Posted: July 28, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Big Republican Brother is watching Gary Simpson, the state Senate's Republican minority leader, and Big Republican Brother is not pleased.

Big Republican Brother also does not think the public has any right to know Simpson had a tap on his shoulder. It all seems so 1984.

There are strange things happening in Sussex County, where Simpson lives in Milford. Even though the Sussex Republicans had a good election year in 2010, they drove out their top officers and installed new ones with Glen Urquhart, the unsuccessful congressional candidate, as the chair.

The aim of the Republicans' reconstituted executive committee, which runs the local party, is to bulk up and bear down. Even on its own elected officials, apparently. Or perhaps especially.

"The committee has found its voice and intends on using it," said John Rieley, the new vice chair.

Simpson is among the first to find out. The Sussex Republicans voted earlier this month to let him know he had voted wrong on a bill. Clearly it is not nice to fool with Big Republican Brother.

What was this terrible bill? A tax hike? Same-sex marriage? An assault on gun rights?

It was about drainage, of all things. The legislation, Senate Bill 64, would authorize the adoption of new standards to prevent flooding, a problem estimated to have cost the state $65 million to fix since 1996.

The drainage bill was drafted by the Department of National Resources & Environmental Control. It was passed in June with serious bipartisan support in both chambers of the Delaware General Assembly and sent to Jack Markell, the Democratic governor who has not signed it into law yet but is expected to.

Simpson voted for it. In the 21-member Senate, there were only four votes against it from the three downstate Republicans who sit together in the "Row of No" -- Joe Booth, Colin Bonini and Dave Lawson -- plus Bob Venables, a downstate Democrat.

The Sussex Republicans passed a resolution registering "disapproval of Senator Gary Simpson's vote" on July 11, but word of it has taken time to filter out because they added a caveat stating it "should stay in the strictest confidence between the committee and Senator Simpson without release to the media."

Press coverage, however, is not like justice. Coverage delayed does not mean coverage denied.

"We're trying to show the Sussex Republican Party isn't a social club. We are a political party, and we do politics," said Brent Wangen, one of the Sussex Republicans wanting Simpson to vote against the drainage bill.

"It doesn't mean you have to vote a certain way. We want to let our legislators know we're paying attention. The resolution was not intended to be released to anyone in the press."

As if this episode was not strange enough, what Simpson voted for is not what the party wanted him to vote against.

The drainage bill was amended. In its original form, it would have required local governments to adopt the new standards -- "Our biggest problem with the bill was it was giving more power to DNREC and taking it away from local," as Wangen put it -- but once the bill was amended, it simply would direct the state to work with local officials toward the new standards.

Simpson's reaction has been diplomatic but hardly apologetic.

"I think it's good that citizens are taking more interest in their government. Legislators want to be able to be guided by their party, but in my particular case, I had to listen to my constituents more. I should be guided by my party but accountable to my constituents," Simpson said.

If Simpson was restrained, Gerald Hocker was not. Hocker, a Sussex Republican who is the House minority whip, voted against the drainage bill because he had committed that way, but he had no problem with Simpson's vote.

Hocker did have a problem with the Sussex Republicans' vote.

"I think they were totally wrong. I am probably going to get myself in trouble here," he said. "It's crazy. What they're going to do is cause a primary in that district and give it to the Democrats."

There is that possibility. Simpson's district, which spans Kent and Sussex counties with 60 percent of it in Sussex, including Milford, Greenwood, Ellendale and Lincoln, has almost a thousand more Democrats than Republicans.

"The Republican Party is very good at shooting themselves in the foot, and the guns are loaded," Hocker said.

Big Republican Brother would do well to watch himself.