Posted: March 5, 2004
ANYTHING GOES IN THE SUSSEX
41st REP DISTRICT
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
State Rep. John C. Atkins
thinks prison inmates should do something to earn their keep, and if
that means putting them in chain gangs, it is all right with him.
It is what he told radio
listeners last week on WGMD, the Talk of Delmarva, although he has
had some thoughts since then that maybe he should not have said what
he said. Maybe.
"I may have put my foot in
my mouth," said Atkins, a first-term Republican from Millsboro. "My
main goal is, they could certainly do a lot more to supplement what
the taxpayers do for them, save the taxpayers some money. Personally
I wouldn't have any problem, and it has a lot of support in my
No doubt about it, Atkins
has made his district a lively place politically to be, and this
election season it is only likely to get livelier. Of the 41
legislators in the Delaware House of Representatives, probably no
one has a bigger target on his back than Atkins.
Appropriately enough, the
41st District that Atkins represents -- one of the state's
southernmost in Sussex County -- even looks something like a gun,
its barrel pointed east, as it doglegs up from Selbyville through
Dagsboro, Millsboro and Long Neck.
Before the 2002 election,
when the boundary lines were redrawn in the once-a-decade adjustment
for population shifts, the district was expected to go Democratic.
It was represented for 24 years by Democrat Charles P. West, who was
retiring, and there were 700 more Democrats than Republicans,
although the margin has shrunk somewhat since.
The Democrats want the
district back. They particularly want it because only one of the
eight Sussex County representatives is a Democrat -- a prime reason
the House Republicans hold a 29-12 majority that the Democrats would
love to carve away.
"They voted Democratic for
20-some years. There's no reason it won't go back," said state
Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the House Democratic minority leader.
"We're certainly going to do everything we can to take it back. Mr.
Atkins has only been in the seat a year and a half. He doesn't own
The Republicans know they
are in for a firefight. "Delaware has a habit of re-electing
incumbents. No matter what political party it is, your best chance
to pick them off is after their first term," said state Rep.
Clifford G. "Biff" Lee, the House Republican majority whip.
There is no telling how this
race will turn out. Atkins has proved to be not just a loose cannon,
more like an unguided missile, but if he can put his foot in his
mouth, the district Democrats have shown they are capable of doing
something with their foot, too -- which is, shooting themselves in
It is how Atkins got elected
to begin with. This time around, the Democrats appear to have
settled early on a candidate, but not without hard feelings that
could have an effect on the vote.
First, there is the matter
of Atkins himself. An exuberant 33-year-old owner of a garbage
disposal company, he is a what-you-say-is-what-you-get type. Atkins
brought down the House last year, when he described a Saturday Night
Special during a law-and-order debate by explaining, "Where I come
from in Sussex County, a Saturday Night Special is a hot woman and a
six-pack of beer."
Biff Lee, who represents a
Sussex County district to Atkins' west, has taken him on as a
project, reeling him back from his most recent sally into chain
"I think all of our
prisoners ought to be doing something, but I'm not sure his choice
of the words 'chain gang' was what he meant," Lee said. "This is a
freshman mistake. He got a little overzealous."
This likely is welcome news
to the state Corrections Department, where chain gangs are against
policy. Spokeswoman Beth Welch said they not only are unproductive
-- "inmates are not productive when they are tethered together" --
but potentially counterproductive.
"There is not a state in the
union that employs the traditional chain gang," Welch said. "We'd
have every media outlet descending upon the state. We don't think it
would be positive press we would be getting."
Then there are the
Democrats. In 2002 they were expected to retain the district without
breaking a sweat, but Charlie West retired, they had a primary, and
the candidate who won, Donald L. Ward, was labeled a developer by
the Republicans and could not get out of his own way. Atkins
sauntered up to Dover with 60 percent of the vote.
This time the Democrats
appear to have settled on S. Bradley Connor, 43, who has been the
mayor of Dagsboro for 15 years and said of himself, "I have been in
town government, the president of the Sussex County Association of
Towns, and politics for most of my life. I know the district, and I
know the state."
Connor, however, was not the
only Democrat who wanted to run. Ronald Chorman, a Dagsboro package
store owner who considered the race in 2002, also was interested, so
both of them appealed to the 41st District Democratic Committee for
Chorman insists he had more
support until West, the curt and cantankerous ex-representative now
serving as the district chairman, browbeat the members into going
for Connor. West and Connor say nothing of the sort happened.
Whatever did occur, Chorman
was not happy about it. He figured a primary would get him nowhere,
so instead he has promised to help out Atkins against Connor. "I'll
do everything I can in my power to make sure he doesn't get
elected," Chorman said.
With the Republicans eying
the Democratic disarray -- some of them say Charlie West is the best
friend they have in the 41st -- and with the Democrats eying Atkins,
both sides are proceeding with a certain amount of optimism.
"I have confidence in John,"
said Phyllis M. Byrne, the Sussex County Republican chairwoman. "He
is a regular guy, and it's an asset in his district. I just
anticipate that he's going to be OK."
Connor warned, "Neither
party wants to lose this."
RETURN TO ARCHIVES
RETURN TO COVER PAGE