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Schedule Conflicts and Taking The Oath of Office

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The governor only had to be inaugurated once this time. That turned out to be a new experience for Jack Markell, the Democrat back for a second term as the Delawarean-in-Chief. Blame the political calendar. As if politics is not quirky enough with its scandals and scoundrels and countless shenanigans, even the very dates themselves have tricks to play. 

When Markell first assumed the governorship, there was a rare constitutional convergence. The Delaware Constitution says the governor takes office on the third Tuesday in January—which fell without fuss this time on Jan. 15, 2013—but landed  four years ago in a muddle of political congestion because it was Jan. 20, 2009. 

Markell was not the only one supposed to be sworn in then. So was Barack Obama. So was Joe Biden. 

Here was the Delaware Constitution, saying Markell had to take his oath on the third Tuesday in January. Here was the U.S. Constitution, saying the president and the vice president had to take their oaths on Jan. 20, and there the dates met in 2009.

A lot of Delawareans, especially Democrats who had seen not only their third governor in a row elected, but also their favorite son chosen as vice president, wanted to go to both inaugurations, at home and in Washington. Markell was one of them.

Politicians repeal laws all the time, but not even politicians have figured out how to unmake the laws of physics. How could people be in two places at once?

This is nothing if not a nation of time shifters. It goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, who fiddled with the darkness when he thought up daylight saving time. Does July 4 fall on a Sunday? Then celebrate Independence Day on Monday and create a three-day weekend.

Where there is politics, there is a loophole. The president had to be inaugurated at noon, but the governor? The state constitution was silent about the hour. Aha! The logistical conundrum could be solved by a double oath-taking.

Markell became the governor just after midnight in a sweet ceremony at the University of Delaware—even more meaningful because his father was a distinguished business professor there—and then made his way to Washington for the presidential swearing-in with a seat reserved for him on the grand platform erected outside the Capitol. He stayed late enough to go with his wife, Carla, Delaware’s new first lady, to an inaugural ball where Joe and Jill Biden also came to dance for some kind of Delaware Democratic rapture.

Then it was off to Dover for a first overnight at Woodburn, the governor’s house, and a more formal inauguration on Wednesday outside Legislative Hall with a reprise of his swearing-in—the first one sleepy, the second one cold.

Still, Markell has nothing on Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, when it comes to the rate of oath-taking.

Denn has been elected insurance commissioner once and lieutenant governor twice, and taken the oath of office five times. As a matter of fact, his second installation as lieutenant governor was the first time he was sworn in only once. “I feel like I’m being shorted,” Denn quipped.

As the lieutenant governor, Denn joined Markell in the double ceremonies in 2009. Earlier as the insurance commissioner, Denn had a double reason for a double oath: twins.

Yes, Denn was scheduling around the birth of twin sons. Adam and Zachary arrived on Dec. 29, 2004, and Denn was due to take office as insurance commissioner on Jan. 4, 2005, way too close. He put off his public swearing-in until the next week and had a private one at home.

Some swearing-in. The Pledge of Allegiance generally gets recited with more formality. Denn had Joe Schoell, the counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, stop by and swear him in. Denn recalled he was in his bare feet, and the only witness was Lenny, the family pug, because his wife, Michele, had gone to the hospital to check on the boys, who were still there.

Not that there is anything really unusual about taking the oath of office twice, not even for presidents. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower did it for their second terms, and now Obama, too, because for each of them, Jan. 20 fell on Sunday.

The country has no precedent for inaugurating a president on a Sunday, so there was a private ceremony on that day with the public ceremony moved to Monday.

Celia CohenWhat is unusual is for the governor’s inauguration to coincide with the president’s. It has happened only three times, although from here on out, it will occur regularly every 28 years. From George Washington to Franklin Roosevelt, it could not happen, because the presidential term did not begin until March. The long lag between the election and the inauguration was once a necessity, because of the rigors of travel in the 18th and 19th centuries, but by the 20th century, it was too long—especially as the country found itself at a standstill, waiting months and months for Roosevelt to take office in 1933 and grapple with the Great Depression.

The frustration led to the passage of the 20th Amendment, moving the inauguration to Jan. 20, as Doug Linder, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, explained on his website called “Exploring Constitutional Law.”

Twice before Markell, the date of the governor’s oath interlocked with the president’s, for Caleb Boggs, a Republican beginning his first term in 1953, and for Pete du Pont, a Republican staying on for a second term in 1981.

As history would have it, all three governors were elected with presidents of their own party: Markell with Obama; Boggs with Eisenhower; and du Pont with Reagan. So there were plenty of partisans wanting to party in two places.

All three times it was managed with the governors holding midnight swearing-in ceremonies, followed by a mass debarkation to Washington. “There is something magical about midnight,” says Priscilla Rakestraw, who was the Republican national committeewoman for Delaware when du Pont and Reagan were inaugurated.

“It was just euphoric,” she says. “Many people worked so hard to be part of both. Legislative Hall just came alive. We woke up half of Dover with fireworks, because the one thing the governor wanted was fireworks. The joke around Dover was there was a Pete du Pont baby ‘boom’ nine months later. They never had fireworks at 1 a.m. before.”

Something else was the same for Markell and du Pont. Both took office in a struggling economy, and Rakestraw offers a wish for Markell.

“Jack Markell can only hope that the economic development turns around for him the way it did for Pete,” she says. So says one Delawarean, so say all.

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