Posted: June 8, 2010
REMEMBERING ADA LEIGH SOLES, 1937-2010
By Celia Cohen
Politics is not exactly known for its grace and decency. It is the reason Ada Leigh Soles stood out, because glad grace and deft decency were what she was.
Soles, a Democratic state representative from Newark from 1980 to 1992, was a political figure in her own right, but she did not stand alone.
She was also half of a compelling couple in her marriage with Jim Soles, a political scientist who peopled state politics for a generation with the students he taught at the University of Delaware.
Together they were an inspiration, a delightful pair who could fill your glass with the fine bourbon of their Southern roots, enlighten you with their wisdom, or liven up the moment with an observation that was wickedly on point but never tawdry.
In the infinite irony of life, they towered despite being small in size.
Ada Leigh Soles died Monday evening at 73 after a gallant toil against Parkinson's disease for more than 20 years, her supple mind betrayed at length by an uncooperative body.
Tom Carper, the Democratic senator, met Ada Leigh and Jim Soles 36 years ago, Ada Leigh first. Carper was a graduate student, and they were introduced while attending a performance on the University of Delaware campus.
"I was smitten by Ada Leigh. What a wonderful, wonderful woman," Carper said.
Carper stayed impressed. After he was elected governor in 1992, he brought her in to his administration, primarily because of her knowledge of the legislature.
She had proved herself there, the memory of it still clear to Lonnie George, a fellow Democratic legislator before becoming the president of Delaware Technical & Community College.
"She was the consummate citizen-legislator, a woman of integrity, intellect and vision who brought to bear all of her talents and energy to represent her constituents," George said.
"In a difficult environment, she always remained a gentlewoman, treating everyone with dignity and respect. Delaware has lost one of its most beloved public servants."
Soles arrived in Legislative Hall in Dover at just the right time, as the General Assembly was reinventing itself as something at least marginally better than a glorified frat house, where the place was soggy with booze and not just bills were laid on the table.
She brought class and civic-mindedness. She brought her Newark constituents' devotion to learning and libraries. The majority Republicans in the House of Representatives saw a star in the making and countered. They stuck her on the agriculture committee, instead of the education committee she requested, to try to make her disappear. It backfired.
Soles instantly became a cause, her committee assignment protested by Lonnie George, then the Democratic minority leader.
"You've got the numbers and you can punish us," George railed. "A woman of her intellect is being punished. They don't want to give her the exposure she needs to show her constituents what a good legislator she can be. They're cutting her right at the knees."
Soles said simply, "I will do a good job wherever I serve."
Soles was a rare legislator who actually could change minds and votes during debate. A bill that would have limited the right to trial by jury in certain circumstances appeared to be on its way to easy passage, but it was voted down after she spoke against it.
Soles did not mind causing a little mischief. In one of those times, she involved herself in a story about how Carper met Ed Freel, his chief political strategist who also was the secretary of state when he was governor.
After a stint as Jim Soles' graduate assistant, Freel went to Florida for a job and left a girlfriend behind in Delaware. They agreed they would date other people, but Freel came to think she was seeing someone else a little too much.
It was 1974. It was going to be a huge Democratic year because of Watergate, and Jim Soles decided to run for the state's lone congressional seat, unsuccessfully as it turned out. Freel came home to manage the campaign and reclaim his girlfriend. She introduced him to the other guy -- "Ed, I'd like you to meet Tom Carper."
All three of them worked on Soles' campaign. All three of them also went their own way romantically and married other people.
In interviews for a book about Delaware politics, Carper and Freel freely told the story of the mutual girlfriend but kept her name out of it. When they were not around, Ada Leigh Soles secretly spilled it.
The girlfriend later consented to have her name used. You can look it up in Only in Delaware, a modern history of state politics, because of Ada Leigh Soles.
Grace and decency and a little mischief. What a gift.