Posted: April 3, 2015
FIRST TIME AS CONSCIENCE, SECOND AS POLITICS
By Celia Cohen
If history can repeat itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, then legislative votes can repeat themselves, too.
The first time as conscience, the second time as politics.
Roll calls repeat, too. More or less.
So it went Thursday in the Delaware General Assembly, where the state Senate debated for the second time a bill that would repeal the death penalty for all but 15 prisoners on death row.
Even the calendar was in flashback. When the Senate last considered the bill two years ago, it was Holy Week leading up to Easter, then as now, and the Delaware State University choir came to Legislative Hall, not far from its Dover campus, to sing spiritual songs of the yearning soul.
The roll call on the legislation, designated as Senate Bill 40, looked like a close clone of its slim self -- 11-10 in 2013 and 11-9 with one absent in 2015.
"I realize that every member of the Senate has already decided how they're going to vote," said Karen Peterson, the Democratic senator who is the prime sponsor, as she opened the debate.
What was not the same was the way all the senators lined up. This was something of a surprise.
A flip-flop is the hobgoblin of politics. (See Kerry, John, 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.")
It is bad politics because it not only makes a politician seem, well, political, but it gets everybody ticked off.
Still, it can be all right to evolve, as President Obama did on gay marriage. One senator said he did.
Dave McBride, the Senate's Democratic majority leader, voted to keep the death penalty the last time and to do away with it this time.
"I traveled a long distance from nay to yea," McBride said. "I oppose the death penalty at this moment in time, because it is, all arguments considered, a failed public policy that serves no purpose in our criminal justice system. It is not necessary for me to also believe -- and I do not -- that the death penalty is morally wrong."
Despite McBride's switch to "yes," the tally in favor of repeal was a wash because Bob Marshall, a Democratic senator, switched his vote from "yes" to "no." This was curious.
Marshall represents a Wilmington district where a majority of the population is African-American, and polls consistently show most African-Americans oppose the death penalty. Not to mention Marshall, who is white, only kept his seat in 2014 by winning a Democratic primary by 37 votes against Sherry Dorsey Walker, an African-American city councilwoman.
In a brief interview, Marshall said he was "on the fence" last time and changed his vote because of a call from a constituent and because an amendment he unsuccessfully proposed before -- to require convicted murderers to be locked down 23 hours a day -- was not part of the bill.
In another change, Greg Lavelle, a Republican senator who voted "no" in 2013, was absent. He told his caucus last week he had a commitment that would keep him out of Dover.
The debate this time around was not only less conscience and more politics, it even crossed into political revenge.
Ernie Lopez, a Republican senator, noted in his remarks that another senator had approached him after he voted "yes" two years ago and told him it meant he would not be re-elected.
"He's the only senator that didn't come back," Lopez said with a twist of the political knife.
That would be Bob Venables, a conservative Democratic senator who lost his seat in Sussex County, where the Democrats' voter turnout was dreadful in 2014.
Venables, who opposed repeal, was replaced by Bryant Richardson, a Republican senator who kept the vote in the "no" column. As the only senator new to the debate, it was for Richardson still a matter of conscience.
"Tough vote. My family's absolutely divided on it," Richardson said in an interview afterwards. "I just think there are some crimes that are so horrible."
The legislation now goes to the state House of Representatives. In its last incarnation, the bill was given the legislative equivalent of life imprisonment without parole there. It was never let out of committee and died at the end of the two-year session.
It could happen again. That would seem to summon up Einstein's famous definition of insanity, namely, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but Einstein was a brilliant physicist, not a legislator.
Gravity is different inside Legislative Hall. It took fifteen years from the time the first gay rights bill was introduced as an unloved pariah and stifled thereafter repeatedly in committee until full rights, including gay marriage, became state law.
Doing the same thing over and over again should not necessarily be regarded as insanity in the legislature but the way things get done.