Posted: April 17, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Another election, another drunken-driving charge for Brad Bennett, the Democratic state representative from Dover. Not that anyone is counting.

Just in case the police in Wilmington, the scene of the arrest Sunday evening, did not know a legislator in an uncertain condition was in town, Bennett found a foolproof way to make sure of it.

No, he did not uncork his legislative ID. That was John Atkins, the Republican-but-now-Democratic state representative from Millsboro, nearly six years ago in Ocean City, Md., and it did not work out so well for him, so presumably it has lost popularity.

Bennett's method was to sideswipe a parked police car with an officer in it and keep going. It took a couple of blocks for him to be pulled over. The police issued not only summonses for drunken driving, leaving the scene of an accident, not reporting an accident involving alcohol and not providing proof of insurance, but also a press release detailing all of this.

Second verse, same as the first, but a little bit louder and a little bit worse. People may recall that Bennett was stopped once before for drunken driving. It was in Lewes, about a month before the 2010 election, when he was running for his second term, and the Republicans had put up a good candidate, a lawyer named Beth Miller.

Bennett looked like a goner, but he delayed his court appearance until after the election and went back to the Delaware General Assembly with barely more than 50 percent of the vote. His surprising survival generally was attributed less to anything he did than to the wreckage of the state Republicans with Christine O'Donnell at the top of their ticket.

This is especially evident because Bennett and Chris Coons, the fellow Democrat who beat O'Donnell in the U.S. Senate race, carried the 32nd Representative District with all but identical margins, with Coons winning by 292 votes and Bennett by 296. Saved by the old party line vote.

Bennett eventually pleaded guilty and went into the first offender's program, and Miller got carved out of the seat in redistricting. Funny, how it always seems to happen that way.

Getting charged with drinking and driving at the beach is one thing. Getting charged with drinking and driving and hitting a cop car is something else.

The House of Representatives could not leave this one up to the voters. Within hours of learning about it, Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic majority leader, called for an ethics investigation, awaiting the outcome of the judicial proceedings.

The outcome could be serious. A second drunken-driving conviction within five years means mandatory jail time, although it is not a felony, as State Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings explained.

Between Bennett and Atkins, who got himself involved in another round of good-ole-boy shenanigans over tire-burning in Sussex County and a traffic stop, it has been some year for Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker.

Atkins was persuaded to remove himself as vice chair of the House's public safety committee, Bennett is supposed to be getting treatment, and in the gallows humor that comes naturally in politics, people are referring to the speaker's chambers as the principal's office.

After Bennett got through the last election, he was regarded as essentially bulletproof politically. So much for that.

"This isn't something I was expecting to have to think about. It's difficult for me, it's difficult for his colleagues, and it's difficult for Kent County, because we've taken a hit. We almost have a grieving period," said Abby Betts, the Kent County Democratic chair.

"He can't run from this with us. He can call, and we can talk. I don't wish him any ill will. As far as what happens next, that's going to be something that Brad's going to have to figure out. If he decides to step down, we'll deal with the situation."

Now that Betts has mentioned it, a resignation would spare everyone from a lot of angst, everyone but possibly the voters, that is.

Unless the timing works out, there would have to be a special election with all of its hassle and expense, this in a year people are already going to the polls as many as three times for the presidential primary later this month, Primary Day in September and Election Day in November.

Not that the voters in Bennett's district necessarily deserve to be spared. They have some responsibility, too. They elected him.

There is a way around a special election, though. Under a recently revised state law, there does not have to be one if a resignation comes so late in the legislative session, sometime about mid-May, that it cannot be scheduled with the proper lead time until after June 30, the last day of the term.

In that case, the speaker can either call a special election or let it wait for Election Day, and it would not seem to make a lot of sense to have an extra election when the legislature has gone home and the district in its current configuration is about to cease to exist because of redistricting.

Entirely by coincidence, the state Republican Party is in the throes of deciding whether to jettison its secret weapon in special elections. That would be Priscilla Rakestraw, the national committeewoman, who is the General Patton of legislative races and about as cuddly.

Rakestraw is hard-pressed to keep her post in a party election 10 days away. What tangled webs.