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Delaware’s Congressional Trio

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There is something historic about Delaware’s congressional delegation.

No, it is not that the state is the only one to have the last names of all of its members begin with the same letter, as singular as it is. A congressional delegation, brought to you by the letter “C.”

That commonality may earn Tom Carper, Chris Coons and John Carney a cheer from the Sesame Street crowd, and it did get them a special mention in the “Did You Know” section of Politics in America, an authoritative 1,176-page tome about the Congress, but really.

That is the stuff of trivia, not history.

The distinction about the delegation comes from its political affiliation. Carper and Coons, the two senators, and Carney, the lone congressman, are all Democrats.

It seems rather quizzical to think there could be anything noteworthy about an all-Democratic congressional contingent. In state politics these days, it is about as obvious as saying they are all Delawareans.

Of course they are Democrats. The governor is a Democrat, the lieutenant governor is a Democrat, the attorney general is a Democrat, not to mention a Biden, and the legislature is controlled by Democrats. There are also upward of 120,000 more Democratic than Republican voters to make it a safe bet the state will stay that way.

A Kennedy family picnic could hardly look more Democratic than Delaware does.

Yet it was not always so. This is only the third time Delaware has had an all-Democratic delegation in the last hundred years. That means it goes all the way back to the beginning of the direct election of senators by the voters, instead of state legislatures, in 1913, the entire existence of the modern Senate.

Delaware, by the way, had something to do with the adoption of the 17th Amendment, the one that provided for the popular election of senators, and not exactly in a good way.

Delaware had disgraced itself.

 

It was mostly the fault of the corrupt tomfoolery of John Edward O’Sullivan Addicks, a name that shall live in political infamy. He was called “Gas” Addicks, and not just because his full name was a mouthful, but because he made a fortune by wheeling and dealing in gas companies.

The best that can be said of him is he was not a native Delawarean, but a Philadelphian.

Addicks manipulated the Senate elections here for 11 years at the turn of the last century the same way he manipulated gas companies, as is recounted in history books written by Carol Hoffecker and the late John Munroe, both distinguished past professors at UD.

Addicks moved to Claymont in 1877, not realizing for two months he had relocated to Delaware and not to neighboring Delaware County in Pennsylvania. He plunged into state politics anyway.

Bribing and swaggering, Addicks tried to get the legislators to elect him to a Senate seat. “I’ve bought it, I’ve paid for it, and I’m going to have it,” he is supposed to have said.

Although Addicks never could bribe enough legislators to send him to Washington, he bribed enough of them to deadlock the voting. Once it took 177 ballots over nearly four months to elect someone. From 1895 until 1906, Delaware sometimes was represented by one senator and for one unforgettable two-year stretch by no senators at all.

While Delaware was the most notorious example of compromised legislatures, it was not the only one, and the direct election of senators was a constitutional amendment waiting to happen.

At least, it was elsewhere. The General Assembly here never actually got around to officially ratifying the 17th Amendment until three years ago. This is true. It took until 2010, just in time for the Tea Party to make noises about repealing it. To the legislators’ everlasting credit, none of them were recorded as voting “no.”

In the century since the election of all members of Congress has been up to the voters, it is a mark of how different Delaware politics is today to have an all-Democratic delegation, especially one that shows no signs of stopping.

 

As a matter of fact, the history of Delawareans in the Congress can be regarded as something of a roadmap to state politics through the years. The state was once virtually feudal in its outlook, its members of Congress often also members of famous families like the du Ponts and the Bayards. It did not matter whether they were Republican or Democrat. Party politics meant less than pedigree.

There was, for example, Thomas F. Bayard Jr., a senator in the 1920s. Not only were there Bayards who were part of Delaware delegations going all the way back to the Continental Congress, but Bayard himself married a du Pont.

Past delegations were also a reflection of how much the two lower counties used to dominate politics before New Castle County had its colossal suburban growth spurt. Until then, there were a lot of senators from tiny downstate places—like John Williams from Millsboro and J. Caleb Boggs from Cheswold.

More recently, the delegation was living proof of Delaware’s days as a confirmed swing state, a bellwether that voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election from 1952 to, well, almost 2000 when it went for Al Gore over the second George Bush. There, but for the hanging chad in Florida, so might the White House have gone, too.

During that same half-century stretch, the delegation was nearly always bipartisan. Much of it was due to the extraordinary half-Republican and half-Democratic pair of Bill Roth and Joe Biden in the Senate, from Biden’s election in 1972 until Roth’s defeat in 2000.

This is where Carper, Coons and Carney come in. They are political Delaware today.

There is not a blueblood name among them, not a downstater, not a Republican. They are a departure from a long line of delegations that were almost never all-Democratic. Before them, it had only happened twice—because of the 1916 election when the Republicans were divided by a bitter feud and the 1940 election when Franklin Roosevelt was sweeping the country for his third term.

Carper, Coons and Carney are in their second congressional session together, and it does not look like they will be going anywhere anytime soon. Carper was re-elected to a new six-year term in 2012 by a 2-1 margin, and the Republicans do not yet have the ghost of a candidate to run against either Coons or Carney in 2014.   

 

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