Posted: March 10, 2016
UNEASY SITS THE CROWN
By Celia Cohen
The speaker and the pro tem used to be granted a kind of political courtesy.
They hardly ever had more than token opposition, if that, when they were running for re-election, but not anymore. That sort of nodding detente is about as politically quaint these days as paper ballots and torchlight parades.
Here in the early going of the 2016 campaign season, with the Ides of March approaching, there are a mere seven legislators -- out of 52 members of the Delaware General Assembly with their terms up -- with candidates filed against them, but guess who two of them are?
Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives, and Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate. Yikes.
Maybe it should be expected, what with tenor of the times and the entire political spectrum on fire, from the institutional cannibalism with John Boehner zapped mid-term as the speaker in D.C. to the outside agitation with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and "Feeling the Bern" and Trumpism.
Being out is in.
Incoming or friendly fire, it does not matter. It is there from somewhere. Blevins drew an opponent from the usual suspects, that is, from the Republicans, but Schwartzkopf landed in a primary with a fellow Democrat.
"We are basically the target," Schwartzkopf said.
It was not always so. In a less tempestuous day, the speaker and the pro tem mostly got a pass.
It might have reeked of cronyism, but it was not stupid. Not only were the odds of winning low and the political retribution from losing potentially high, but why would the voters want to ditch someone with all that influence, when it could be used on their behalf?
It is the way it was for Richard Cordrey, the Democratic pro tem ensconced for 14 years, until he retired in 1996. He was treated like the squire of Sussex County. In all of the time he was the pro tem, he had one Republican opponent, and she got trounced. Oh, and a Libertarian a couple of times.
It was also that way for Terry Spence, the Republican speaker, or at least it was until the end of his extraordinary 21-year run with the gavel. The Democrats largely left Spence alone, even though he represented a Newark-area district that was way Democratic, until they got close to taking over the state House and figured they needed his seat to get there.
The Democrats went after Spence in 2006 -- when their campaign slogan was "Six in '06" to get to the state House majority -- and finally ousted him in 2008 when they did take charge.
The 2006 election with Spence was a turning point. In the past 10 years, the speaker and the pro tem have been more likely to be a marked man or woman.
Bob Gilligan, the speaker who took over when the Democrats did in 2008, had a Republican opponent in 2010, even if he did easily dispatch him. Gilligan later left on his own terms, retiring undefeated in 2012 after 40 years as a state representative.
Tony DeLuca, a Democratic pro tem, was out before he could get settled in, a casualty of his strong-arm style of leadership that did not go over well. The first time he was on the ballot as pro tem in 2012, he was booted in a primary.
By the time Blevins and Schwartzkopf took over the leadership of their chambers, both of them getting there in 2012, it probably could be considered political malpractice if they had not figured they would be challenged at the polls.
They both get it. Blevins went into the election year with $70,000 in her campaign account, and Schwartzkopf stockpiled $88,000. With that kind of money as a start, they can be the envy of practically any statewide candidate not named John Carney.
Blevins' race in the 7th Senatorial District, which spreads out from Elsmere where she was once the mayor, looks like a run-of-the-mill Democrat/Republican contest.
The Republicans are intent on capitalizing on the turbulent political mood to try to take over the state Senate, where they are outnumbered by 12-9. If they can pin down Blevins at home, it cuts into the time she has to give to her caucus mates' campaigns, as she typically does.
It all means Blevins was hardly surprised when Anthony Delcollo, a lawyer who is the Republican candidate, declared for office in January.
"The Republicans are making a push," Blevins said then.
The district is seriously Democratic, a daunting disadvantage for Delcollo, but at a time the voters are restless and the Democrats have run the state Senate for 43 years, why not take a shot?
"Two seats, two seats, that is what separates us from having reasonable, principled government. We haven't been this close in decades. It's time that we retake the Delaware Senate," Delcollo said in his announcement remarks.
Schwartzkopf, meanwhile, is being confronted by the threat within.
His opponent in the 14th Representative District, which radiates from Rehoboth Beach, is Don Peterson, a retired federal worker who is a fellow Democrat and knows an opportunity when he sees it in a simmering electorate. He filed his candidacy last week.
"That's the thing about the times. I think people are looking for an alternative. For an outsider like me to run, I think this is a great year," Peterson said.
It seems a little strange for Schwartzkopf to have a primary. He is the only Democratic legislator who comes from the state's conservative southern reaches, and he managed to be elected as the speaker, anyway. If he gets voted out, he might take downstate Delaware with him when he goes.
Still, Peterson has his reasons. Peterson is for the repeal of the death penalty, and Schwartzkopf is for keeping it. Peterson objected to Schwartzkopf getting an early endorsement from the local Democratic committee, months before the candidates' filing deadline in July. Peterson called it "a very undemocratic approach."
What is not an issue between them is gay rights. Schwartzkopf was an advocate when it was still politically risky, and Peterson is a lawfully wedded gay man.
"My husband and I are married because of that vote. I will always be grateful for that. I do think Pete represents the old guard, and it's time to at least challenge it," Peterson said.
So it goes. No less a scholar of human nature than Shakespeare could have warned the speaker and the pro tem centuries ago what they were in for, namely, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.