Posted: Jan. 4, 2010
OH! OH! GOOD-BYE TO THE '00s
By Celia Cohen
For the decade of the '00s, the most lasting memory was fittingly a place called Ground Zero.
Not that the '00s were finished with just that indelible mark. The decade began with a presidential election that yielded, well, nothing. Instead, the Supreme Court had to vote. It ended with a presidential election notable for another "O" -- the patriotically-striped one for Obama.
Also along the way, those 10 years had the twin plagues of war and economic waterloo, the floods of Katrina, the pestilences of anthrax and swine flu, everything but the death of the first-born.
Delaware had its own moments. In the spirit of the decade, here are 10 of them.
BREAK UP THE ACT. Longer than an airport security line, more powerful than Harry Potter's magic, Delaware had an enduring Senate act that lasted for 28 years. Bill Roth and Joe Biden, the down-to-earth Republican and the skyscraping Democrat.
Roth left first, kayoed in the decade's first election as then-Gov. Tom Carper turned the state's Senate delegation all Democratic. Biden stayed until the last election, gone to the vice presidency but not forgotten, not after placing a trusted advisor in his Senate seat and maybe next his own son?
Roth and Biden loved working together. After Roth lost, Biden blew up political protocol, as only he can, by declaring publicly to his old pal, "I don't think there was a single Biden that voted a straight ticket the last time you ran."
If Mike Castle beats Beau Biden for the Senate in 2010, what are the odds that Carper says to his new Republican partner, "I don't think there was a single Carper that voted a straight ticket"?
THE ERA OF TURN-TAKING IS OVER. For a time before the '00s, state politics was about as rough-and-tumble as playing patty-cake. Pete du Pont and Joe Biden did not run against each other, no matter how much Republicans begged their governor to do it. Castle and Carper sidestepped one another by swapping jobs, Castle taking the congressional seat and Carper the governorship.
Carper returned Delaware politics to contact sport by taking out Roth. It is one thing for a Democrat to knock off a Republican, but it was something else entirely when Jack Markell and John Carney collided in a Democratic primary that sent Markell onward to the governorship in 2008.
The era of the political free-for-all is here. Nor does it look like it will be going away, not if Castle and Beau Biden go through with the Senate race. Not even Muhammad Ali's "Thrilla in Manila" would be able to touch that Brawl in the Fall.
BLUE TIDE. Going into the decade, Delaware had a reputation as a swinging state, politically speaking. Whoever won the presidency, Delaware swung that way. The voters split their ticket for statewide offices, and the General Assembly was a house divided, a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican one in the House of Representatives.
Not anymore. The '00s pushed the state into Democratic blue territory and away from Republican red. The electorate voted straight Democratic for Gore, Kerry and Obama for president, put Democrats in seven of the nine statewide offices and turned the legislature into one-party rule.
Some of it was attributable to the prosperity under Clinton as president and Carper as governor in the 1990s. Some of it was a moderate state's reaction to the national Republican Party's hard right turn. Most of it was the shrinkage at the DuPont Co, which cut two-thirds of its workforce in the 1990s and deprived the state Republicans of a pro-business pool of candidates, campaign volunteers and contributions.
No chance anytime soon the state bird will switch from the Blue Hen to the Little Red Hen.
EARLY RETURNS. Ruth Ann Minner became the first woman elected governor here. She also set the record as the state's longest-serving governor, because she tacked almost two weeks onto her two terms by moving up from lieutenant governor in 2001 when Carper departed for the Senate.
All of it fell into place when Minner took her oath. With the way the rest of her tenure went, this is known as peaking early.
DOWN IN SMOKE. The '00s were the decade that cleared the air. Delaware became the first state in the nation in 2002 to ban smoking in public places. No one was more surprised than the legislators who made it happen.
There was significant opposition to the smoking ban in both the Democratic-run Senate and the Republican-run House, but neither wanted to be blamed for killing this popular initiative. They engaged in a classic legislative maneuver of ping-ponging the bill from chamber to chamber.
The House passed the bill and sent it to the Senate, which weakened it and sent it back. Figuring the Senate would never pass the stronger version, the House restored it and dumped it in the Senate again. It was an election year, and the Senate Democrats were not about to let the House Republicans stick it to them. The Senate passed the bill and sent it to Minner, who signed it into law in what was arguably the singular accomplishment of her administration.
Who says rank partisanship does not have its good side?
CHANGING OF THE GUARD. Ten years ago, the biggest names in state politics were Biden, Roth, Carper and Castle. They were so dominating, it was like looking at Mount Rushmore.
Some guy named Jack Markell was in his second year as state treasurer, but no one had cast a vote yet for his fellow Democratic officeholders-to-be, namely John Carney (lieutenant governor), Matt Denn (insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor), Chris Coons (New Castle County Council president and county executive), and Beau Biden (attorney general.)
Markell made it to governor, and the rest have their sights set on Delaware's highest offices. The '10s will have to sort it out. The state is not big enough for all of them.
CAPANO ALUMNI. The Trial of the (Last) Century turned into a cottage industry for politics in the '00s. This is what happens when the state becomes utterly fixated, as it did in the case of Tom Capano, the wealthy and well-connected Democratic lawyer convicted of murdering Anne Marie Fahey, the gubernatorial scheduler for Carper.
It was easier to be appointed than elected.
The trial launched two Republican candidates, Judge Bill Lee for governor and Co-prosecutor Ferris Wharton for attorney general. Neither won, although Wharton could try again.
Colm Connolly, the other prosecutor, got a presidential appointment from George Bush to be the U.S. attorney. Charlie Oberly, a defense attorney who used to be the attorney general, could get one from Barack Obama to be the U.S. attorney in the new decade.
It is more than even Shakespeare could envision. The evil is interred with Capano in jail, but the politics lives on.
THE DEAL OF THE DECADE. Jane Brady, the Republican attorney general, saw Beau Biden coming in 2006, and it was not a pretty sight. She dodged it with some hefty assistance from the governor.
Minner nominated Brady for a judgeship, and the Democratic Senate went along. It cleared the way for Minner to install Carl Danberg, a fellow Democrat, as the attorney general until the election and tee up Biden's candidacy.
It worked so well, Minner pulled out the same script when Joe Biden became vice president. She appointed Ted Kaufman, a Biden loyalist like Danberg, to the Senate until the election and set up Beau Biden again.
Minner also got a great seat at the presidential inauguration.
TURN, TURN, TURN. There were a number of difficult political acts accomplished during this decade, like Carper ousting a sitting senator and Markell defeating the party favorite for the gubernatorial nomination. Still, no one else did what John Atkins did.
Probably the two hardest feats in politics are getting re-elected after a scandal and getting re-elected after switching parties. Atkins did both.
This good-ole-boy from Sussex County could teach politics to Louisiana. He got himself driven out of office in 2007 after a hell-raising night, in which he evaded a drunken-driving charge in Maryland with a flip of his House ID but was arrested later for fighting with his wife at home in Millsboro. He resigned as a Republican, re-registered as a Democrat and charmed his way back to Dover.
Atkins surpassed the standard in political dexterity set a decade earlier by Margaret Rose Henry. She was a Democrat when the Republicans recruited her to run for the state Senate in a special election, which she won. She became a Republican, but her Wilmington constituency was so deeply Democratic that she changed her registration again.
Today Henry is the Democratic majority whip in the Senate, the secretary of the state party, and a living tribute to Winston Churchill, who was a double-switcher himself and said, "Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat."
CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. When Mike Castle appeared on "Better Know a District" on Stephen Colbert's comedy show, the host gibed, "Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787, and state officials expect they'll have another accomplishment any day now."
At the end of the '00s, Joe Biden is the vice president and Castle's Senate candidacy is regarded as the most pivotal in the Republican drive to break the Senate Democrats' filibuster-proof control.
Stephen Colbert, eat your heart out.