Posted: Jan. 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The politics on the first day of the 2004 legislative session, held Tuesday in Dover, seemed to be conducted under a truce so powerful that the partisans sometimes looked as though they were switching sides in a series of weird role reversals that could happen only in Delaware.

The state House of Representatives, which has a Republican majority, was the prime host for Hadassah Lieberman, who stopped by to advance the candidacy of her husband, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The state Senate, which is run by the Democrats, took the lead in a tender tribute to U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., the Republican warhorse who died last month.

Even the governor, who is known to be partisan with the best of them, only managed a lukewarm display of it. Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, still nursing her knee back from replacement surgery, arrived at her Legislative Hall office with a brown leather footstool in the shape of a donkey, a gift from her Cabinet for propping up her leg in Democratic style.

Otherwise, Minner contributed to the spirit of neutrality. She told Grapevine she has decided not to endorse any of the nine Democratic presidential candidates before the Delaware primary on Feb. 3. "There are good candidates, so people have to choose which of the good is the best," she said.

The governor further joined in the political truce by meeting with both Hadassah Lieberman and U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Richards Roth, who along with some members of her husband's Senate staff came to Dover for the tribute.

The fights are lurking -- between the parties, between the governor and the legislature, over geographical differences, over gay rights and so on, but on this day, the peacemaking kept going and going in the little state that glories in the way it so often blurs the lines.

Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the GOP national committeewoman who is said to be as sharply Republican as Minner is Democratic, was introduced by Democratic Treasurer Jack A. Markell to Hadassah Lieberman and said, "There's only one Democratic candidate I can possibly live with, and that's your husband."

In the House chamber, Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith presented a framed picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the iconic Democratic president, he had found on a vacation to Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan. Without a peep from the Republican majority, Gilligan thanked Smith by declaring, "The gentleman saved the country. He was a liberal Democrat, I'm a liberal Democrat. I'm proud to have his picture."

Nor was there a dissenting word in the House when Democratic Rep. Melanie L. George gave a short pro-Lieberman speech in introducing Hadassah Lieberman, who shook some hands but did not speak herself.

No Republican put in a plug for President George W. Bush, and there was no rebuttal from other Democratic representatives who have endorsed other candidates -- Rep. Dennis P. Williams for Wesley K. Clark, Reps. Helene M. Keeley and John J. Viola for Richard A. Gephardt, or Rep. Hazel D. Plant for Alfred C. Sharpton.

In the Senate chamber, there was bipartisan admiration for Bill Roth. "All of us, regardless of our political affiliation, we all want to honor him," said Democratic President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr.

Adams is a Sussex Countian, as originally were the Richards, Jane Roth's family, going back to Colonial times, and Adams proudly announced that he and the judge were cousins.

The state Senate gave Jane Roth 34 roses, one for each year that Bill Roth was in the Congress -- four years in the House of Representatives and 30 years in the Senate -- and also a Delaware flag that was flown over Legislative Hall at half-staff in his memory. She also was given a similarly-displayed U.S. flag from the state House.

One of the state senators offering a tribute was Democratic Majority Leader Harris B. McDowell III, whose father Harris Jr. was a Democratic congressman until Bill Roth beat him in 1966 and did it again in a rematch in 1968. McDowell said Roth was always cordial to him.

"It gives me great pleasure to rise today," McDowell said. "Sen. Roth's career in Congress began as my father's ended. The two were not coincidental. Certainly we will all miss him."

Jane Roth told both chambers that the bipartisan presentation formalized what Bill Roth believed. "The people of Delaware were his prime concern, whatever their political party, whatever their part of the state," she said.

If there was any undercurrent of politics in Legislative Hall, it was speculation about the insurance commissioner's race, which blew open late last week when Donna Lee Williams, the three-term Republican incumbent, announced she would not seek re-election this year.

Two Republicans -- Jeffrey E. Cragg and Peter K. Schaeffer -- have expressed interest in running, and two Democrats -- Matthew P. Denn and Karen Weldin Stewart -- already are in the field, but another possible candidate being mentioned is state Rep. Donna D. Stone, a Dover Republican.

For now, Stone neither is putting herself in nor taking herself out. "If a door opens, at least look at what's behind the door. It's very complimentary. I appreciate the interest. I'm talking to the people who are talking to me about it," she said.

This first day back in Dover also included some pageantry commemorating the 300th anniversary of the first Delaware assembly in 1704 after the "lower three counties" split from Pennsylvania, while both still were under British rule.

A fife-and-drum corps, its four members outfitted in Colonial costume, played for the House. This is the same chamber that ended its 2003 session by setting up larger-than-life cutouts of Elvis and Humphrey Bogart and previously discussed whether cell phones or sex caused more car wrecks.

From the days of Caesar Rodney, John Dickinson and Thomas McKean, it has come down to that.