Posted: July 1, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

All week long, Legislative Hall was buzzing that there could be a surprise retirement as the Delaware General Assembly left Dover for the year on June 30.

The most likely suspect seemed to be 74-year-old state Rep. Joseph G. DiPinto, a respected Republican from Wilmington with a throwback courtliness that made him come across as "Gentleman Joe," but he showed up Friday with copies of his 2006 certificate of candidacy and the $795 check he paid for his filing fee.

DiPinto, however, did not spend eight years as the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee without knowing how to move money around and keep people guessing. His filing fee was refundable, his candidacy a ruse.

Moments after the legislature approved the budget bill in the early hours of Saturday morning, DiPinto became the sixth member of the state House of Representatives to retire rather than seek re-election in November.

It is an unusually large retirement class from the 41-member chamber, where time is doing what politics cannot. Sitting legislators have all the advantages that come from the prestige of their office, the lifestyle upgrade of a $42,000-a-year salary, the power of incumbency and the benefit of drawing their own district lines, and they generally fear no opponent.

So many members stay for so long that the legislature had to start a second plaque listing those with at least 20 years in office, but age, health and exhaustion are having more of an effect than negative campaigning ever could. State Rep. Tina Fallon, a Seaford Republican, is leaving at 88, for example, and state Rep. Gerald A. Buckworth, a Camden-Wyoming area Republican, survives on a kidney transplanted from his wife.

The departures are accelerating, at least in the House. Even before a single ballot is cast, the chamber is guaranteed a 40 percent turnover that began with the 2002 election. There were six new representatives that year, five in 2004, a minimum of six in 2006.

Not so the Senate, or more precisely, not yet. The 21-member chamber, which has the luxury of four-year terms instead of two for the House, still is running in place, its most recent change being the election of two new senators in 2002. Four of its members have been there since the 1970s.

The House is watching inestimable institutional memory walk out the door. In addition to DiPinto, Fallon and Buckworth, it is losing state Rep. Roger P. Roy, a Republican from the Hockessin-Pike Creek Valley area, state Rep. John F. Van Sant, a Democrat from the Elsmere area, and state Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., an ex-Republican from Frederica as quirky as a junior birdman who quit his caucus last year to fly solo in what is called the "Wally Party."

Together they have served 150 years. DiPinto and Roy have been the engines of Legislative Hall as the co-chairs, respectively, of the Joint Finance Committee and the Bond Bill Committee, which writes the state's construction budget. Van Sant is the minority whip.

The retirements are adding to the chords of instability playing in this election season, the first one in decades that could test the balance of power that has kept a Democratic Senate majority since two senators defected in 1973 and a Republican House majority since the 1984 election.

The Senate Democrats have a margin of 13-8, the House Republicans an edge of 25-15-1, the one being the Wally Party.

In the Senate, the eyes are on two races. One is a rematch of a 2002 contest in which state Sen. David P. Sokola, a Pike Creek Valley Democrat, kept his seat over Republican Michael J. Ramone by 277 votes. The other is the re-election campaign of state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., an 81-year-old Clayton Democrat with health so fragile he is a whispery ghost of the state trooper he once was.

In the House, Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan galvanized his fellow Democrats, whose fortunes are on the upswing, anyway, by challenging the party to win "Six in '06" to take over the majority. There is no sure path for doing it, but it does not hurt that five of the six retirements are from Republican seats, counting the one that Caulk had.

When DiPinto's retirement was announced, Democratic staffers were slapping high-fives in the basement, where the minority's offices are. The voter registration in DiPinto's district favors the Democrats.

Legislators are not just nervous about what the voters will do to the balance of power. They are worrying about one another, too. If the Senate Republicans or House Democrats come close to a majority, there is always the possibility that someone will defect and give it to them.

Before there can be the hellos and skulduggery of a new session in January, however, there were the good-byes of June. The House spent upwards of two hours doing what it does best for itself -- feeling the love.

Outside Legislative Hall, they all may be called crummy politicians, but inside, they are kings and queens, and they took care of themselves.

A new Woodland Ferry, which crosses the Nanticoke River at Seaford, will be christened "The Tina Fallon." Boxer Dave Tiberi arrived to announce that the Elmere Boxing Club will be renamed the "John Van Sant Boxing Club."

Gilligan ribbed Buckworth for claiming to be "all-county" in football without letting on that Elkton High School was the only one in Cecil County, Md., at the time.

There was even a tribute for Caulk, although he was cranky to the end, vacating Legislative Hall during a dinner break to skip the late-night farewell ceremonies that ran past midnight.

Much of the attention was lavished on Roy, revered for the traits legislators prize the most, a swashbuckling kingmaker and deal cutter, always rushing, often explosive, constantly entertaining, protecting their backs, endearing with a Maine accent that made him one-of-a-kind here.

State Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, a Middletown Republican, said Roy was so good, he once talked a New York cop who caught him driving 85 miles an hour into giving him a ticket for a "faulty odometer."

DiPinto missed out on the accolades by keeping his retirement a secret until afterwards. Ever the man of mystery, he would not talk about the speculation that he might turn up in the administration of Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, a Democrat who is a longtime friend. William S. Montgomery, the mayor's chief aide, would not talk, either, but he was smiling.

Amid all the embraces and tears, there was still the politics that is the lifeblood of Legislative Hall. Gilligan and Roy, Democrat and Republican, may have bear-hugged like Cossacks after knocking back shots of vodka, but Gilligan never stopped thinking about those "Six in '06" that could make him the speaker.

In an interview in his office, Gilligan said wittily, "I feel sorry for the people tonight who don't know they're going."