Posted: Sept. 26, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

State Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a crusty Democrat so worn down by faltering health that even his tenacious disposition could not get him to Legislative Hall for a single day of the 2007 session, is resigning his seat as of Friday.

Vaughn's resignation, coming after 27 years of representing a district that spans New Castle County and Kent County, was submitted by a letter delivered Wednesday morning to Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., a Democrat who serves as the Senate president.

"My constituents have been my number one priority and they continue to be today. My mind and my heart are as committed to them as ever, but in recent months my body has not been as cooperative as I would like," Vaughn wrote.

"I have reached the difficult decision to resign from the office of state senator."

Vaughn's seat will be filled by a special election on a date Carney will set as part of his responsibilities as the presiding officer. It will occur a maximum of 41 days after Vaughn's resignation becomes effective, likely putting it in early November.

Vaughn, 82, from Clayton, has battled cancer of the larynx and pneumonia, ailments that have ruined his voice. Toward the end of the 2006 legislative session, he was so determined to participate that he drove himself to Christiana Hospital in Stanton for cancer treatments and then to Dover to take his seat in the Senate, but he deteriorated thereafter.

When Vaughn was re-elected to a new four-year term last year, he was unable to campaign and did not conceal his condition. He and the voters gambled that he would recover enough to resume his duties, but it was not to be.

From early manhood, Vaughn took on the grittiest assignments for his country and his state -- as a Marine, state trooper rising to the rank of captain, Smyrna police chief and state corrections commissioner. His gruffness belied another side of him that led him to volunteer tirelessly for the Smyrna-Clayton Little League and to serve on the Smyrna School Board.

Vaughn was one of the pillars that made the Senate the last bastion for the old-fashioned breed of downstate conservative Democrats in Delaware, as he worked in concert with Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the president pro tem from Bridgeville, and Sen. Nancy W. Cook, the Joint Finance Committee co-chair from Kenton.

"It is a very sad day for me. He is a good friend, a great guy," Adams said.

Vaughn's thick-skinned willingness to take the heat was spoofed at the 2006 First State Gridiron Dinner & Show, an annual political roast, when he was the subject of a song titled "To All the Bills We've Killed Before," a parody of "To All the Girls I've Loved Before."

A Gridiron player acting the part of Vaughn winked about the fate of a gay rights bill, then assigned to a Senate committee that he chaired. "I got it right here in my bottom drawer, safe and quiet. Been studyin' that one so hard, I nearly got a broke back," the player said in a sly reference to Brokeback Mountain, the gay-themed movie.

Vaughn certainly could be a challenge. Stalwart was the description that kept occurring.

"It's a shame that his physical condition has come to this point. He served his constituents well. He was a stalwart opponent. When you went against Jim Vaughn, you had better be ready for a fight," said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican who served as governor and lieutenant governor while Vaughn was in the Senate.

"He's been a stalwart Democrat in Dover for a long time, and I give him credit for trying to stick it out for his constituents. He's a strong-willed guy," said John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chair.

Vaughn's departure will not change the political balance in the 21-member Senate, where the Democrats have a 13-8 majority.

The Democrats go into the special election favored to keep the seat. They hold the registration edge in the 14th Senatorial District, which is 44 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 24 percent others, and Vaughn won re-election with 60 percent of the vote without leaving his house.

"We will be at a disadvantage. We're accustomed to that," said Terry A. Strine, who chairs the state Republican Party.

The candidates for the special election will be selected by the political parties without any primaries.

Politics leaves little time for compassion, and with the accelerated election calendar, potential candidates already are expressing their interest. They include state Rep. Bruce C. Ennis and Chipman L. Flowers Jr., a lawyer, on the Democratic side, and John Feroce, who lost the last election to Vaughn, on the Republican side.

For Vaughn, his resignation ends a public life that began shortly after he was graduated from Smyrna High School and took his oath to join the Marine Corps in 1943. He is leaving as he came in -- on his own terms.

There was no other way for Vaughn, as Thurman Adams recalled with some mirth from their first meeting. It was sometime in the 1960s, in the days when the state police were run by the Highway Commission, and Vaughn was a trooper and Adams was a commissioner, which made him Vaughn's boss.

They were introduced at a police picnic. Vaughn took a look at Adams, all of three years younger.

"He said, you're too goddamn young to be a commissioner. I walked away thinking, I don't believe I like that guy," Adams said. "Then as now, he says what he believes and he stands by it."