Posted: Aug. 25, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Chris Coons became the symbol of the Senate showing the session must go on, never mind an earthquake and evacuation. It figures.

This is a guy whose signature style of politics is a matter of turning the wrong-place-wrong-time into the right-place-right-time.

It is the way he got to Washington. The 2010 senatorial election here in Delaware took so many strange twists, it was right up there with the one that hung on hanging chad in Florida. President Al Gore, meet Senator Mike Castle.

Coons, of course, was not even supposed to be the Democrats' candidate. Beau Biden was.

Biden decided it was the wrong race at the wrong time. Whether he had any other reservations -- just home from Iraq with the National Guard or just better to wait out Castle -- there was no getting around that it would not have been good for an attorney general to be putting politics before the prosecution of a predator pediatrician.

Not that it looked much better for Coons to run. He was the New Castle County executive. Castle was the most successful Republican in state history, or he was, until a little political witchcraft from Christine O'Donnell made him and his record as a nine-term congressman and past governor disappear in a Republican primary.

It was Coons' luck to land in this Senate election. Wrong-place-wrong-time for Biden. Wrong-place-wrong-time for Castle. Right-place-right-time for him.

This was not unlike the way Coons got to be the county executive. Sherry Freebery, a fellow Democrat who was his chief opponent, was slapped with a federal indictment. It mostly went away, but not until later. Nothing in politics says wrong-time-wrong-place quite like an indictment.

Cue the earthquake. Coons was scheduled to go to Washington on Tuesday to preside over a perfunctory session, essentially a parliamentary ritual so the Senate appeared to be operating when it really was taking a summer break.

Rookie senators who live relatively close to the capital are obvious choices for this sort of formality.

The earthquake came as Coons was going from Union Station to the Senate and talking to MSNBC for an interview he was about to do on Libya with Andrea Mitchell.

"The earth kind of shook. There was an initial sort of tremor, and then there was a much bigger one. My initial reaction was to be concerned it was something far more serious than an earthquake," Coons said.

"I heard alarms and sirens going off and could see guys at a construction site two blocks away running, so my initial concern was that there'd been either a collapse or a bomb or something. I was relieved when the interviewer says in my ear, 'Senator, we're getting news of an earthquake at the Capitol in Washington. Did you feel anything?' I said, 'Thank God, it was an earthquake.'"

In the post-Sept. 11 capital, there are emergency plans. An hour after Coons was supposed to convene the Senate at 2:30 p.m., he was gaveling the session to order in a basement conference room in the Postal Square Building, across from Union Station not far from the Capitol.

"It may sound relatively simple. Why can't you go across the street and bang a gavel on a stone, but honestly, it's not that simple," Coons said.

A report from the press pool captured the makeshift session: A security team swept the room. The Senate seal was pinned to a curtain behind a folding table. A large gray box labeled "fly away kit" held procedural manuals. A gavel was borrowed from somewhere in the building. The legislative clerk, journal clerk and parliamentarian assembled, along with other staff members.

The session itself took 22 seconds, since its only purpose was to convene long enough to recess, but it was one for posterity, as the Senate Historical Office noted.

Except for an occasional ceremonial proceeding, the Senate has not met outside the Capitol since the British burned it in 1814 during the War of 1812, and the fire was so fierce, it turned the chamber's grand marble columns to lime. The Senate did not return there because of construction delays until 1819.

Coons was the man of the minute. The press came calling. It must have been like those tumultuous days of the rush to find out who was this guy running against Christine O'Donnell.

More right-place-right-time? Coons was not about to jinx it if it was.

"Let history be the judge," Coons mumbled.