Posted: July 1, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware General Assembly, which has been around for 300 years, takes for granted it will be the center of attention every June 30, when it ends its annual session in a blitz of bills.

Not this time. The legislature was upstaged by the sale of MBNA to Bank of America, a transaction that is right up there with Babe Ruth going from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, only no one knows if it comes with a curse or which side of the bad luck Delaware would be on.

Even in the obsessively self-centered world of Legislative Hall, MBNA was all the talk.

No one was really surprised that MBNA had been sold. Ever since the helicopter crash two weeks ago with the bank executives aboard, people figured an acquisition was coming sooner rather than later. What else would they have been doing in New York?

There was no getting around how much MBNA has woven itself into the very being of this state since it set up shop in a vacant grocery store in Ogletown after the 1981 passage of the landmark legislation that brought the banks in. It has a prodigious influence on employment, charitable giving, high-end real estate, even the market for dark-colored business suits and the work ethic here.

Sure, MBNA was known to throw its weight around, but if it was fat, a lot of people were happy.

The bank's reach was also clear in the jokes about what its initials stood for. It was "Money Buys Nearly Anything" because it was into everything. It was "Mothers Brothers Nephews Aunts" because a ton of people worked there and had family ties within the bank and the community at large.

MBNA's pervasiveness was obvious in the legislature's rush of business from mid-afternoon Thursday into the early morning hours Friday and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's customary end-of-session press conference, which wrapped up at about 3 a.m.

There was plenty of gallows humor -- "If you want to buy a fire-sale $5 million house, there are probably several on the market," one lobbyist quipped -- but there was also a great deal of seriousness.

State Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the House's Democratic minority leader, worried about the wisdom of the vote ratifying a bipartisan agreement, brokered by the legislative leadership and the Minner administration, to cut the gross receipts tax on businesses by nearly $50 million without knowing the effects of MBNA's metamorphosis on state revenues.

Gilligan was a party to the gross receipts deal, and he kept his word and voted for it, but he told the House of Representatives he was concerned. "I hope we did the right thing. I think we have some serious problems facing us," Gilligan said.

A lot of the unease in Legislative Hall was the Delawarean doubt about anything out of state. This is a place where everybody counts on knowing everybody else. No one knows Bank of America, and no one expects to run into their executives at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce annual dinner or a University of Delaware football game or the St. Patrick's Day Society, which has its breakfast every March 17 at MBNA on Rodney Square.

"Bank of America has no loyalty to Delaware," a former state official said.

Minner, a second-term Democrat, tried to calm those fears, saying she has visited the Bank of America's headquarters in North Carolina and does not expect the distance to be a problem.

"It's just as quick on the telephone," she said. "Once you have that working relationship with a group, it doesn't matter how far."

Right. Try saying "Go Eagles" in Charlotte.