Posted: April 10, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Sussex County Republicans kicked out the press Monday evening before they dealt with the scandal that will not die.

John C. Atkins was back, returned from a trip to Florida, where he went after resigning in disgrace two weeks ago from the state House of Representatives, in time to show up for the Republican county meeting at the Georgetown campus of Delaware Technical & Community College.

It was not John Atkins who was under fire, however. It was David M. Burris, the impetuous Sussex County Republican chair who took over the post all of two months ago -- long enough to write an open letter telling the House Republican majority either to get Atkins to resign or vote to expel him.

The letter was a tipping point, coming from the highest-ranking Sussex County Republican official and putting him squarely opposed to Atkins' drinking-and-driving and domestic fighting and abusing his office to try to get away with it.

If Burris thought Atkins should be ousted, then anybody could. Two days later, Atkins was gone.

Since then, Burris' letter-writing has festered. There have been questions about whether he should have done it. At the first Sussex Republican meeting since Atkins' resignation, Burris' tenure was on the line.

Party rules did not permit a vote to remove Burris in mid-term, but he agreed to call for a vote of no-confidence and abide by it. In exchange, the issue would never come up again.

Dave Burris got his mandate to stay in office. It was not even close. Not than anyone outside the room was supposed to know it even happened.

Atkins may have dodged a vote on expulsion, but the press could not. The Sussex Republicans decided to take a matter that was the essence of public interest -- the intertwined fate of a deposed legislator still trying to have things his way and a party chair struggling for political survival -- behind closed doors.

State Sen. F. Gary Simpson argued for keeping the session open, but he was overruled by a voice vote among 70 or so people who were present.

This is a party that has been trying to revive itself with indignant tub-thumping for open government. The Republicans have demanded that the legislators stop exempting themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, and Burris himself has a frothy petition about guaranteeing public inspection of spending bills, but an open party?

Two reporters were directed to leave. There are no secrets in Delaware, though, not even in Sussex County, and an account has emerged of what happened.

Burris turned over the meeting to Marlene B. Elliott, a past Republican state vice chair regarded as one of the most trusted figures in the party. The closed-door session lasted about a half-hour and never became a shouting match.

Atkins spoke and took exception to Burris' letter. He was countered by others, including Simpson, who said Burris acted to restore integrity to the party, and by A. Judson Bennett, who runs the Coastal Conservative Network.

"If he doesn't get this vote of confidence, I don't want to be a member of this [county] committee anymore," Bennett said. (The doors do not exist that can muffle Bennett's voice.)

Burris got some criticism for not consulting with various party members before releasing his letter, and there was talk of Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment of not speaking ill of another Republican, but the consensus was, the letter was the right thing to do.

Elliott called for a voice vote. It was unanimous. (This could be heard outside the doors, too.) Burris was voted in.

Only the press was voted out. The moral to this perverse story is, it is all right to write a letter, but not all right to write about it.