Posted: April 25, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Democrats were looking at the best possible world Tuesday when the House Ethics Committee convened in Dover.

The committee, reflecting the political makeup of the state House of Representatives, is controlled by the Republicans, 3-2, but all the Democrats had to do was to vote with the Republicans to benefit their own candidate in the raucous special election in Sussex County.

The committee was meeting to shovel more stuff on John C. Atkins, the Republican ex-representative who is spooking his own party like a black cat with nine lives. The worst there was to say this time was the charge, serious enough to forward to the attorney general, that Atkins coerced a babysitter into silence about what she heard the night he was arrested for fighting with his wife.

Picking on a 15-year-old girl! It is so low that not even the press would stoop to it. The local newspapers and radio stations that covered the Ethics Committee's session did not identify her, even though her name was available in a document that was made public.

The babysitter became an element in this sorry six-month-old saga only recently, but she was a crucial one. It seems that she broke her silence by going to her parents in tears about a month ago, just as the House was trying to decide how to punish Atkins for bringing the chamber into disrepute with his arrest in Millsboro, his non-arrest for drinking and driving in Ocean City, Md., and his abuse of office in trying to get out of both.

Learning about the babysitter's ordeal was enough to push David M. Burris, the Sussex County Republican chair, into writing an open letter calling for Atkins to resign or be expelled. It was enough to shift momentum in the House toward expulsion -- which made it enough for Atkins to resign.

The question is, why resurrect it now? Republican Majority Leader Richard C. Cathcart, who chairs the Ethics Committee, said it was being done because the public has a right to know and it was the right thing to do. He conceded, however, that there could be "inadvertent political impact."

No fooling. John Atkins is giving fits to the Republicans in the special election on Saturday, May 5, for his 41st Representative District seat in south central Sussex County, where the official entrants are Democrat Lynn R. Bullock, Republican Gregory A. Hastings and a minor-party candidate.

Atkins is doing nothing to discourage a defiant write-in campaign or the simmering perception that he was railroaded out of the House. "People can vote their conscience," he declared.

Having the Ethics Committee ask the attorney general to investigate Atkins because of the babysitter is about as much "inadvertent political impact" as there can be on people's conscience.

There is genuine nervousness among Republicans that Atkins could split the Republican vote and let the Democrats win, cutting the Republicans' House majority to 21-20 and keeping them out of the minority offices in the Legislative Hall basement by a single vote.

In the Republicans' deepest, darkest moments, there is even a wild fear that Hastings could come in third, behind Bullock and Atkins, for the ultimate in humiliation. This is even before there has been much time for the word to spread that the House could refuse to take Atkins back if he somehow won -- as if those legislators up in Dover were telling the voters what to do, fighting words for sure in Sussex County.

"We have a preliminary ruling that the House of Representatives can refuse to seat Rep. Atkins," Cathcart said.

In the Ethics Committee meeting, the hard choices were all on the Republican side for Cathcart, Speaker Terry R. Spence and Majority Whip Clifford G. "Biff" Lee and none on the Democratic side for Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan and Minority Whip Helen M. Keeley.

Not only did Gilligan and Keeley get to vote for good government and the public's right to know, but the politics went their way, too. No matter whether the voters think Atkins was wrong about the babysitter or wronged by the disclosure of it, 10 days before the special election, it was a problem for the Republicans either way. Atkins is a Republican, and Republicans did it to him.

Even before the ethics panel met, it was a good day for the Democrats. Shortly beforehand, the House swore in Bryon H. Short, the Democrat who upset the Republican establishment by winning a Brandywine Hundred special election earlier this month.

Only one Republican looked particularly pleased as Short took his oath. It was none other than Wayne A. Smith, the former Republican majority leader whose resignation created the vacancy. Smith, who left to run a health care trade association and lobby for it, was in the House gallery. He was standing, smiling and applauding vigorously.

Of course, he was. He did not have to chair the Ethics Committee, which was coming next. He did not have the prospect of being the majority leader with a one-vote edge and no margin of error, or the threat that the 2008 election could plunge the Republicans into the basement.

Was Smith as happy as he looked? "Yes!" he said.