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Secretary of State Dons Many Hats in the No. 3 Spot

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Jeffrey BullockThe governor is the most powerful political figure in Delaware. The attorney general is usually regarded as next. But what about this guy?

It is someone who has something to say about matters of life or death, keeps watch over the state’s money and brings in a lot of it, and sees to the state’s official history, its arts and culture and the port. Also the libraries. It seems like the only thing he is not asked to do is check out the books himself.

He also gets a single-digit tag with No. 3 on it for his car, behind the governor at No. 1 and the lieutenant governor at No. 2.

Say hello to the secretary of state. These days it is Jeffrey Bullock, and if there was a natural for Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, to appoint, it was Bullock with his mild-mannered Clark Kent personality to go with a Superman portfolio.

“There are all kinds of things that when I took the job, I never thought about, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Two days are never the same,” Bullock says.

Bullock is not the only state official who has more to do than people usually think about, although his situation might be the most extreme.

What he is mostly supposed to do is run the department involved with making Delaware the corporate capital of the world, so all those corporations will keep paying the taxes and fees that directly or indirectly finance about 40 percent of the state budget and sustain an economic structure for everything from high-powered lawyers to hotel housekeepers.

What he also does is sit on a dozen boards and oversee 19 agencies.

It puts him on the Board of Pardons, which recommends clemency to the governor, and the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, which keeps track of the state’s revenue, and the Cash Management Policy Board, which is in charge of the state’s investment practices, not to mention his part in port management, the archives, banking, the veterans home, the arts, the libraries, and altogether too much more to have to mention.

Bullock was even pulled into law enforcement after the tragic death of Joseph Szczerba, the New Castle County police lieutenant, in the line of duty, because guess who had the emergency powers to ban bath salts, the hallucinogenic drug?

“The secretary of state,” Bullock says.

There is just no getting around the state’s tendency to graft assignments onto officials who would not seem to have any earthly reason otherwise to be connected to them.

Look at the Board of Pardons

Unlike the president, the governor does not have the unfettered authority to pardon or commute sentences but instead has to have a recommendation from the board. Other states have turned to experts in corrections and sociology, to doctors, lawyers and psychologists, and to crime victims, but not here.

The members of the board in Delaware are the lieutenant governor, the treasurer, the auditor, the secretary of state—naturally!—and the chancellor of the Court of Chancery, the court renowned for corporate law.

The board has been this way since it was created when the state’s current constitution was adopted in 1897, and there was a good reason for it, as explained in an article written by Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, for the Delaware Law Review: It saved money.

The delegates to the constitutional convention figured there was no sense in paying anyone new to sit on the board when it could be filled with officials who were already getting a state paycheck. The delegates considered a variety of officeholders—the attorney general, the insurance commissioner, the speaker, judges, even the county registers of wills—before settling on the membership as it remains to this day.

This is not the only instance where the delegates were driven by a determination to govern on the cheap. They also declined to set up a separate Supreme Court. Instead, they created a system in which appeals were heard by a makeshift high court of “leftover judges” who were not otherwise involved with the case.

Not until 1951 did Delaware finally create an independent Supreme Court, because every other state had one and it was becoming an embarrassment. It is never good when the First State is the Last State.

At least the “leftover judges” were judges. The Board of Pardons does not have so much as a single member whose post would prompt the voters to think they had anything to do with criminal justice.

The treasurer and the auditor are primarily about money. The chancellor and the secretary of state are expected to be the keepers of the corporate crown jewels. The lieutenant governor is the president of the state Senate.

The lieutenant governor is also first in the line of succession if something happens to the governor. Beyond that, Delaware’s line of succession is not particularly obvious.

While the federal succession moves from the vice president to the speaker to the Senate president pro tem to the secretary of state and on through the Cabinet, the one for Delaware proceeds from the lieutenant governor to the secretary of state to the attorney general to the Senate president pro tem to the speaker.

In other words, the state’s line of succession creates another class of officeholders who are charged with doing something that most people never even think about.

This can include the officeholders themselves. It became apparent several years ago at the funeral for Jean Biden, the mother of the vice president and grandmother of the attorney general.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Brandywine Hundred held an extraordinary concentration of the lines of succession, federal and state. 

President Obama was there and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker at the time. Bill Clinton attended, but not Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, who was traveling.

Jack Markell was there, and so were Matt Denn and Jeff Bullock and Beau Biden—but not Tony DeLuca, then the pro tem, who was in Dover for a legislative session.

If anything catastrophic had happened, the country would have had President Hillary Clinton and Gov. Tony DeLuca. He was stunned when it was pointed out to him.

“I didn’t realize that. That is a wake-up call,” DeLuca says.

Naturally Bullock is aware of where he falls in the line of succession. When in doubt, Delaware calls on the secretary of state.   

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