Posted: March 5, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

State Rep. John C. Atkins thinks prison inmates should do something to earn their keep, and if that means putting them in chain gangs, it is all right with him.

It is what he told radio listeners last week on WGMD, the Talk of Delmarva, although he has had some thoughts since then that maybe he should not have said what he said. Maybe.

"I may have put my foot in my mouth," said Atkins, a first-term Republican from Millsboro. "My main goal is, they could certainly do a lot more to supplement what the taxpayers do for them, save the taxpayers some money. Personally I wouldn't have any problem, and it has a lot of support in my district."

No doubt about it, Atkins has made his district a lively place politically to be, and this election season it is only likely to get livelier. Of the 41 legislators in the Delaware House of Representatives, probably no one has a bigger target on his back than Atkins.

Appropriately enough, the 41st District that Atkins represents -- one of the state's southernmost in Sussex County -- even looks something like a gun, its barrel pointed east, as it doglegs up from Selbyville through Dagsboro, Millsboro and Long Neck.

Before the 2002 election, when the boundary lines were redrawn in the once-a-decade adjustment for population shifts, the district was expected to go Democratic. It was represented for 24 years by Democrat Charles P. West, who was retiring, and there were 700 more Democrats than Republicans, although the margin has shrunk somewhat since.

The Democrats want the district back. They particularly want it because only one of the eight Sussex County representatives is a Democrat -- a prime reason the House Republicans hold a 29-12 majority that the Democrats would love to carve away.

"They voted Democratic for 20-some years. There's no reason it won't  go back," said state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the House Democratic minority leader. "We're certainly going to do everything we can to take it back. Mr. Atkins has only been in the seat a year and a half. He doesn't own it."

The Republicans know they are in for a firefight. "Delaware has a habit of re-electing incumbents. No matter what political party it is, your best chance to pick them off is after their first term," said state Rep. Clifford G. "Biff" Lee, the House Republican majority whip.

There is no telling how this race will turn out. Atkins has proved to be not just a loose cannon, more like an unguided missile, but if he can put his foot in his mouth, the district Democrats have shown they are capable of doing something with their foot, too -- which is, shooting themselves in it.

It is how Atkins got elected to begin with. This time around, the Democrats appear to have settled early on a candidate, but not without hard feelings that could have an effect on the vote.

First, there is the matter of Atkins himself. An exuberant 33-year-old owner of a garbage disposal company, he is a what-you-say-is-what-you-get type. Atkins brought down the House last year, when he described a Saturday Night Special during a law-and-order debate by explaining, "Where I come from in Sussex County, a Saturday Night Special is a hot woman and a six-pack of beer."

Biff Lee, who represents a Sussex County district to Atkins' west, has taken him on as a project, reeling him back from his most recent sally into chain gangs.

"I think all of our prisoners ought to be doing something, but I'm not sure his choice of the words 'chain gang' was what he meant," Lee said. "This is a freshman mistake. He got a little overzealous."

This likely is welcome news to the state Corrections Department, where chain gangs are against policy. Spokeswoman Beth Welch said they not only are unproductive -- "inmates are not productive when they are tethered together" -- but potentially counterproductive.

"There is not a state in the union that employs the traditional chain gang," Welch said. "We'd have every media outlet descending upon the state. We don't think it would be positive press we would be getting."

Then there are the Democrats. In 2002 they were expected to retain the district without breaking a sweat, but Charlie West retired, they had a primary, and the candidate who won, Donald L. Ward, was labeled a developer by the Republicans and could not get out of his own way. Atkins sauntered up to Dover with 60 percent of the vote.

This time the Democrats appear to have settled on S. Bradley Connor, 43, who has been the mayor of Dagsboro for 15 years and said of himself, "I have been in town government, the president of the Sussex County Association of Towns, and politics for most of my life. I know the district, and I know the state."

Connor, however, was not the only Democrat who wanted to run. Ronald Chorman, a Dagsboro package store owner who considered the race in 2002, also was interested, so both of them appealed to the 41st District Democratic Committee for backing.

Chorman insists he had more support until West, the curt and cantankerous ex-representative now serving as the district chairman, browbeat the members into going for Connor. West and Connor say nothing of the sort happened.

Whatever did occur, Chorman was not happy about it. He figured a primary would get him nowhere, so instead he has promised to help out Atkins against Connor. "I'll do everything I can in my power to make sure he doesn't get elected," Chorman said.

With the Republicans eying the Democratic disarray -- some of them say Charlie West is the best friend they have in the 41st -- and with the Democrats eying Atkins, both sides are proceeding with a certain amount of optimism.

"I have confidence in John," said Phyllis M. Byrne, the Sussex County Republican chairwoman. "He is a regular guy, and it's an asset in his district. I just anticipate that he's going to be OK."

Connor warned, "Neither party wants to lose this."