anything. There are a lot of people who feel they're disenfranchised. They're really independent people down there," he said.

Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan, a member of the Ethics Committee, is  not happy about the press conference, either. He says the Republicans are veering away from the bipartisan and diligent spirit that characterized the committee.

"I'm very disappointed that after working with them on the Ethics Committee since January, they went ahead without consulting us or consulting our attorney and all of a sudden telling us there's going to be a press conference. Maybe this has something to do with May 5," Gilligan said. "I think the press is being used for cover."

With all of this political shrapnel flying, there is only one thing for the 41st district voters to do. Duck.