Posted: June 25, 2007
By Celia Cohen
What state Sen. Charles L. Copeland has known most about raw legislative power is he did not have it.
Elected in 2002, Copeland remains the most junior Republican in the Delaware Senate, where the Democrats are in charge and nearly half the members have been in the legislature since at least the 1980s.
Copeland protested early and often about the high-handedness of the majority, but this year he has managed a taste of clout himself. He appears to find it to his liking.
The situation, of course, is different outside of Legislative Hall. Copeland is a member of the du Pont family, which invented better living through influencing the state it calls home. His district is not known as Chateau Country for nothing.
Copeland's legislative surge coincides with his decision to put his designs on the governorship on hold. Instead, he engineered a coup in the Republican caucus by collecting enough votes to overthrow state Sen. John C. Still III and become the minority leader himself.
It was an advance, but only so far. Leader or not, Copeland still was in the minority. Then special circumstances momentarily changed his status last week, and he made the most of it.
Copeland sits on the Senate Insurance & Elections Committee. It has six members, and the approval of four of them was needed to sign out a gay rights bill for consideration by the full Senate. The bill has been trapped in one Senate committee after another for session after session, even though there are enough votes in the chamber to pass it.
Copeland could have been the fourth signature to let the bill out, but he opposes it and would not sign. For once, he had the legislative muscle to do what he wanted, and he did.
The bill's backers tried to shame him. After all, Copeland became the minority leader on a platform of opening up the Senate committee system.
"If democracy is to mean anything, if open government is to mean anything, this bill must be voted out of the committee. The full Senate may then vote the bill up or down," said William D. Johnston, a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association and a current member of the state Human Relations Commission.
Copeland was having none of it. He had taken a stand against the single-handed power of a committee chair to kill legislation -- but not against the collective power of the committee to do it.
"My open-government issue has been and remains that we have a committee structure to process bills through," he said.
It was a lesson in power politics. Lobbyist Joseph P. Farley Sr. put it best when he was serving as the Democratic Party's state chair in the 1990s. He quipped, "If we're in the minority, we want it to be fair. If we're in the majority, hey, we didn't work this hard to get to be the majority to be fair."
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In Legislative Hall, the Land of the Eternal Grudge, one of them seems to have faded away. All it took was three generations.
It happened because Rebecca Byrd has been hired by Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, a first-term Democrat, primarily for the Justice Department's lobbying operation. A law school graduate who was admitted in March to the Delaware bar, Byrd has been clerking for Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely and doing some lobbying for the court system.
If ever there was a born lobbyist, Byrd is it. She is 27. For her entire life, her father Robert L. Byrd has been one of the state's premier lobbyists. He turned to lobbying after a couple of terms as a Democratic state representative, losing his seat when the voters realized he was better at insider politics than constituent work. Call it a mandate to lobby.
The Byrds and the Bidens have a history. Just ask Bobby Byrd. Way back in 1970, his mother Helen was an Elsmere councilwoman in line for the Democratic nomination for a New Castle County Council seat -- until she was shouldered aside by a 27-year-old lawyer named Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Two years after winning that election, Joe Biden was on his way to the U.S. Senate, and Helen Byrd never got to the County Council. Bobby Byrd has not forgotten, but it is a lonely memory, too thin to trip up this new Biden-Byrd alliance.
"It's a whole new generation that doesn't know about that," Bobby Byrd said.