How Delaware’s Legislators Have Evolved (Or Not)

No more exploding cigars: Many things have changed inside Legislative Hall over the years. Were they for the better?

The name is Dave. He is in his mid-50s, a Delaware native, and he went to the University of Delaware. He can say who the state’s secretary of finance is without looking it up, and he knows exactly how many miles there are between his house and Dover.

Dave is a composite of the 62 legislators in the General Assembly, where men outnumber women, more than half of them were born within the state’s borders, and almost a third of them probably own some clothing with a Fightin’ Blue Hen on it. Not to mention 100 percent of them can spot Tommy Cook, the finance secretary, inside the corridors of Legislative Hall.

Credit the parents of Dave Lawson, Dave McBride, Dave Sokola and Dave Wilson for making Dave the most popular name among the legislators. It is an equal opportunity name, distributed without regard for political affiliation or geographical locality.

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Dave Lawson is a Republican state senator from Kent County, Dave McBride and Dave Sokola are Democratic state senators from New Castle County, and Dave Wilson is a Republican state representative from Sussex County. All counties, both parties and each chamber accounted for.

The name of the composite lawmaker could have been Brian. Or maybe Bryan. Or is it Bryon? But not unless Brian Bushweller, Brian Pettyjohn and Bryan Townsend in the state Senate and Bryon Short in the state House of Representatives learn how to spell their own names.
Likewise, John is disqualified, even though the state House has John Atkins, John Kowalko, John Viola and somebody called John Mitchell, because the name of John Mitchell would draw blank stares inside Legislative Hall. He goes by Larry.

Referring to Larry Mitchell as John would be about as strange as introducing Beau Biden as Joseph. Who? 

So Dave it is.

Funny thing about the legislature. The look of its members has not changed much in oh, say, 30 years.

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The evidence is a news story written by Jane Brooks, then a reporter with The News Journal, about the legislators elected in 1984. As Brooks wrote, “The typical Delaware legislator—if there is such a creature—is Delaware-born-and-raised, 47 years old, attended the University of Delaware. … Chances are he also has slightly thinning hair, a slightly bulging waistline and has been known to dress in colorful apparel.”

The age has shifted somewhat since then, and so has the tenure.

The 1984 version was about 10 years younger than the current one and served in Dover for about four-and-a-half years, as opposed to about eight-and-a-half years today. The profile of the present-day composite was drawn from biographical information compiled by the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.

Probably it is just a coincidence that the willingness of legislators to hang around longer has gone up as the salary has. Their base pay used to be $20,000 a year. It is $43,000 a year now.

If age, tenure and salary have gone up, other stuff has come down. There sure is a lot less polyester in the legislature. Also less booze and cigars, especially cigars.

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Legislators used to be allowed to smoke while they were in session. Health and public nuisance were not the only reasons to stop it, as Roger Martin, a Democratic state senator from Newark from 1972 to 1994, related in “Memoirs of the Senate,” a book he wrote.

Martin, an affable history and foreign languages teacher, was fond of cigars. His favorite brand was whatever he could get for free from someone else, often from Sherman Tribbitt when he was the Democratic governor or from Richard Cordrey when he was the Senate’s Democratic president pro tem.

One day during a Senate session, Martin was offered a cigar by Tom Sharp, another Democratic state senator with a reputation as something of a prankster. Martin delightedly accepted and immediately lit up.

“Seconds later, the thing blew right up in my face,” Martin wrote.

Yes, an exploding cigar. Legislative Hall is a better place now that only tempers and bills can be explosive.

The legislature has evolved in other ways.

There were 10 women among its members in 1984. Now there are 16 women. Not only that, four of them are in leadership. Patti Blevins is the highest ranking senator as the Democratic president pro tem. Margaret Rose Henry is the Senate’s Democratic majority whip, Valerie Longhurst is the House’s Democratic majority leader, and Debbie Hudson is the House’s Republican minority whip.

Also Melanie George Smith, a Democratic state representative, just became the first legislator in Delaware history to give birth to a baby while holding office.

The minority membership has grown from three African-Americans to five African-Americans and two Hispanics.

The oldest legislator back then was born in 1917. That would be Tina Fallon, a Republican state representative. The oldest legislator today was born in 1933, the birth year of Bob Venables, a Democratic state senator.

The youngest then? Steve Taylor, a Republican state representative, born in 1956. The youngest today? Jeff Spiegelman, a Republican state representative, born in 1983.

What has changed the most between Legislative Hall then and Legislative Hall now is the politics of the place.

Delaware was a swing state in 1984, as likely to vote Republican as it was to vote Democratic, and the legislature reflected it. The Senate was controlled by the Democrats, 13-8, but the House had the Republicans in charge, 22-19.

The General Assembly of today is decidedly Democratic. The Democrats outnumber the Republicans in the Senate by 13-8 and in the House by 27-14.

The legislature is also a living, breathing testament to the pullback of the DuPont Co. In 1984 the chambers were honeycombed with DuPonters, either current or retired, all of them sitting on the Republican side of the aisle. Not to mention the outgoing governor, also a Republican, was some guy named Pete du Pont.

Today the only one is Dave Sokola, a state senator, and surprise, surprise, he is a Democrat. The DuPonters have gone the way of the polyester.

Oh, and by the way—the name of the composite legislator back then was Bob.  

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