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Delaware Grapevine by Celia Cohen

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Another January, another Congress, another time for Delaware to hope nobody notices.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unwelcome truth is Delaware goes into the new congressional session as one of four states that never voted to send a woman to Capitol Hill, not to the Senate and not to the House of Representatives.

Could there be anything more embarrassing? Actually, it depends on what people think it would be like if they had to say, “Senator Christine O’Donnell.”

Along with Delaware, the other states stuck in this gender warp are Vermont, Mississippi and Iowa. There is no shame for Delaware to find itself in the company of Vermont. They share the same excuse. Breaking in is hard to do.

Both are small states with small delegations that do not shed their members much. Joe Biden’s 36 years as a Democratic senator, a record here, would not be a record there. Biden would be lapped in Vermont by Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator elected in 1974 as a Watergate baby, whose latest term does not end until 2017.

But Mississippi? With its magnolia culture, it might as well be called Mister-ssippi. This is the state that was dead last in getting around to ratifying the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920, by holding out for another 64 years until 1984. How in the name of Susan B. Anthony did Delaware manage to get itself lumped in with Mississippi?

As for Iowa, it will have to speak for itself.

Still, it could be worse. At least Delaware and Vermont elected women as governors. Vermont did it in 1984 with Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat, and Delaware did it in 2000 with Ruth Ann Minner, also a Democrat.

These are the sorts of historical notes that make Delaware what it is and set it apart from the 49ers, all the other states that did not start the nation. Ahem.

Some of these attributes bestow bragging rights. The first state to ratify the Constitution! The corporate capital! No sales tax!

Sadly, others are better left unmentioned. The last state to get rid of the whipping post? The only state without a national park? Say it ain’t so.

There is no place like Delaware in all manner of political and historical ways. Whether it is legislative, executive or judicial in nature, the state has made its mark.

Congressionally speaking, size is destiny. Delaware will be one of seven states in the new session to have a bigger delegation in the Senate than it has in the House.

Even so, there is a surprising upside to Delaware’s status the other states do not have. This state may constitute just one congressional district, but it is a really, really, really big congressional district. All 900,000 or so Delawareans make it the 14th largest by population.

No longer is it enough not to mess with Texas, but also to beware Delaware.

The state also has a life of its own in presidential politics. The country has had some messy presidential elections. There was the one in 1948 when it took a while to figure out that Truman beat Dewey, not the other way around, as the famous headline said. More recently, it took even longer to decide Bush v. Gore in 2000 after the networks called Florida for Gore, only to be hung by the chad.

What was messy for the country was messy for Delaware, but not what was in-between. The state was the perfect bellwether in the 12 elections book-ended by Truman and Bush. No other state did what Delaware did, voting with the winner every time from 1952 to 1996, to stand with President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Carter, President Reagan, the first President Bush and President Clinton.

So what if Delaware also cast itself with President Dewey and President Gore? A lot of people got that wrong.

It should not be forgotten what presidential politics also meant here. For a time it made Delaware the only state that could say it was home to a vice president. So much for the people who thought it could never happen outside of the fantastical imaginings of the movie minds that filmed “Advise and Consent.”

The judiciary branch often tends to be an afterthought elsewhere, but not in Delaware, not since it is the corporate law epicenter of the free world.

Delaware has the Court of Chancery, which is as much a magnet for business lawsuits as Rehoboth Beach is for summer tourists. It is an accident of history. The court is one-of-a-kind, a vestige of Colonial days, somehow surviving here while other states shed theirs.

Businesses love it. Not only does the court make its decisions based on fairness, not rigidly on the letter of the law, but it has no juries. The rulings come from judges who tend to be more predictable than 12 random strangers grumpily locked away in a little room.

Chancery also benefits from another oddity existing only in Delaware. This is the only state that requires its judiciary to be politically balanced between the Democrats and the Republicans. It makes for unusual equanimity in the court system.

Nowhere was it on display more than in the days Tom Carper, the Democratic senator, was the governor and appointed Bill Chandler, a Republican, as the chief judge of Chancery, and the Democratic-run Senate confirmed him happily thereafter. Where else would that have happened?

Chancery was also the court where the great Collins Seitz sat. He was the first judge in the country to reason that segregated schools could never be separate-but-equal, and his opinion became the basis of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision declaring in 1954 that it was “simple justice” that school segregation had to go.

That is also worth remembering Delaware for. 

 

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