Posted: June 26, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Some things have changed since Delawareans elected Ruth Ann Minner the first woman to be the governor. One of them is lobster dinner at Woodburn.

Since 1984, the last year of Republican Gov. Pierre S. du Pont's administration, there has been a cozy little gathering on the porch at Woodburn, the governor's house on Kings Highway in Dover, as the end of the legislative session approaches on June 30.

It was the idea of Edward R. "Ned" Davis, one of Dover's most influential lobbyists. Davis would bring along the lobster and some leading legislators, all Democrats like Davis. The governors would throw in incidentals like corn on the cob, cole slaw and homemade strawberry ice cream and invite along some of their own Cabinet secretaries and staff.

If there is anything in Delaware more insider than this, it is hard to think of it. "We'd just hang around for a while. We'd tell jokes and shoot the breeze about state affairs," Davis said.

While the guest list changed through the years, as long as Davis was the host, there was one constant. No women. This dinner was stag.

Then along came Minner, and what was a man to do?

Since Minner's first year in office in 2001, Davis has ceded the dinner to Mary Davis, his daughter who works with him as a lobbyist. Mary Davis still brings the lobster -- which costs about $300 these days -- and the legislators, all of them Democrats, just the way daddy did. The governor still rounds out the meal and invites people from her administration, also Democratic.

Only everyone there is a woman -- even the state trooper from the governor's security detail.

The dinner this year was Wednesday evening. Mary Davis invited all the Democratic women in the General Assembly, including Sens. Nancy W. Cook, Patricia M. Blevins, Margaret Rose Henry and Karen E. Peterson, and Reps. Helen M. Keeley, Hazel D. Plant, Melanie L. George and Bethany A. Hall-Long. No men and no Republicans, of which there are 10 women, for a total of 18 women among 62 legislators.

Minner had along some Cabinet members, like Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor and Budget Director Jennifer "JJ" Davis, as well as staff.

"I love having the women. Pretty soon we're going to be too big. Women are taking over," Mary Davis said.

The lobster dinner actually has had its ups and downs through the years, depending on who the governor was.

The heyday for Ned Davis was the years with Republican Gov. Michael N. Castle, now the state's lone congressman, whose administration lasted from 1985 to 1993. He remembers inviting senators like Richard S. Cordrey, Thurman G. Adams Jr., James T. Vaughn Sr. and Herman M. Holloway Sr. -- with Nancy Cook threatening to crash it, although she didn't.

Those dinners remain one of the fondest memories of Dover for Jeffrey A. Dayton, the congressman's district director who also was a top aide to Castle when he was the governor.

"That night was always a special night. No matter whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, you just sat down and broke bread and told stories. That's what makes Delaware special," Dayton said. "I don't think I've had lobster since those dinners, and I know I haven't had lobster that good since 1992."

The dinner went into something of a decline under Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper, now a U.S. senator, who was in Dover from 1993 to 2001. "Some years the legislators weren't getting along with Tom, and they didn't have it, at all," Ned Davis said.

Carper also developed concerns about the men's club atmosphere, Davis said, so at one point there was a parallel dinner for some of the women in the legislature and the Cabinet, with the governor and Davis joining them for dessert.

While Minner was entertaining the women last year, Ned Davis took some of the men out for dinner, but it wasn't the same, and he misses it.

"If I live long enough and we get another male governor, I may start it back with the men," Davis said.