Posted: June 15, 2016
A DEAD CAT, THE DEATH PENALTY AND A DEPOSED PRO TEM
By Celia Cohen
The dead cat in the backyard just could not be found. Not much ever got the best of Karen Peterson, but that dead cat did.
Peterson was looking for the dead cat in the name of constituent service. It was an example of the way she would pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe in a JFK flourish for the calling she had as a state senator.
Now Peterson, a Democrat from Stanton, has decided to leave the Delaware General Assembly after 14 years of representing a legislative district that is spread-eagled from Newport to Newark.
She surprised nearly everyone when she told her colleagues, as they went into session on Tuesday in Dover, she would not run for re-election -- mostly because she was 66 years old and it was just time.
"I gave it 110 percent, and I think I served my district well," Peterson said later in an interview.
Peterson plunged gladly into the most consequential matters of the day -- justice for sexually abused children, the death penalty and gay rights -- but it was never abstract for her, it was always about the people at the heart of it, so naturally constituent service was at the heart of what she did.
Like looking for that dead cat. It was one of those things that came about when Peterson took up the cause of Glenville, a trusty little neighborhood that flooded and flooded badly until there was really nothing left to do but get the people out of there.
Peterson was a new state senator at the time, although she was not new to constituent work, not after she spent eight years as the New Castle County Council president in the 1980s, not to mention her time watching out for workers in 28 years with the state Labor Department.
Glenville was an audacious struggle. The state eventually agreed to buy out more than 160 homeowners at a fair price and provide them with a relocation allowance.
Peterson worked alongside Bob Gilligan, then the state House Democratic minority leader who also represented the area, and they got logistical assistance from Wayne Smith, then the House Republican majority leader -- even if it also took Peterson threatening to run in a primary against Ruth Ann Minner, then the Democratic governor up for re-election in 2004, to make it happen.
"It was a miracle that never could be done today," Gilligan said, still marveling.
Just when Peterson thought it was over, she got a call from a woman, upset the crews had arrived to dismantle Glenville. Peterson said they were supposed to be there, and the woman said, yes, but, she had buried her dead cat in her backyard with a plastic Tupperware container for a coffin and she wanted it, lest it be gone with Glenville.
So Peterson and Vikki Bandy, her wife after Peterson later helped make it legal, got shovels and went to the backyard and dug near the bush where the woman thought the cat was. They dug and dug and dug, and it was hot, and still they dug, but they never turned up the tabby in the Tupperware.
Bill Clinton has been known to talk about fighting until the last dog dies. Peterson keeps on going when the cat is dead.
There are countless legislators who come and go without a single signature accomplishment. Peterson amazingly made her mark with four of them.
When the country was wrestling with an increasing awareness of too many children sexually abused by clergy, coaches and other authority figures, Peterson fashioned legislation in 2007 to lift the statute of limitations for two years so abused children could sue. It became law as the Child Victims Act, and it is what Peterson is most proud of.
Peterson was not the prime sponsor of the gay marriage bill, but she made it her own when she came out publicly during the debate in the state Senate in 2013. "We are what God made us," she said.
With damn-the-torpedoes fearlessness, Peterson stood up to the legislative powers and shook up the workings of Legislative Hall with her determination to open up the legislature's records and proceedings by putting them under the Freedom of Information Act.
The effort was the embodiment of futility for years, until the state House of Representatives went Democratic in 2008 and Gilligan became the speaker.
Gilligan and Peterson go way back -- he was a teacher at St. Elizabeth in Wilmington when he was drafted to be the girl's basketball coach in 1965 and she was a sophomore on the team -- and with Gilligan pushing and Peterson pulling, they outmaneuvered the over-my-dead-body opposition to bring freedom-of-information to the legislature.
Most recently, Peterson has championed the repeal of the death penalty. It has gotten through the state Senate twice, only to stall in the state House, but the state courts are looking at it now to decide if the state statute is constitutional.
Along the way for Peterson, there have also been famous feuds.
Peterson has taken on Pete Schwartzkopf, who became the Democratic speaker in 2012 after Gilligan retired, most notably over the death penalty. Schwartzkopf is a retired state police commander who wants to keep it, but there has been no doubt their conflict is also personal.
Very personal. When Schwartzkopf came in as the speaker, he fired Vikki Bandy from a part-time job as a legislative aide.
Peterson also mixed it up with Tony DeLuca, who was the state Senate's Democratic president pro tem. Like a lot of people, she was put off by his strongman leadership approach, but unlike a lot of people, she did something about it.
Peterson backed Bryan Townsend in a Democratic primary against DeLuca in 2012, and today DeLuca is an ex-pro tem and Townsend is a state senator running for congressman.
If Peterson could be dismissive with legislative leadership, she never was with the staff. Legislative aides were crying when they heard she was calling it quits.
As Peterson departs, leaving about a month to go before the candidates' filing deadline, she has no obvious replacement. Although her district billows across five state House districts, none of the state representatives in them live in the state Senate district. Whoever comes next is likely to be another Democrat, though, because Democratic voters outnumber the Republicans by 2-1.
As for Peterson, her plans are the same as a lot of other people's. "We're going to Disney World! It's booked," she said.
Call it a legislative life well-lived. Peterson did not lose many fights, and even if she did, people knew she was in them, so here is a tip.
If Peterson decides to tilt with windmills, do not bet on the windmills.