Posted: May 27, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Anyone who thinks a bill to repeal the death penalty would have nothing to do with road projects does not understand Legislative Hall.

It is called "linkage." It comes in many forms, among them horse-trading, back-scratching, deal-making and log-rolling, the nomenclature itself a visual reminder of what is going on. A hyphen by another name is a link.

Linkage is as much a part of life in Dover as the daily Pledge of Allegiance. Some members of the Delaware General Assembly are more known for it than others. For example, there is a reason Joe Miro, a Republican representative, is known as "Trader Joe."

In this converging case of capital punishment and capital projects, the linkage that is in its formative stage would go by the name of hostage-taking.

Technically this is reverse linkage, not I'll-be-for-your-bill-if you'll-be-for-mine but I-won't-be-for-your-bill-if-you-won't-be-for-mine.

It is all part of the bad blood between Karen Peterson and Pete Schwartzkopf.

This has also become as much a part of legislative life as the daily Pledge of Allegiance, although it has not always been that way since they were elected in 2002, Peterson as a Democratic senator and Schwartzkopf, now the speaker, as a Democratic representative.

Once upon a time, they were both with Jack Markell in 2008 in the uneasy gubernatorial primary he won, where it was not necessarily a popular place to be among Democratic elected officials, who tended to favor John Carney.

They were also together on various gay rights bills. Schwartzopf represents Rehoboth Beach with its gay community, and Peterson took the occasion of the debate on gay marriage to come out to all, a moment so meaningful that Peterson and Vikki Bandy were the consensus choice to be the first gay couple to get a marriage license here.

Then Schwartzkopf became the speaker, and one of the first things he did was fire Bandy from her part-time job as a legislative aide, or as Schwartzkopf prefers to put it, "not hiring" her back for the 2012-2014 session.

That was personal. It soon spread to politics and principle over the repeal legislation, for which Peterson is the chief sponsor.

The bill narrowly slipped through the Senate by a bare majority, but it is stuck in a committee in the House of Representatives, just as it was in the last legislative term. This can happen when the speaker, namely Schwartzkopf, used to be state trooper who wants the death penalty to stay on the books, as does most of law enforcement.

Peterson is known for playing for keeps. She once pulled off an end-run around the Senate leadership to get the legislature to abide by the Freedom of Information Act, and she was instrumental in getting a president pro tem thrown out of office.

She wants the repeal bill to come up for a House vote. This is where the linkage comes in.

Schwartzkopf has put a lot on the line for a bill that would bring in an additional $24 million a year in motor vehicle fees to go for roadwork. It got through the House and awaits action in the Senate.

As a revenue raiser, the bill requires a super-majority of three-fifths to pass. The Democrats had enough votes to push it through the House without a single Republican voting for it, but not through the Senate, where it will need at least one vote from a Republican.

It could get even more complicated, because Peterson is giving serious thought to withholding her vote, as well, unless the repeal bill gets its day in the House, come what may, because the roll call there is likely to be as close as the one in the Senate was.

"I'm just thinking about it. It's not a decision I made. I'm chewing on it," Peterson said.

"I've never done this before, ever, but you get to the point where enough is enough. Vote it up, vote it down, whatever. Let democracy work."

Schwartzkopf has about had his fill of linkage. He already heard about it from the House Republicans, who put up a united front against the road money after unsuccessfully trying to leverage their votes for a whole host of things, including a council on spending, a revision in the way wages are set on construction projects and a right-to-work bill on union membership.

"I don't understand this mentality where somebody has to have something in return for doing what is right for our state. It seems more like D.C. politics, and we all know what we think of D.C. politics," Schwartzkopf said.

"Karen's free to do what she wants. It wouldn't be the first time she's doing something counterproductive. We all know we need the infrastructure. I would hope she wouldn't tie her vote to the death penalty."

Linking highways and the death penalty certainly gives a whole new meaning to "road-kill."

The Democrats could always go out and try to get two Senate Republican votes, to make up for Peterson's, but really.

Who knows how this will come out, now that dueling is out of fashion, because neither Peterson nor Schwartzkopf is the type to give ground. As Peterson said, "You know me, I'm part kamikaze pilot. I'll crash and burn."

For Peterson, it is never-say-die. This does not just apply to the death penalty. This is the way she legislates, too.