Posted: July 1, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Republican legislators who have a stranglehold majority in the House of Representatives had an ambitious wish list, timed for the finale of the 2004 legislative session on June 30.

They wanted to cut personal income taxes and business taxes. They wanted more state police and more dollars for education, and they were determined to press their case forcefully with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat who is up for election this year, and her allies in the Senate Democratic majority.

The House Republicans sat on the budget bill, which had to be approved to keep state government operating in the new fiscal year beginning July 1, and they left doubts about completing a construction budget before the end of the session.

Then they waited for the governor to come around. They waited, and they waited, and they waited, until it dawned on them Tuesday, the next to the last day of the session, that the governor was not coming around -- for an obvious reason.

Minner did not want anything from them. "When only one side has something they want, you don't have much of a negotiation," conceded House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Brandywine Hundred Republican.

Minner has not spent 30 years in Dover as a legislator, lieutenant governor and governor for nothing. She avoided deal-making with the House Republicans by tucking her own wish list  -- such as more money for reading teachers, economic development and cancer prevention and treatment -- into the operating and construction budgets.

Sooner or later, the money bills had to pass, and Minner knew it.

In fact, Legislative Hall was filled with talk of Newt Gingrich, the House Republican speaker who hurt his party by shutting down the federal government in 1995 over a budget impasse with Bill Clinton, the Democratic president. There was even joking about a "Contract with Delaware" -- a reference to Gingrich's "Contract with America," a platform that helped the Republicans take over the Congress in 1994.

The House Republicans did not dare shut down the state government. Besides, they had programs and projects in the money bills, too.

"Newt Gingrich gave us a pretty good example," Smith said. He was left feeling hoodwinked, complaining that the governor had led on the House Republicans for weeks with a "farce of pretending there was a negotiation," but it was clear that his side had been outfoxed.

The House Republicans gave in and sent the budget bill to the governor before midnight on June 30. The construction budget, called the bond bill because it is financed largely through bonds, followed. It had been drafted feverishly on Tuesday and Wednesday in a marathon work session led by state Rep. Roger P. Roy, a Pike Creek Valley Republican.

Minner signed the money bills into law during a press conference that ended shortly before four in the morning on Thursday.

Those bills were not all that went the governor's way on the last night of the session. Henry duPont Ridgely, the Superior Court president judge who was her choice for the state Supreme Court,  was confirmed by the Senate, and a long-awaited bill that would lower the blood-alcohol content for a drunken-driving arrest was approved.

The blood-alcohol bill was regarded not only as public safety legislation but as a money measure because federal aid was contingent on its passage. The bill had been blocked by state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat who believed the state was "being blackmailed by the federal government."

Vaughn relented after a minor amendment was added, although he still voted against the bill, and there was speculation in Legislative Hall that other events had softened his opposition. Was it the personal visit Minner recently paid to his office, or was it the upcoming vacancy for Superior Court president judge that Minner has to fill to replace Ridgely, perhaps with Superior Court Judge James T. Vaughn Jr., the senator's son?

There was one significant bill identified with the governor that did not get through. Minner had put the prestige of her office behind House Bill 99, a gay anti-discrimination measure that divided along philosophical lines, not party politics. The House passed it last year, but since then it has remained locked in a Senate committee chaired by Vaughn.

The bill's backers spent the last legislative night in a fierce, subterranean fight trying to bring the bill to the floor through a petition, a rarely-used tactic for bypassing the will of a committee. A petition needs the signatures of at least 11 of the 21 senators to succeed.

The House Bill 99ers stalled on 10 names. They worked doggedly to drag a final signature from state Sen. Catherine L. Cloutier, a Brandywine Hundred Republican whom they considered a potential supporter, but she would not yield.

The pressure was so great that some anti-99ers eventually surrounded Cloutier to keep the other side from getting to her. "We're protecting our turf," said Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III, a Dover Republican who was part of the circle.

Every four years, the end of the legislative session customarily signals the beginning of the gubernatorial campaign. Minner is expected to face retired Judge William Swain Lee, the endorsed Republican candidate, once he gets by what is regarded as a nuisance primary.

Minner seems to have emerged from the session with scant few issues to haunt her. The uproar over the anti-smoking ban apparently has gone up in smoke. She sidestepped a hugely popular Republican push for a veterans home by signing on herself. The state police force still smolders and crackles with lawsuits, but Minner brought in a new public safety secretary to deal with it.

This is what is called the power of incumbency.

The legislative session went well enough for Minner that the Democrats tried to tie it into the gubernatorial campaign, something the Republicans disavowed.

House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan, a Democrat from a suburban Newark-Newport district, accused the Republicans of using their wish list for leverage against the governor. "We saw a situation where some people were starting to campaign a bit early," he said.

State Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Republican from a Hockessin-Greenville district, countered that the tax-cut legislation she sponsored was part of a House Republican agenda, not gubernatorial politics.

"I'm not down here [in Dover] to work for a candidate," she said.

It was just as well. Bill Lee was nowhere to be seen. Much to the Republicans' chagrin, he appears to be running from an undisclosed location.

Minner herself acted ready to roll -- if not quite on the morning after June 30. "I intend to be here for the next four years," she said. "Could I at least get a couple of hours sleep?"