Posted: Dec. 30, 2003


Delawareans had a lot to talk about in 2003. Here is a summary of some of the prime political topics of the year.



When 2003 began, banished smokers threatened to "Ban Ruth Ann," vowing to kick the first-term Democratic governor out of office for signing the law that kicked them out of restaurants, bars, casinos and other public places. The smokers looked to the legislature for relief, but once again the "body parts people" (the lung association, heart association, etc.) beat back the "wage-earners of sin" (smoking, gambling and drinking interests.) The public seemed happy, the smokers subsided into sullenness, and when the state needed more money, the governor and the legislature raised cigarette taxes. They might as well tax people who won't vote for them, anyway.



After months of speculation, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. backed away from joining the crowded field of Democrats in the presidential race. Delawareans promptly appeared to lose interest in presidential politics, preferring to focus on the fortunes of other homegrown talent in the hunt for national recognition, namely K.C. Keeler and the University of Delaware football team. With Biden out, U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper made his move to commandeer what was left of Democratic presidential politics here. He quickly endorsed Joseph I. Lieberman, delivering on a promise he made while Biden still might run. Carper had said mischievously, "I'm for Joe. If it's not Joe, I'm still for Joe."



The only thing as elusive this year as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a mass of indictments in Delaware from the U.S. Attorney's Office. Nothing came out of New Castle County except some ratty misdemeanors. Nothing came out of the Delaware River & Bay Authority. One indictment that did happen was one nobody suspected -- an accusation that Roger D. Blevins III, a Democratic Party functionary, embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Joe Biden's campaign treasury. After the initial shock, that case has stalled, too. The watch goes on.



Since the governor was inaugurated in 2001, she has been Ruth Ann Miser, penny-pinching on the state budget as the economy languished. "Someone asked me the other day if I needed to take a language course, because the only word I could pronounce was 'no,'" Minner said in May. "I would like to see the revenue come back so that I can expand my vocabulary." In a bipartisan fashion customary for state finances, the governor and the legislature closed a $300 million budget gap, roughly half in cuts and half in tax increases on corporations, cigarettes and casinos. With the economy improving at year's end, Minner lifted a hiring freeze and proposed a bonus for state workers, just in time for the governor and the legislature to run in 2004.



As high as the profiles are for New Castle County Executive Thomas P. Gordon, his Chief Administrative Officer Sherry L. Freebery  and U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly in their blood feud, they all were upstaged by a couple of county executive assistants, but not just any executive assistants. Lynda R. Maloney, a former first lady of Wilmington, and her sister Maria A. Rendina quit their $63,000-a-year jobs and revealed they wore wires in the federal investigation. They sued the county for damages, saying their were forced out for helping the feds, although Freebery said they left with "visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads." Maloney also gave up her role as the chief merrymaker for the First State Gridiron Dinner & Show, an annual political roast. Given the circumstances, a profile can get too high.


THE 99ers

A coalition of gay rights activists, civil rights advocates, upstate legislators from both parties and one very important downstate Democrat, namely, the governor, got half the job done on House Bill 99, which would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Led by Republican Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., the coalition of 99ers wrestled the bill through the state House of Representatives on the next to the last day of the 2003 session in the tensest of roll calls. Republican Reps. Pamela S. Maier and G. Robert Quillen both were really too sick to be in Dover, but they hung in there to provide the 20th and 21st votes needed for passage. The 99ers had a faint hope the Senate would consider the measure on the last day of the session, but they were thwarted deliberately when they could not get the bill introduced. The Senate cannot vote on what is not officially before it.



For most Delawareans, the September storm to remember was Isabel, the one that knocked out the power for thousands of homes. For the residents of Glenville, however, Isabel was an afterthought. Their houses were flooded days before by Tropical Storm Henri, and they pleaded for government relief. Based on an idea from state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, a Democrat who represents the Stanton area community, government officials agreed to a buyout, compensating the homeowners and turning their neighborhood into marshland to replace wetlands needed for an expansion of Interstate 95. In a twist, it was a case of fighting water with water.



Delaware lost some dear friends in 2003, saying its last good-byes to Superior Court Judge Haile L. Alford, James H. Gilliam Jr., state Democratic Vice Chairman John P. "Pat" Healy and former U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. They will be missed in a way that only a small state can know.