Posted: May 1, 2003
SPRING BREAK SPECIAL
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
"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
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
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
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.
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