Posted: June 21, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Ever since state Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr. became the president pro tem in 2003, there has been no doubt where the power resided in the Delaware Senate.

Adams, a Bridgeville Democrat, has counted on the unflagging support of three caucus mates, downstaters like himself, and consolidated their collective control by giving them influential posts.

Majority leaders have come and gone, majority whips have been treated like interchangeable parts, all buzzing like electrons around the true nucleus of the caucus -- which is Adams along with Sen. Nancy W. Cook of Kenton, Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr. of Laurel, and Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr. of Clayton. Not even Vaughn's session-long absence from the after-effects of cancer and pneumonia has diluted their shared strength.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner must have looked into the future when she was a Democratic state senator. She left. It was going to be easier to get to be the governor than to crack into power in that caucus.

Nothing occurs in Legislative Hall without this foursome. Adams runs the Senate Executive Committee in charge of the governor's nominations. Cook handles the budget as the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. Venables oversees construction projects as the co-chair of the Bond Bill Committee. Vaughn has the courts in his sights as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They are throwbacks, elected in the 1970s or 1980s, keeping the Senate the last stubborn base of the old-fashioned conservative Democrats from Kent County and Sussex County, dominant in state politics until the suburban explosion in New Castle County in the 1960s began their eclipse.

They believe the purpose of power is to be used. It means they are comfortable functioning as a political black hole. Once again they have sucked away a gay rights bill.

The legislation, first introduced by state Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., a Republican from a district south of Newark, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public places like restaurants and hotels, insurance and other contracts.

This is Delaware. The conflict has not broken along party lines but along the enduring divide between upstate and downstate, a key exception being state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr. and state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, downstate Democrats who represent a robust gay constituency in Rehoboth Beach.

Various versions of the gay rights bill have been approved by the state House of Representatives. It had perhaps its most triumphant moment when Minner stood on the steps inside Legislative Hall in 2003 and endorsed it, saying, "What makes us strong as a nation is our willingness to allow people to live as they choose."

Session after session, the measure has been stymied in the Senate as Adams, Venables, Vaughn and now Cook have played a master game of Keep Away.

In one earlier incarnation, Adams assigned the bill to the Small Business Committee, where Venables as the chair refused to let it come before the Senate for consideration. In another, it went into Vaughn's Judiciary Committee for another round of the silent treatment.

When the latest version was introduced as Senate Bill 141 last week, Adams sent it to the Insurance & Elections Committee, chaired by state Sen. Patricia M. Blevins, the Democratic majority whip from Elsmere. Blevins is a friend of the bill, and she quickly scheduled a hearing for it Wednesday as a prelude to getting it to the floor.

There were whispers that Adams had made a mistake, not recognizing the bill in its newest form and assigning it to Blevins' committee by accident.

"We'll see if it's a mistake," Adams said with a smile.

Adams had Cook to cover for him. She sits on the Insurance & Elections Committee.

While a committee chair single-handedly can stop legislation, it takes a majority of the committee members to sign out a bill for Senate debate -- in this case, four of the six members.

Among the Democrats on the committee, Blevins was for it, as were Sen. David P. Sokola, the prime sponsor from Pike Creek Valley, and Sen. Harris B. McDowell III from Wilmington. On the Republican side, neither Sen. Charles P. Copeland, the minority leader from Greenville, nor Sen. John C. Still III from Dover were willing to sign it out, saying it would burden small-business owners, which they both are -- Copeland with a printing company and Still with an insurance agency.

That left Cook. "I will not be [signing out the bill.] I feel the majority of my constituents oppose the legislation, and I've been elected to serve them," she said.

The tactic of Keep Away worked again. It did not matter that the governor wanted the bill. It did not matter that there was a majority of at least 12 senators from both parties ready to vote "yes" in the 21-member chamber if the bill was brought up for consideration, according to a tally provided by the Delaware Liberty Fund, a gay political organization.

It did not matter that the House was poised to pass the measure again. It did not matter that the 24 speakers, not counting legislators, testifying at Blevins' committee hearing broke 3-1 in its favor.

Time matters, though, and the backers of the gay-rights bill say it is on their side. If not now, soon.

Blevins sensed it in the lopsidedness of the testimony. "The opposition is fading, and people recognize that the bill will be reality. We're closer and closer," she said.

It could be seen in the presence of the statewide officeholders who attended the committee hearing with an eye to the future. Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell, rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, called for enactment, as did Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor. Wilmington Council President Theodore Blunt, another Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, sent an e-mail in support.

Markell mentioned the tide of time as he quoted the late Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican who said, "It's time America realized that there was no gay exemption in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence."

McDowell put it more simply than anyone. "The time has come," he said.

It is not enough for time to come, though. It has to pass by Adams, Cook and Venables, even if Vaughn has taken a time-out. Still, they have been put on notice that the wait is under way.

"I'll come back. I'll come back a wrinkled old lesbian holding my grandchild," said Frann Anderson, a Wilmington resident who spoke at the hearing to ask for the bill to do what she did.

Come out.