Lincoln and Douglas were once members of the Illinois legislature. Delaware should be so lucky.
The oratory inside Legislative Hall in Dover is usually all marbles and no Demosthenes. He was the Greek who taught himself the art of speaking by putting pebbles, the ancient equivalent of marbles, in his mouth.
Joe Biden, one of the best speechmakers the state has ever had, avoided the place. He skipped directly from the New Castle County Council to the U.S. Senate and on to the vice presidency. Still, every now and then, not very often at all, the General Assembly has a moment where the words that are spoken are transcendent, and people remember for the rest of their lifetimes that they were there.
One of those times came in the most recent session. It was a moment involving fundamental rights, unalienable rights, and a roll call that was going to be close. The speaker was Karen Peterson, a Democratic state senator from Stanton, and the bill in question would go on to make Delaware the 11th state to legalize gay marriage.
Peterson’s remarks would be remembered like others that left their imprint on the legislature, whether for eloquence, wit or towering audacity. They are worth recalling.
This is Delaware, where everybody likes to think they know everybody else. Peterson’s commitment with Vikki Bandy was not exactly a secret, but there is a difference between not keeping a secret and shouting from the mountaintop, and this was a go-tell-it-on-the-mountain circumstance.
Peterson waited until the debate was nearly over before she addressed the chamber. “My partner Vikki and I have been together for 24 years. We exchanged vows in the presence of a minister 23 years ago, and last year we entered into a civil union. Neither of us chose to be gay, any more than heterosexual people chose to be straight,” Peterson said.
“Like you, I didn’t wake up one morning and say, today’s the day, I’ve got to decide whether I want to be straight or gay. Nobody gets to make those decisions any more than we decide whether to be tall or short, black or white.
“We are what God made us. We don’t need to be fixed, we’re not broken, and we, like all other Americans, should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage. We are not seeking to redefine marriage, we are seeking to expand the definition of marriage. … I never imagined that in my lifetime, society would recognize same-sex marriage.”
Within the hour after Peterson spoke, the Senate followed the House of Representatives in voting to approve the gay marriage bill, and Gov. Jack Markell signed it into law. He said he was not going to let gay Delawareans wait any longer.
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A generation earlier during the civil rights movement, the Senate considered a proposal to end discrimination in housing.
Two state senators—one a Democrat and one a Republican, one black and one white—pleaded with their colleagues to let all people, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity, buy or rent a home wherever they chose.
It was 1967. Herman Holloway Sr., a black Democratic senator from Wilmington, and Louise Conner, a white Republican senator from Brandywine Hundred, knew they needed one more Democratic vote and one more Republican vote, or their legislation would fail.
Holloway had already given an acclaimed speech about open housing two years earlier.
“I feel confident that someday Negroes will enjoy the rights to which they are entitled,” he said then. “But I sometimes wonder what is really meant by ‘all men are created equal.’ I sometimes question this, and when I look at the American flag and see the red stripes, they remind us of the Negroes and whites who have died defending this country.
“And while there is discrimination in housing in Delaware, I am reminded that in military cemeteries, where Negro and white soldiers are buried, there is integration.”
Now, with the vote deadlocked, Holloway continued, and wept as he spoke.
“It’s a bill I believe in. I see a chance to remedy some of the suffering that humanity has placed on my people. I thought we could persuade one more vote on my side of the aisle, but apparently we can’t. I thought we could persuade one more Republican, but apparently we can’t.”
Conner tried, too, saying, “Of what are we afraid, my fellow Delawareans? Why must we be afraid of each other?”
The other senators did not budge. The bill failed that day, but Holloway and Conner did not give up. They rounded up the votes by 1969, and open housing became the law.
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Before Sherman Tribbitt was the governor from 1973 to 1977, he was a Democratic speaker. Although the House had written rules for passing legislation, any self-respecting speaker knew there was really only one rule that counts: The majority rules.
One legislative day, the Democratic majority was merrily voting to suspend its procedural rules and ram through whatever it wanted. Meg Manning, a Republican state representative from Marshallton, finally had enough. She held up a copy of the House’s rule book as she addressed Tribbitt.
“Mr. Speaker, what is this book for?” Manning asked.
“That book is for the minority,” Tribbitt quipped.
Manning flipped the book away. It landed in a waste basket, where it obviously belonged.
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Mike Castle was a young, determined state legislator, a Republican from Wilmington in his first term, when he decided to tackle a very tough problem in 1968. There was a failing private bus system in the city, and Castle proposed a public takeover. A lawyer by training, he spent one very long night in a law library to draft the legislation himself.
The governor was Charles Terry, a Democrat whose regal manner was honed during the years he spent as the state’s chief justice before his election in 1964. The troubled bus service had also come to his attention, and Terry himself appeared at a legislative hearing, where he berated the Republicans for doing nothing to try to resolve the situation.
Castle, thinking about his night in the law library, was as impetuous as he was insulted.
“That’s a lie,” Castle blurted.
“You can’t call the governor a liar,” Terry snapped.
The governor swept out of the hearing. Castle, aghast at what he had done, caught up with Terry outside the chamber and apologized.
“You have no future in the state, young man,” Terry told him.
Now there was the real lie. Castle went on to be a state senator, lieutenant governor, governor and congressman. Someday their exchange would come to be recognized in the annals of Delaware as governor-to-governor. Who knew?
♦ For more from the August Issue click here.