Posted: Jan. 14, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

There could be but peace for a time in the Delaware Senate.

In a great show of unity Tuesday, the 21 members of the upper chamber -- all 13 Democrats and eight Republicans -- voted on the first day of the General Assembly to have Democrat Thurman G. Adams Jr. of Bridgeville lead the Senate as the president pro tem.

A standing ovation for Adams and pledges of cooperation followed the roll call, but the applause scarcely had ended before there were hints that the goodwill flowed more from the traditional camaraderie of opening day than from a reservoir that would last.

The clues were in the committee assignments that Adams handed out, a fractured vote on the Senate rules and the dark mutterings afterwards in the corridors of Legislative Hall, where grudges fester and intrigue grows.

Thurman Adams, a craggy feed dealer of few words and strong emotion, given to the elaborate courtesies for which Sussex Countians are known, got to be the president pro tem the hard way.

Elected in 1972, Adams is the longest serving state senator in Delaware history. He waited his turn patiently, rising to Senate majority leader before the way opened to the ranking position with the retirement of Thomas B. Sharp, a Pinecrest Democrat.

Even then Adams waited. After he indicated he would prefer that the post seek him, Elsmere Democrat Patricia M. Blevins made her move in maneuverings last month. From the 13 Democrats, she rounded up seven votes from fellow New Castle County members in a classic upstate/downstate split.

It appeared to be enough to make Blevins the president pro tem, but after what was said to be a little shuttle diplomacy masterminded by Kenton Democrat Nancy W. Cook, the vote of Wilmington Democrat Harris B. McDowell III was shifted from Blevins to Adams by the time the caucus met in December.

To seal Adams' victory, the Senate Republicans under new Minority Leader John C. Still III of Dover promised Adams the votes to ensure his election if the rest of the Democratic caucus refused to come around. After 30 unending years as a downtrodden minority, the Republicans were looking for any edge they could get.

By the roll call, Adams had all the votes and a moment of glory. "Thank you. Thank you so much," he said.

In a long legislative tradition of rewarding friends, the leadership slots and choice committee assignments went to Adams' allies. Of the two upstate Democrats who supported him, McDowell emerged as majority leader and Anthony J. DeLuca of Newark as the majority whip.

Cook returned to favored status as the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, the General Assembly's most coveted panel. She had lost the post, which she had held for more than a decade, when Sharp was the president pro tem.

When some legislators go up, others must come down. Blevins was dropped as the chair of the Bond Bill Committee, which drafts the state construction budget, but did keep a seat on the panel and also remained as the chair of the Health & Social Services Committee.

David B. McBride, a Hawk's Nest Democrat, was booted off the Joint Finance Committee. Instead, he was made the chair of the Sunset Committee, an unpopular panel with the tedious job of reviewing state agencies, often regarded as a dumping ground for out-of-favor lawmakers and freshmen. He did keep the chair of the Natural Resources & Environmental Control Committee.

On the Republican side of the aisle, perhaps the biggest loser was Colin R.J. Bonini of Dover. Not only is there friction between Bonini and fellow Kent Countian John Still, but Bonini counts Blevins as a friend. In fact, he borrowed her Bible for his swearing-in when he forgot to bring his own. Bonini wound up on the Sunset Committee, too.

So it went. "I do wish they [committee assignments] were different," Blevins said.

Out of the dissatisfaction, a curious alliance arose between two senators. Already they are calling themselves the "Odd Couple." They are Bonini, a conservative, and Karen E. Peterson, a liberal Democrat newly elected to Tom Sharp's old seat.

Together Bonini and Peterson challenged the new Senate leadership by being the only two to vote against the Senate rules. Peterson said she particularly was troubled by a rule that lets bills be killed by keeping them in committee indefinitely. She said the tactic was used in the last legislative session against two bills that deserved a vote -- a bill on gay anti-discrimination and a bill that would have toughened drunken-driving standards.

"I campaigned against that rule," Peterson said. "I suggest we have a new Dead-on-Arrival Committee."

DeLuca, the new majority whip, promised there would be a review of Senate rules once the current set was adopted.

Although it was only the first day of the session and Bonini has not been down long, he already was insisting it looked like up to him. "It is liberating. They have created the most dangerous politicians of all -- those with nothing to lose," he said.

By the evening of opening day, it was business as usual in the corridors of Legislative Hall, where grudges fester and intrigue grows.