Posted: July 1, 2009
NOT YOUR FATHER'S LEGISLATURE
By Celia Cohen
Ruth Ann Minner was still the governor when the new Delaware General Assembly began in January. The Senate was still refusing to believe that John Carney was not the next governor.
Jack Markell, the guy who was the new governor, was met by the Legislative Hall gang with the sort of smirks usually reserved for substitute teachers. Never mind that Markell and the majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives were Democrats.
The Democratic majority in the House was new and very raw. Rep. Bob Gilligan, the new speaker, was the only one who had ever served in the majority, back in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Neither Gilligan nor Matt Denn, the new Democratic lieutenant governor, had any experience presiding over the floor action. Fortunately for both of them, the high-flung language that flows from their podiums is written down in a script.
There were three new senators in the 21-member Senate, plus nine new representatives and one retread in John Atkins, the redeemed Republican-turned-Democrat from Millsboro, among the 41 House members.
The Chrysler auto assembly plant in Newark had just closed. The General Motors plant on Boxwood Road was about to follow.
Delaware's projected budgetary deficit was so frighteningly high, it was like the state had learned its investment officer was a brother-in-law of Bernie Madoff.
As the traditional end of the legislative session on June 30 approached, the Dover crowd was stunned a week beforehand by the death of Thurman Adams, the 80-year-old Bridgeville Democrat who was the Senate's president pro tem.
It was all a recipe for massive trauma.
No wonder Rep. Biff Lee, the Laurel Republican asked to give the prayer in the House on the last night, offered, "Father, what a first session you have given us, from welcoming 10 new kids [members] to sending us a small financial crisis to burying a real Delaware statesman and friend, Sen. Thurman Adams."
From the bluster of January through the heat of June, the legislature had all the orderliness of the Pamplona Running of the Bulls.
It was so frenzied and the budget crisis so searing, it all but obscured the democratic renewal that a new governor and a reconstituted General Assembly brought, even if it did take the state more than 300 years.
The Senate shelved its dreaded desk-drawer veto, which let committee chairs unilaterally kill bills.
An eminent domain act asserted rights for property owners. A new anti-discrimination law gave gay Delawareans protection for some of the building blocks of life -- to get a job and find housing, for example, although not to marry.
An open government measure empowered the constituency, once Sen. Karen Peterson, a Stanton Democrat, daringly forced a vote with a surprise motion to bring it before the chamber. It was as jarring to the Old Order as Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.
Thurman Adams' passing meant a new look for the legislative leadership. Back in the day when he joined the Senate in 1972, everyone knew what diversity was -- someone each from New Castle County, Kent County, Sussex County and the city of Wilmington. Not anymore.
Geographical diversity has given way to demographic diversity. As Sen. Tony DeLuca moved up from majority leader to president pro tem and Sen. Patti Blevins from majority whip to majority leader, the Democratic caucus chose Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, the chamber's lone African-American with 15 years in Dover, as the majority whip.
Add in the appointed co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee -- Rep. Dennis Porter Williams and Sen. Nancy Cook -- and the composition of the 12 members of the General Assembly's leadership breaks down as six white men, one black man, four white women and one black woman.
"It makes you very proud that we're being responsive to the times," Henry said. "When the citizens stop and think about it, they should be pleased."
There were not very many clues of a new day as the 2009 session was gaveled in. Not only were the governor and so many legislators untested, but it began in a show of old-fashioned power politics with Adams strong-arming the Senate Republicans into making Sen. Gary Simpson, a fellow Sussex Countian, the minority leader.
By the time Minner stopped by to visit on June 30, however, she was a living reminder that Legislative Hall was a different place.
When the last day ended about four in the morning on July 1, with the grindingly brutal work completed to craft a balanced budget, it was like a fever broke. Markell, who was described as having a steep learning curve as he assumed the governorship, had the groundwork laid to make his mark.
"The governor did very well, considering he inherited a financial tsunami. As of four o'clock this morning, he becomes the real governor of Delaware," said Gilligan, the speaker.
Not that it was pretty. It took two tries to pass a sports betting bill, needed for the revenue it would bring. A failed alcohol tax made the Bond Bill Committee scramble on the last night to perform some surgery on the state's next construction budget. There was the usual quota of temper tantrums and paybacks.
Not to mention that June 30 is enough of an ordeal without having the Senate chamber so blasted by a super-charged air conditioner that Sen. Bob Venables, a Laurel Democrat, sat there wrapped in a blanket.
They have all left Legislative Hall now, and what a relief. The poet T.S. Eliot thought April was the cruelest month only because he never saw the Delaware General Assembly in June.