Posted: April 8, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer 

"Statewide" McBride is what other legislators took to calling him. It was not a compliment.

Dave McBride came to Dover as a man on the make, another ambitious addition to the Delaware General Assembly, where the unofficial motto has always been "where's mine?"

He got there by taking out a sitting state representative in a Democratic primary in 1978 as a calculating 36-year-old, turned himself into a state senator in the next election and tried to make good on that "Statewide" nickname by running for lieutenant governor in 1984. He came in third in a three-way primary.

He could play too cute. The late Thurman Adams once threw him off the Joint Finance Committee, the all-important panel that drafts the budget, on suspicion of double-dealing in a contest Adams won for president pro tem.

It is hard to think it was the same Dave McBride, now the state Senate's Democratic majority leader, who put himself on the line last week to cast the decisive vote to pass a bill that would abolish the death penalty.

It was not just that McBride saved the legislation, designated as Senate Bill 40, which was approved by a bare majority of 11-9 with one senator absent. Nor was it that McBride took a political risk by switching his position to support a bill as highly-charged as this one after voting against it in 2013 in the last legislative term.

It was also that the stand McBride took could possibly go for nothing, if the bill is doomed to languish in committee in the state House of Representatives, the way it did before.

McBride did it, anyway, the consequences be damned. That takes commitment. That takes guts.

McBride's new willingness to back the bill was kept very quiet.

It started to unfold last Wednesday, the day before the bill was to be debated, when Karen Peterson, the Democratic state senator who is the prime sponsor, learned that Bob Marshall, a Democratic state senator who voted for it two years ago, was planning to peel off and vote no.

The bill had barely made it through the state Senate the last time by 11-10. Without Marshall, it looked like the bill would go down.

"I was close to pulling the plug on it," Peterson said.

Peterson told Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem, and McBride she might have to take the bill off the agenda, only to have McBride tell her not to, as McBride and Peterson recounted in interviews this week.

"I told her to leave it on the agenda. I knew then what I was going to do. I also thought it should be on the agenda because a lot of people were expecting it," McBride said.

McBride said he never actually told Peterson he would vote yes. Still, Peterson said he did ask her, as the floor manager for the bill, to give him a chance right before the roll call to make a statement explaining his vote and not to tell anybody about it beforehand. She did not need to be a mind-reader to figure he was going to be voting with her.

So it went. McBride caught nearly everyone off-guard as he delivered a carefully-reasoned statement to conclude the debate.

"If the death penalty actually represented in current circumstances a penalty comparable to the commission of a heinous capital crime, I would vote against repeal, but regrettably it does not," McBride said.

He blamed the arduous appeals through the courts as the prime culprit, prolonging pain and potentially overturning the sentence, anyway.

"For survivors, there is absolutely no certainty that the sentence will ever be carried out and therefore no closure," McBride said.

"I oppose the death penalty at this moment in time because it is, all arguments considered, a failed public policy that serves no purpose in our criminal justice system. It is not necessary for me to also believe -- and I do not -- that the death penalty is morally wrong."

The turnaround was stunning -- politically and philosophically.

"I did not know. I figured we had 11 votes, but a couple of them surprised me," said Gary Simpson, the state Senate's Republican minority leader who voted for the bill.

"McBride did not change his vote lightly. He had two years to think about it. It took a lot of courage," Peterson said.

As McBride himself explained in an interview afterwards, "I think I've read everything I could on the death penalty in the last two years. I want to feel like I stood up and did the right thing."

Actually, McBride seems to be making a habit of this wanting to stand up and do the right thing. It is the second time he has done it this session.

McBride was arguably the most articulate voice in urging the state Senate to confirm Jan Jurden as the Superior Court's president judge and to disregard the misplaced hysteria surrounding her a year ago because of a sentence in a child sex-abuse case.

This, despite his rough beginnings as a legislator and some embarrassing exposure in the last legislative term as the new majority leader, when McBride was named, although not charged, in a campaign finance investigation led by Norman Veasey, a former chief justice acting as an independent counsel, for accepting cases of beer and a case of vodka from a liquor wholesaler.

It looked so much like more of the same old McBride, but it appears to have given way to the broader perspective that a leadership post is supposed to demand.

"Since I became majority leader, some things happened in my life. There are 20 other people here that have a lot to say," McBride said.

So forget the old nickname. "Statewide" McBride? Maybe make it "statesman."