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Is This the Most Powerful Man in Delaware?

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Thurman Adams, infamous among critics for sending bills to linger in the desk drawers of committee chairs, was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Despite his long and storied political career, Adams says he’s still a farm boy at heart. Photograph by Pat Crowe IIThurman Adams likes to tell the story of a fourth grade teacher who proudly announced to her students that “Senator Adams will be coming to speak to the class.” One student was less than impressed. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “I can get on my bike and ride down to see him whenever I want.”

The powerful Adams (he prefers the term influential), president pro tempore of the Delaware Senate, likes the story because, “It helps me to keep my head on straight.”

First elected to the Senate in 1972, Adams become president pro tempore in 2003. Though one of the most powerful positions in state government, Adams says it’s his humble beginnings that inform his role as a legislative leader.

“I was 10 years old before the farmhouse I was born into had electricity or plumbing,” Adams recalls—and with pride. “We weren’t poor. We just didn’t have any money. But I had the most wonderful parents.”

Adams’ connection to the family farm in Bridgeville has been one reason he has never sought statewide office. “I’ve always wanted to stay close to my businesses and my grandchildren,” he says.

Adams joined the Delaware State Highway Commission in 1961, appointed by his friend and business partner, Governor Elbert N. Carvel. Adams served in that position until 1970, when the commission was dissolved as a result of a change to a cabinet form of executive administration. The years Adams spent on that commission may provide a window into what critics sometimes call his “dictatorial style.”

“There were 11 people on the highway commission,” Adams says. “Those 11 people controlled the highway department, the [Department of Motor Vehicles], state police, turnpike, mosquito control and the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The commission was streamlined and less costly to administer than the cabinet posts today.”

Yes, but, 11 people controlling everything that allowed for motion throughout the state, including that of mosquitoes?
 

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Former Republican Senate Minority Leader Charlie Copeland says Adams has played partisan politics as hard as they come. Copeland served in the Senate from 2002 till 2008, voluntarily relinquishing his seat for an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor last year. During his time, “Republicans were not allowed to pursue bills on legitimate issues,” Copeland says. “Republican bills were simply routed to either [Adams’] or other Democrat-controlled committees, where they’d remain in the chairman’s desk drawer. A bill I had introduced on Medicaid never saw the light of day until a Democrat introduced the same bill—and it was passed.”

Even reform-minded Democrats have run up against Adams’ sometimes iron-fisted control of the legislative process. Senator Karen Peterson arrived in the Senate in 2002, determined to see open government legislation passed.

“I introduced my open government bill in 2003, and it went nowhere,” Peterson says. “I introduced it again in 2005, with additional sponsors, and again in 2007. In our caucus, I asked Thurman if we would consider it, and he told me, ‘We’ll get to it.’”

Peterson says Adams said that on several occasions, but the bill never went anywhere.

“He’s old school,” Peterson says. “In a democracy, the majority is supposed to rule. When one person unilaterally can kill legislation, it’s not democratic.”

According to Peterson, Adams can subvert even the procedure for steering legislation past an intractable committee chair.

“If a majority wants a bill voted out of committee, the senate can petition it out,” Peterson explains. “It takes 11 signatures. But I’ve circulated three such petitions and could never get to the 11 signatories.”

She says potential signers are threatened with a loss of staff or committee assignments, should their name appear on an unwanted petition. Copeland believes that happened to him, though he admits he has no proof. “All of the hiring and firing decisions for the Republican caucus had to be approved by the Democrat leadership,” Copeland says. “Thurman never told me why he wouldn’t let me fill the vacancy other than ‘budgets.’”
 

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Yet Copeland still respects Adams’ character and forthrightness. “I like him a lot,” says Copeland. “I’ve always found him to be honorable and straightforward. And I believe he truly wants what’s best for Delaware.”

Adams disputes use of the so-called desk drawer veto by declaring he never used it unilaterally. “All the requests not to consider a bill came from other members of the Senate who did not want to vote on it,” he says. “There were 31 bills in my desk drawer once, and 21 came over from the House and were not bills the Senate wanted to consider.”

Adams accepts the criticism with equanimity. “The buck stops with me, and I have to accept that everything that’s written about me is not something I’m going to like.”

Adams says his motives are fair, that he tries to do what’s best for the state. He cites two pieces of legislation he has sponsored that he is especially proud of.

“In 2000 my son died waiting on an organ transplant that was not available in time to save his life,” Adams says. “At the time, an individual’s wish to donate their organs at the time of death could be overridden by family members. My bill, signed into law by Governor Minner, now prevents that. I told a national meeting of state government officials about the bill, and now many other states have enacted similar legislation.”

The other bill Adams is most proud of saved a life shortly after its passage.

“I had been hearing complaints from law enforcement and school officials about the disruptive impact of bomb threats being phoned into schools. I introduced an enhanced 911 bill that enables law enforcement to trace cell phone calls, including those of victims of crimes.”

That bill’s passage led to an immediate decline in crank bomb threats, and within a year of its passage, the bill saved a woman from certain death.

“She had been kidnapped during a home invasion,” Adams says. “Placed in the trunk of the assailant’s car, she was taken to his home. She had no idea where she was, but was being repeatedly raped and was certain she’d eventually be killed. Her 911 call was traced to the assailant’s home and she was rescued.”

William Chandler of Delaware’s Chancery Court is unabashed in his praise of Adams’ importance to the people of Delaware.
 

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“He is a living legend, an iconic figure in Delaware’s legislative and political history,” Chandler says. “Senator Adams is revered in Sussex County for his tireless efforts on behalf of Sussex County. Simply put, he enjoys helping others, deriving his own satisfaction from doing whatever he can to help others and from working tirelessly to improve our county and our state for future generations.”

At the start of each session, Adams tells himself it’s time to start thinking of retirement, yet the 80-year-old still has not picked a date. He’s committed to help see the state through the current economic crunch. “It’s the worst financial crisis I’ve ever seen,” he says.

The depth of it even has this staunch opponent of sports betting re-thinking his position. “I’ve always believed sports betting sent the wrong message to our young people,” Adams says. “But in this current crisis, everything has to be on the table. And I’m guessing some kind of sports betting bill will pass this year.”

The capacity to change even a deeply held belief based on changed circumstances is something even Adams’ critics recognize.

“His leadership style is still more inclusive than that of his predecessors,” says Copeland. “He would seek out the opinions of others, including Republicans.”

And though Copeland points to workers’ compensation reform and efforts to increase minority (i.e.: Republican) representation on committees, Copeland still believes it will be time for a different kind of leadership after Adams. “Economically and technologically, there’s a different electorate out there that will require an even more open, inclusive leadership style,” he says.

But for as long as Adams chooses to remain in his seat (his constituents, he says, have never returned him to office with less than 63 percent of the vote), he will lead as he always has—from his roots.

“I do not try to act as the most powerful man in the Senate, due to my humble beginnings,” he says. “And I realize other people have helped me get here. I will always try to work together with all sides and treat everyone like I like to be treated. I’m influential but must keep perspective. I’m still a farm boy at heart.”

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