As the Delaware legislative session began 43 years ago, Gene Bookhammer, the Republican lieutenant governor at the time, could smell the brimstone.
Something devilish was afoot, something so devilish that the political repercussions would last until this very day.
Bookhammer had been around politics for a long time. As he eyed the 21 members of the state Senate as they prepared for the opening ceremonies, he could see that all 10 of the Democrats were wearing red carnations, but only two of the 11 Republicans were. Something had to be up.
Bookhammer, who was known as “Booky,” sought out Allen Cook, a leading Democratic state senator known as “Cooky.” Thurman Adams, a Democratic state senator who was a rookie, overheard their conversation about the carnations. His rendition was a classic:
Cooky said to Booky, “You want one?”
But Booky said to Cooky, “I better not.”
Bookhammer knew what he knew. As the state Senate came to order, it had to elect a president pro tem as one of its first acts. The lieutenant governor is constitutionally the president of the chamber, but the real clout belongs to the pro tem. Since the Republicans had the majority, a Republican should have been elected, but it was not to be.
Donald Isaacs and Tony Cicione, two Republican state senators, had turned on their own and made a secret pact to switch their allegiance and vote with the Democrats. The red carnations they wore in solidarity with all of the Democrats were a dead giveaway of what they had done.
Parliamentary weapons were drawn as the double-cross was exposed. Motion was met by counter-motion and counter-counter-motion and counter-counter-counter-motion. By the time the voting was over, Isaacs himself was elected pro tem.
Once upon a time across the sea, Britain had its treacherous War of the Roses. Here in Legislative Hall in Dover, the state Senate had its traitorous Conspiracy of the Carnations.
The date was Jan. 9, 1973. It is a day to remember, because the moment before the voting was the last moment the Republicans were in charge of the state Senate.
It has been like the curse of Babe Ruth, whose talents were sold from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919. The side that was betrayed was the side that kept losing for a very, very long time.
The state House of Representatives has gone back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans since then (though it looks safely Democratic for now.) The governor’s office has gone back and forth between the two parties. But the state Senate? Like General Jackson, it is standing like a stone wall.
As the General Assembly was hurtling toward the end of its two-year term on June 30, the Republicans were mustering their forces to try to make it their last day as the Senate minority.
Conflict over control of the legislature’s upper chamber is shaping up as the fiercest in the war between the parties on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8, more than the open race for governor, more than the open race for the state’s lone congressional seat.
“Our objective is simple. We plan to take back the Senate,” says Charlie Copeland, the Republican state chair.
The Republicans are currently outnumbered in the state Senate 12-9, so they need a swing of two seats to take the majority. There are 11 state senators up for election, seven of them Democrats, four of them Republicans.
It does not help the Republicans that they have no easy targets. All of the Democratic state senators whose terms are up represent districts with more Democratic than Republican voters in them.
It means the Republicans are trying to go strategic and probe for other political soft spots, mainly age.
The Republicans have put up candidates against the two oldest Democratic state senators, namely Harris McDowell, who will be 76 on Election Day, and Bruce Ennis, who will be 77.
It worked for the Republicans in 2014, when they took out Bob Venables, who, then 81, was the oldest state senator at the time—though it should be noted Venables was probably less vulnerable because of his years than because he was a Democrat in Sussex County, the most conservative part of the state. Venables was conservative himself, but the voters did not cut him any slack.
As if to make the point, McDowell and Ennis, members of the Silent Generation (born 1925-1945), are both opposed by Republican Millennials (born 1981-2000.)
McDowell, now in a record-setting 40th year in the state Senate, represents a district that extends northward from Wilmington through Claymont to the state line. He is being challenged by James Spadola, a Newark police officer.
Ennis, a legislator since 1982, comes from a district that straddles the Kent-New Castle County line and runs through Leipsic, Smyrna and Townsend up to the C&D Canal. The Republican candidate is Carl Pace, a businessman who trades in guns, gold and T-shirts.
The Republicans are also running someone against Patti Blevins, the Democratic pro tem from Elsmere. They have Anthony Delcollo, a lawyer. This is kind of a Hail Mary campaign because the district is a Democratic fortress, where nearly half the voters are Democrats and the unaffiliated voters outnumber the Republicans, but it is smart, anyway. Blevins is known as the political impresario for her caucus, but her own race will cut into the time she can commit to her fellow Democrats.
Still, the Republicans are up against a cold, hard truth. They have gotten within striking distance in the state Senate before, only to have something go wrong.
One of those times was about 20 years ago, when they pulled off a political miracle by winning a special election they had no business winning. Herman Holloway Sr., a Democratic state senator from a deeply Democratic district in Wilmington, had died in office, and the Republicans deftly enlisted Margaret Rose Henry, who was actually a Democrat, as their candidate.
The Republicans trumpeted Henry as the political equivalent of Jackie Robinson because she would be the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate, and it worked. The Democratic margin was cut to 12-9.
Henry, however, found herself uncomfortable with the Republicans. She eventually switched back to the Democrats and took the dream of a Republican majority with her.
Curses, another switch, and the Republicans were foiled again.