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Delaware’s Politics of Building (and Burning) Bridges

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ILLUSTRATION BY BRUCE MACPHERSON

Except for Hawaii, no state is an island, although for a long time Delaware did a pretty good impression of one.

It was mostly geography’s fault, but geography was just doing what comes naturally. A more sinister culprit was politics. It took advantage of geography and lured it into a conspiracy.

In earlier days, there was so much frustration about traveling to Delaware that people could be excused if they concluded they simply could not get here from there.

Too much water was in the way. With the Delaware River to the east and the Chesapeake Bay to the west beyond Maryland’s Eastern Shore, people had their choice of a slow boat or a long route. They could wait for a ferry, or they could ride around and come in from the north.

Geography could be surmounted by bridges, but politics was having none of it. The moneyed ferry and railroad interests stood firm against bridges, killjoys to America’s love affair with cars and the open road. It stayed that way, greed trumping romance, until the public demand became too insistent and prevailed with the Delaware Memorial Bridge in 1951 and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge soon after in 1952.

Delaware was finally open for the price of gas in the tank and some bridge tolls.

Even so, the state still clung to an insular mindset, reinforced by the smallness of its size and its own sense of specialness as the First State. Delaware practiced its politics in its own way, fit for a place where people liked to think that everyone knew everyone else.

Jim Soles, the late political scientist from the University of Delaware, called it “consensus politics,” conducted in a spirit of civility and compromise. The ultimate expression was Return Day, the post-election festivities in Georgetown, the Sussex County seat, where the winners and losers rode together in carriages or antique cars, and a hatchet literally was buried in sand.

 

Consensus politics so suited the state, it seemed like it should last forever, but nothing does. When it blew apart, did it ever, gone with a whirlwind of tweets and blogs, cable news and talk radio.

If there was any Delawarean whose political life encapsulated what happened, it was probably Mike Castle, who set the Republican record for statewide wins as a nine-term congressman, two-term governor and one-term lieutenant governor.

Castle was a confirmed centrist during the days when the state was a masterpiece of bipartisan harmony.

The 1984 election that made Castle the governor was a milestone. The voters went the next seven elections without chucking out a statewide incumbent, Democrat or Republican, and in their most emphatic show of political balance, they kept sending a homegrown bipartisan odd couple to the Senate with Bill Roth as the sturdy Republican and Joe Biden as the styling Democrat.

How antique it seems now to recall what occurred not much more than 20 years ago in 1992. Castle was finishing up his second term as governor and could not run for another one. Tom Carper was the Democratic congressman. They simply swapped offices.

Naturally the voters were in on it, too. This was consensus politics of the highest order.

As Castle figured prominently in the heyday, he was also the most famous casualty when it all came crashing down. No doubt people remember the circumstances.

Christine O’Donnell should not have been a force in Delaware politics. She had a thin resume for running for the Senate, she said silly things about dabbling in witchcraft, and she resorted to un-Delawarean ridicule during the Republican primary by calling Castle a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) and taunting him to “get his man-pants on.”

But it was 2010. The state that had lost its island-like existence to the bridges 60 years earlier was now being subjected to a new invasive influence from the Internet and smash-mouth broadcasting outlets.

People were getting their news where they wanted, not just from instate, and Castle was being mauled by outside commentators. With a friendly tweet from Sarah Palin to rally the Tea Party for O’Donnell, it meant Castle was history.

 

From the statewide level, this new era in the politics of polarization has spilled into the Delaware General Assembly in Dover. The center cannot hold, and the consensus has been strained as the Democrats have pulled left and the Republicans have pulled right.

For a state in which the politicians like to talk about how much better off the country would be if Delaware ways were taken to Washington, it looks more and more like D.C. ways are coming to Dover.

Exhibit A is the 2013 legislative session, which began in the frost of January and ended as the night of June 30 seeped into July 1.

With the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the Senate and the House of Representatives all within the Democratic sphere of influence, the legislature took up its most liberal agenda since the days of love beads, peace patches and mood rings.

There were votes on a death penalty repeal, gay marriage, transgender rights, guns and taxes. Almost all the Democrats voted yes. Almost all the Republicans voted no.

Patti Blevins, the Senate’s Democratic president pro tem, and Gary Simpson, the Senate’s Republican minority leader, penned dueling op-ed columns afterward.

Blevins declared, “This General Assembly has taken meaningful steps to make Delaware an economically stronger, safer and more welcoming place … and we have done so in a way that respected varying viewpoints and opinions.”

Simpson vented, “The just-completed 2013 legislative session was one of the most contentious and frustrating I’ve ever experienced in my 15 years as a state lawmaker. I’ve never seen so much divisive and emotional debate. … And what do we have to show for it?”

The most telling moment was the customary gathering in the governor’s office to hail the end of the session in sleep-deprived relief. There, in Jack Markell’s executive chambers, not one Republican showed up.

As recently as last year, Simpson stopped by, and so did Greg Lavelle, the current Senate minority whip who was the House minority leader at the time.

The borders are gone, and Delaware is melting into the greater noise. The state looks the same as everywhere else.   

» For more from the October Issue, click here.

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