Posted: July 1, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

June 30 in Legislative Hall is a wild ride, like Halloween and New Year's and the last day of school all rolled into one.

It is the final day of the legislative session in Dover, when the Delaware General Assembly thrashes through the night, until the waning hours of June 30 become the wee hours of July 1, and people count themselves lucky if they get home before the sun comes up.

It is like Halloween, because it is spooky and late and haunted by things that go bump in the night, where anything can happen and everything can happen, and there is always, always a surprise.

It is like New Year's because the political calendar turns, and like the last day of school because the legislature is letting out, a giddy time for good-byes and see-you-next-years.

Some June 30s end with a bang, some with a whimper, some in rage and some in laughter, and sometimes they end with a moment to take people's breath away, a shard of history that will make them proud to answer the question in years to come, were you there?

This June 30, this island of a weekend when Saturday turned into Sunday, was one to remember.

Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker who is the only Delawarean ever to serve 40 years in the legislature, stunningly called it quits. He left to hallelujahs of glory.

Governors rarely go into the legislative chambers, except for ceremonial occasions like the State of the State, but there was Jack Markell, who became the Democratic governor four years ago when Gilligan became the speaker, drawn like the rest of the people who crowded into the House of Representatives for the farewells.

"In my view, Mr. Speaker, not only are you the best speaker of the House the state has ever had, but the best speaker of the House any state has ever had," Markell said.

All session long, there has been a guessing game, would Gilligan run?

It looked at first as though he would not. Back in January, he threw himself a "70-40" party at the Mill Creek fire hall in his district to mark his 70th birthday and 40th year in the legislature, and it seemed telling the event was not a fund-raiser.

From there, he appeared to waver, back and forth, back and forth. He would not say what he was thinking and could get surly if pressed.

Then he filed for re-election about two weeks ago, and that seemed to be that, but it was a false spring. He told the House he did it to get himself going, but it actually pushed him the other way.

"It's been in the pit of my stomach for the last year," Gilligan said.

In four decades in Dover, Gilligan has been a member of the Joint Finance Committee, a majority leader, a minority whip and minority leader, as well as the speaker.

He brought the Democrats back from a dismal 12-member minority in the 41-member chamber in 2002 to the majority in 2008, and in all of his years in leadership, he was steadfast in working cooperatively with all of the governors, regardless of party.

"You stick by your governor through thick and thin, taxes and all," said Valerie Longhurst, the Democratic majority whip.

Gilligan was an educator by profession, and it was the right choice, because he was a born teacher. Sometimes he seemed more like the principal of the House than the speaker of the House, guiding and protecting and demanding when he had to.

Oh, he could be a pain. Anyone who ran into the wall of forbidding silence he could erect in rebuke or refusal or plain orneriness knew it. But it never lasted.

This is the House that Gilligan built. . . .

He promised, as the session began, he would be not the Democratic speaker but the speaker of all of the House, because he believed all constituents deserved to have a meaningful voice. He had also been in the minority a very long time himself.

He opened up the legislature to the public eye by pushing through a long-languishing Freedom of Information Act, championed by Karen Peterson, a Democratic senator he once coached in basketball at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington a lifetime ago.

He gaveled the chamber into session on time in a legislature where indifferent lateness is a constant curse and delay can be used as a political weapon, a seemingly small practice that grew to be recognized as an abiding sign of respect for the institution, the members and the public who entered there. It is his legacy.

"The one thing you'll remember about Gilligan is he started on time," Gilligan said.

This is the House that Gilligan built. As his fellow representatives saluted him, they rose from their seats and they applauded and they shouted and they whistled, Democrats and Republicans, upstaters and downstaters, all as one.

In a valedictory moment, Gilligan came down from the podium to floor-manage one last bill expanding the Freedom of Information Act. He turned the gavel over to Biff Lee, the most senior Republican representative who is retiring after 22 years, and he handled the bill from Lee's desk on the minority side.

"Look what side he's on!" crowed Greg Lavelle, the Republican minority leader.

The bill was approved without a hitch, although it turned out, that was not the plan in a place that can tease and haze with the best of them, particularly when the target is a rookie representative running a first bill.

"We had some people who wanted to treat his final bill as his first bill, but they chickened out," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic majority leader.

"That went well," Gilligan quipped.

Yes, Mr. Speaker, it did.