Posted: June 25, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

From the day Thurman Adams arrived in the state Senate, a Bridgeville Democrat elected by a rural, conservative constituency in Sussex County, it was certain he was a natural for Legislative Hall.

Adams walked in on a coup. It was Jan. 9, 1973, the start of a new term of the Delaware General Assembly in Dover.

The Republicans had the Senate majority, 11-10, but two of their number craved more power. They had plotted beforehand with the Democrats to vote with them and give them control of the chamber in exchange for prime leadership and committee posts.

The betrayal blindsided the Republicans. The Senate was in an uproar as the Republicans tried to prevent the Democrats from taking over. There was a confusing barrage of motions -- something on the order of a motion to table the proceding motion, to table the proceding motion, to table the proceding motion.

With the roll called in alphabetical order, Adams had to vote first. It was a situation that could have baffled a veteran parliamentarian, let alone a rookie senator on his maiden day, but Adams was unruffled. He had it figured out.

If a Democrat made the last motion, Adams would vote for it. If a Republican did, he would vote against it.

"I didn't miss," Adams said proudly in an interview in 1998.

Adams cast the first vote leading to Democratic control, which has remained unbroken to this day and sustained his own ascent for 36 years -- from the chair of the Executive Committee, with sway over the governor's nominations, to majority leader to president pro tem.

Adams was the iron in Legislative Hall. When he died Tuesday at 80 from the swift onslaught of pancreatic cancer, he left it somber and disoriented, its gravity wobbling.

"It's heavy in here with sadness," said Sen. Bob Venables, a Laurel Democrat. "Some people might say he was from the old school. We're going to find out how important that old school was."

Adams was a singular figure. He looked as though he could have walked out of the pages of the Old Testament. His voice could have been mined from deep in a quarry, and he had a certain shyness that could be mistaken as intimidating and camouflaged his personal warmth.

He was as comfortable running a feed business, where he made his living, as he was meeting presidents -- like John Kennedy, whom he met at the dedication of the Delaware Turnpike in 1963, eight days before Kennedy was assassinated.

Adams could be downright playful. He showed it one Governor's Day at the Delaware State Fair, where he was a director. It was a post that was his pride and joy, not to mention a well-known political power base downstate.

Adams customarily escorted the governor around the Harrington grounds. Once he was called away to participate in a milking contest with George Simpson, the fair manager, while Gov. Pete du Pont, a Republican, was there. When Adams returned, du Pont asked him how he and Simpson had fared.

Simpson had out-milked Adams, but Adams answered without letting on that they were the only two contestants. "I came in second," he said. "George was next to last."

Adams was no bully, but he did use his power. He could turn the Executive Committee into a black hole for nominees he opposed. In another raw display as the 2009 session opened, he made it clear to the Republicans that he favored Sen. Gary Simpson over Sen. Liane Sorenson for minority leader -- or else.

It was an extraordinary case of meddling. Sorenson, a Hockessin Republican, was interested in moving up from minority whip, but Simpson, a Milford Republican, sat on the state fair board with Adams. Simpson was elected. Sorenson stayed the minority whip.

Adams was never one for frills, so it was fitting the Senate session was so spare on the day of his death. The chamber convened for only 11 minutes, long enough to pay respects to the Adams family members who attended.

It fell to Bernard Brady, the secretary of the Senate, to devise a simple tribute, as unaffected as Adams himself. Brady took the daily attendance, closing out Adams' remarkable Senate career with a roll call as memorable as the one that began it.

"Senator Adams," Brady said, then paused for the answer that could not come. "Rest in peace."