Posted: May 16, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As the end of the legislative session approaches next month, there is more and more talk about "Big Head," one of those phrases indigenous to "Leg Hall" in Dover. Insiders use the words without even thinking about them.

Anyone who thinks the first part of "Leg Hall" sounds something like ledge is not an insider. (Anyone who had to look up "indigenous" probably is.)

Here is a glossary to explain what the insiders are talking about.

Basement. A dreaded destination. The basement is the lowest of Leg Hall's three working floors, the place where the House minority has its offices. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is terrified of  losing two seats or more in the November election and becoming the minority caucus -- "going to the basement."

Big Head. An exclusive, unofficial council where key legislative leaders meet privately with administration officials to set the table for decisions on revenue and spending. It is not a term of endearment. More like sarcasm laced with envy.

Body Parts People. A collection of organizations like the heart association, lung association and cancer society that join forces to lobby for health measures, such as the smoking ban. Their selling point is their virtuousness, which is second only to Mom and apple pie.

"Count the votes." Assembling the support to reach a majority of 11 votes in the 21-member Senate or 21 votes in the 41-member House. It is a basic skill, but harder than it sounds. Legislators whose bills fail are likely to hear someone say, "Whassamatter? Didn't they count the votes?" Lawmakers who do not count the votes are regarded as negligent, lazy or gullible and deserving of the scorn they get.

Desk drawer. The place where bills go to die in the Senate. Committee chairs who are so opposed to legislation that they will not even let it go to the full Senate for consideration, no matter how many votes there are for it, are said to lock it in their desk drawer. The most legendary desk drawer belonged to the late Jim Vaughn Sr., a former Marine, state trooper and prison commissioner who could not be intimidated, shamed, browbeaten or bamboozled into letting democracy have its way.

Do a deal. I want something. You want something. We trade. One of the most notorious of all time was a constitution-for-asphalt deal in the 1970s by the late John Matushefske, a representative who bartered his vote on a new state constitution for a bill to have the state pay more money to asphalt contractors who were his buddies. Matty's "no" vote helped to kill the constitution, as his fellow wheeler-dealers intended. The asphalt bill was vetoed, but Matty tried.

"Going upstairs." As in, "going upstairs" to see the governor, who has an office on the second floor at the top of the sweeping double-staircase in the Leg Hall lobby. Some are summoned, some want to do a deal or kill one, some go in trepidation, some in fury, but they go -- even if they go by elevator, instead.

"Just housekeeping." A housekeeping bill is a minor measure, perhaps to clean up some language in the law to conform with newly-enacted legislation. When a lobbyist riffles a 125-page bill under a legislator's gaze and says it is "just housekeeping," as the late great Ned Davis once did, be suspicious.

Leg Hall. Legislative Hall, the center of Delaware's political universe in Dover. Its shorthand name is pronounced the way the Body Parts People would.

"Make your bones." Do your first deal. Do it or be discounted.

Player. A term of admiration for Leg Hall insiders with the nerves, wit, skills and timing to put them in the center of action. No one does it better than Nancy Cook, the senator who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee. For the federal government to do what she does alone, it needs the CIA.

Sin lobby. The alcohol, gambling and tobacco interests. As much as the Body Parts People get to wear the white hats, they get the Snidely Whiplash black mustache, although secretly legislators love them. Not only are they a rich source of campaign contributions, there is no easier avenue for state revenue than legalizing and taxing bad habits.

"Thurman's office." When people say after the day's session, "Let's go to Thurman's office," they mean, "Let's get a drink." Thurman Adams, the Senate president pro tem with a corner office on the first floor, has the best location in Leg Hall and the best-stocked bar.

Wired. When a bill is guaranteed to pass, no matter how controversial it is, it is wired. Ever see what happens to pay-and-pension packages for legislators?

Your word. Keeping it is the gold standard of legislating. People who can do a deal, count the votes and keep their word are players.