Posted: May 19, 2014
By Celia Cohen
The Democrats are the party of the people. The Republicans are the party of fiscal conservatism. Except when they are not.
A little role reversal is under way in Legislative Hall in Dover. It has to do with how the lieutenant governor should be replaced if there is a vacancy in the office.
It is hard to say who is to blame for this constitutional conundrum that has been unexpectedly thrust upon the Delaware General Assembly to sort out.
Beau Biden? Matt Denn? The delegates who drafted the state constitution in 1897?
The delegates were the ones who created the office -- Delaware did not previously have a lieutenant governor -- even though they were fairly dismissive of their own handiwork. If the office was ever left open by death, resignation or elevation to the governorship, whatever, then so be it.
As one delegate said, "I do not see that there is a particle of necessity for the election of a lieutenant governor in case of the office becoming vacant."
That was that. That is, until Beau Biden shockingly decided he would take a break from politics by not running for re-election as the Democratic attorney general this year, but for governor in 2016, and Matt Denn immediately rebooted to run for attorney general, midway through his term as the Democratic lieutenant governor.
Denn looks certain to win. This is what happens when someone is running unopposed, at least as of now, and it has legislators thinking they ought to amend the constitution rather than leave the state without a lieutenant governor for two years.
The Senate has taken up the matter. The Senate is more affected than the House of Representatives, because the lieutenant governor is the Senate's presiding officer, although the chamber does have a president pro tem who can preside or else designate someone to do so in the absence of the lieutenant governor.
The Senate is considering dueling constitutional amendments, one from the Democrats with Patti Blevins, the president pro tem, as the prime sponsor and another from the Republicans with Gary Simpson, the minority leader, as its prime sponsor.
It is not the Democrats, the party of the people, proposing to replace the lieutenant governor through a special election.
It is not the Republicans, the party of fiscal conservatism, objecting to spending nearly a million dollars for a special election and calling for a replacement through an appointment by the governor.
The Republicans have gone downright populist. "It should be the people's choice," Simpson said.
For now, the situation is at a stalemate. Neither side has the votes. To amend the constitution, it takes a two-thirds supermajority vote in both chambers in two consecutive terms of the legislature.
The Democrats are a vote short of a two-thirds supermajority on each side of Legislative Hall. They control the Senate by 13-8 and the House by 27-14.
The Democrats' version of the amendment includes a modicum of concessions toward the people's choice. The governor would have to appoint someone from the same political party as the previous lieutenant governor, in keeping with the will of the voters, and the new lieutenant governor would have to be confirmed by a majority of the senators, who are supposed to reflect their districts.
Still, it was not enough. "I am short at least one vote," Blevins said.
If no constitutional amendment is adopted, it would be status quo. No Denn, no lieutenant governor. It has one Republican senator uneasy enough to be wondering what the lesser of two unpalatable choices is.
"I am for a special election, first and foremost, but I am uncomfortable with the office staying open. My preference is always elections, but that is an important gig. That is one decision or tragedy from the governor," said Colin Bonini, the Republican senator.
Not surprisingly, there is a method to the Republicans' new-found madness for populism in this state of Democratic deep blue.
"Republicans can actually win special elections," Bonini quipped.
While the Republicans are at it, they are also having thoughts about changing the constitutional line of succession for the governor. Currently it runs from the governor through the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, president pro tem and speaker.
Debbie Hudson, the House's Republican minority whip, is working on a constitutional amendment, not yet introduced, to drop out the secretary of state, because it is the only position in the sequence that is appointed, not elected.
"I just thought that was a standout mistake," Hudson said.
While the legislative standoff persists over how to replace the lieutenant governor, there is another perfectly good solution available to the Republicans. They just have to come up with someone who can defeat Denn for attorney general.
If the Republicans want to be the party of the people, they have to give the people candidates.