Posted: June 8, 2009
By Celia Cohen
When legislation known as Senate Bill 121 makes its journey through the Delaware General Assembly to the governor's desk for approval, as it is expected to do, it will look so normal.
Its prime sponsor is Sen. Dave Sokola, a Democrat who is a normal kind of guy, at least by the generally frenzied legislative standards, a friendly DuPonter who lives in the suburbs and likes to ride a bike.
In normal fashion Sokola introduced Senate Bill 121 last Thursday. The Senate Insurance Committee scheduled a hearing on it for Wednesday, June 17, and all five committee members appear ready to sign it out for Senate action.
Preliminary vote counts indicate majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives are in favor of it. Gov. Jack Markell says he has reason to sign it into law.
So humdrum. So normal. Could there be any better sign of acceptance for Senate Bill 121 than sweet normalcy? It is the gay rights bill.
The idea behind it was normal life for a part of the population -- to be able to get work, housing, insurance or even something as mundane as a meal at a restaurant without experiencing discrimination or hassle. Not marriage, however. The bill does not touch on gay marriage.
What is normal is momentous for this bill. It has been the focus of high drama, bitter conflict and legislative brinksmanship in the decade that has elapsed since Rep. Bill Oberle, a Republican, introduced a rudimentary version drafted for him by Deborah Gottschalk, a lawyer volunteering with the ACLU's Lesbian & Gay Civil Rights Project.
The House passed some form of the bill three times before this session. The Senate refused, stopping it with an array of legislative strangleholds, most notoriously the desk-drawer veto.
The bill was the subject of a public appeal for passage from Democrat Ruth Ann Minner when she was the governor. At one emotional peak in 2003, Republican Rep. Bobby Quillen stayed in Dover to cast the deciding vote for House approval, his dedication overriding how sick he was with the cancer that would kill him the next year.
"It's been a long time coming. It's very overdue," Oberle said.
The gay rights bill took a roundabout path this session to get where it is. It looked like more of the same when the House passed House Bill 5, yet another version introduced this time by Democratic Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, only to have the Senate entomb it in the Executive Committee composed of the chamber's leadership.
Times are not the same, however, not when Dick Cheney is as willing to make the case for gay marriage as for waterboarding.
With the 2008 election, new senators supportive of the gay rights bill replaced senators opposed to it. Schwartzkopf, installed as the House majority leader, was in a position to throttle Senate bills if the Senate stayed highhanded about the bill he wanted to come up for a vote.
Dave Sokola proved pivotal, particularly after the Senate's Democratic leadership got stung badly when Democratic Sen. Karen Peterson hijacked the floor to force consideration of an open government bill.
Sokola warned he would employ procedural maneuvers of his own to try to free the gay rights bill, like a petition to bring it out of committee or a motion to suspend rules as Peterson did.
"There were serious risks for leadership. We have some people in leadership with exceptional talent, but I think they've confused leadership and control in recent times," Sokola said.
Sokola met with Senate Majority Leader Tony DeLuca, and they came up with an arrangement to preserve the bill and the leadership.
Sokola agreed to re-introduce the gay rights bill as fresh legislation. It was assigned to a friendly committee -- the Insurance Committee, chaired by Majority Whip Patti Blevins -- ensuring it would be sent to the full Senate for consideration.
"Dave Sokola was very persistent and yet very sensitive. Dave did not want to undermine leadership, yet he wanted the bill to go before the Senate. Between Dave and Tony, they negotiated a solution. Persistence is the hallmark of how things get done in Legislative Hall," Blevins said.
Nothing could be more normal.