Posted: May 1, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

There is a long tradition in the Delaware House of Representatives of hazing its rookies the first time they bring legislation to the floor.

It was with justifiable nervousness that state Rep. John C. Atkins, a Millsboro Republican newly elected from the 41st District in Sussex County, stood for his debut. Not only was it his first bill, but he was presenting it on Thursday, April, 17, the day before the General Assembly was to take its two-week Spring Break, leading to a last-day-of-school feeling in the chamber.

Not only was the mood giggly, but Atkins already had gotten himself a reputation in Legislative Hall as having what was typically described as "a lot of puppy in him." He was more fair game than usual.

Atkins was about two weeks away from his 33rd birthday. Politically he was something of a fluke, believed to be the only Republican ever elected from his district. He makes his living in the trash business -- which meant that his political inexperience was compounded by his unfamiliarity with the subject matter of his legislation.

Atkins' bill was one of those legislative endeavors meant to set the state Supreme Court straight. It was a law-and-order measure actually drafted by the Attorney General's office. The court ruled last year that a defendant had to display a gun in order to be convicted of committing a robbery with a deadly weapon, not simply claim to be armed. The legislation was written to clarify that defendants saying they had guns were to be treated as though they did.

There was desperation in Atkins' voice as he began. "I'd like to have House Bill 115 read in . . . . Please?" he asked. "I've got to catch an emergency flight to Alaska. I'd like an emergency roll call, no questions, please. I have a very sick grandmother in Juneau, Alaska. She's very ill, and I must catch a flight in the next 15 minutes."

It was the old my-grandmother-is-sick ploy, the favorite refuge of schoolboys everywhere, and it did not work. The first wolf at Atkins' door was House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan, a veteran Democrat steeped in the art of breaking in rookies.

"If I were to walk up behind Representative Lofink, if I were to say to Representative Lofink, I have a Saturday Night Special in my pocket, what might this bill do to me?" Gilligan asked.

Atkins' reply sent him into legislative lore. "A Saturday Night Special in this bill is a deadly weapon," he said. "Where I come from in Sussex County, a Saturday Night Special is a hot woman and a six-pack of beer."

There was so much laughter that the House came to a standstill. Whatever else Gilligan intended to say, he simply gave up. It was 25 seconds by the clock before Republican Speaker Terry R. Spence collected himself enough to bring the chamber to order.

The House made an attempt to continue the debate, but not much of one. Atkins got his roll call. The bill was approved 38-0 with three absent and sent to the state Senate for its consideration.

Instead of the rookie getting hazed, the House got hosed. It just goes to show that passing legislation, no matter what the subject, can be a joke.