Seniority and power are one in this Senate
The Senate pro tem’s iron will has been controversial at times — but he trumps anyone with his control of the desk drawer veto
By GINGER GIBSON
The News Journal
The epitaph for open-government legislation read “Jan. 11, 2007 — Introduced and Assigned to Executive Committee in Senate.”
The Senate Executive Committee is better known as Thurman Adams’ desk drawer, a place where controversial legislation goes to die.
Senate Bill 4, filed on the first day of the legislative session and intended to increase public access to governmental meetings and records, spent two years yellowing and crumbling away there.
Adams can kill bills.
The pro tem is known across the state as the holder of the keys to release legislation onto the floor of the Senate, making him one of the most powerful elected officials.
The most senior member of the Senate — both in age and time served, Adams sounds hesitant about running for re-election when his term expires in 2010, which could mark the end of an era known for his iron will in negotiating the release of legislation for a vote.
There are two sides to Thurman Adams: The man described as low-key and caring, who says his family is the center of his universe, and the Democratic senator who some have accused of being vindictive and dictatorial, using his position to derail entire categories of legislation.
Adams the person
During the state fair last month, as Adams squired Gov. Ruth Ann Minner around the grounds, he could have been mistaken for any other visitor.
While other politicians milled through the crowds, shaking hands and taking photos, Adams leaned against the Harrington Raceway grandstand, dressed in a white polo shirt, denim shorts and loafers — no socks — flipping through the racing form.
Within five minutes of settling into the shade of the grandstand, he had been approached a dozen times with good wishes for his impending birthday — he turned 80 on July 25 — and inquiries about his family and comments on the weather. Some well-wishers even brought gifts — including a large bottle of Crown Royal from a member of the state House — for the feed-store owner known among his legislative colleagues as “Mr. Agriculture.”
During this year’s legislative session, his colleagues threw him an early surprise party to mark the birthday.
“To have 600 people show up makes you feel very humble,” Adams said.
One of the best parts of his birthday, he said, was the family dinner he had two days before with his daughters and grandchildren.
“He has the kind of relationship with his family that is very deep and very wide,” said Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere.
Adams’ public persona often is depicted as tough, but Blevins and other senators say there is a side the public does not see.
“He’s not often a man of many words, and the words he chooses are chosen carefully and are meaningful,” Blevins said.
He doesn’t enjoy talking about his personal life and would rather discuss the future of legislation or the latest debate about a controversial issue.
Sen. Liane Sorenson, R-Hockessin, has worked with Adams from across the aisle. She describes him as a “family man” and a fan of the University of Delaware.
Former Sen. Roger A. Martin, a Windy Hills Democrat now retired in Middletown, worked with Adams in the Senate for years.
“He is a man of his word,” Martin said. “He has got Lord knows how many friends and people that have been with him for years.”
Adams the senator
After a 36-year tenure in the Senate, it sometimes is difficult to distinguish between the public and private sides of Adams. Many have butted heads with the senator who has supreme control over what bills are allowed to go to the floor for a vote.
His career in state government began when he was appointed in 1961 to serve on the old State Highway Commission, where he worked for nine years overseeing state roads, bridges and state police.
He was elected to the Senate in 1972, the same year as Martin and House Minority Leader Bob Gilligan. After 31 years, he broke the previous Senate record for length of service.
“For 27 years I sat in the back row, corner desk, where I wanted to be,” Adams said.
As a legislator, he said, some of his proudest accomplishments occurred during his time in the back row, including a bill that provided for an enhanced 911 system that automatically gives dispatchers the address from which a call is originating.
Not long after the system went into place, it helped rescue a New Castle County woman who was abducted and held captive. When she was able to temporarily elude her captor and dial 911, the operator knew her location because of the system.
Recently, Adams saw the woman again.
“She said, ‘You saved my life.’ ”
He has taken part in the naming of two buildings: the Jack Owens Campus of Delaware Technical & Community College in 1995 and, this year, the renaming the state prison after close friend and fellow lawmaker James Vaughn, who died in 2007.
He’s also authored pieces of legislation that are easily taken for granted today, such as the legalization of right turns on red and the program that allows residents to mail fees to the state instead of delivering them in person.
Adams’ desk drawer
Adams said he was approached twice by members of his caucus to hold the position of majority leader, but he refused.
“I never wanted or craved leadership, I just have it,” Adams said. “Being in authority really doesn’t enthuse me.”
But becoming president pro tem gives him tremendous authority — including control of the infamous “desk-drawer veto.”
The pro tem decides which committee to assign each bill, a task that allows him to refer legislation to his own committee or to committees chaired by allies who can chose when — or if — it is brought up for a hearing or vote.
Adams has employed the desk-drawer veto repeatedly to foil open-government legislation, a vote on Bluewater Wind, sports betting and bills that would prevent discrimination against same-sex couples.
Adams’ decision to use the desk-drawer veto is simply exercising the rules, Martin said.
“Things have always been that way,” Martin said. “To think that he’s king of the land because he holds that desk drawer … that’s overplayed and overblown.”
Even Sen. Karen Peterson, whose open-government bills repeatedly wither and die in the desk drawer, acknowledges the practice has existed as long as the Senate rules.
“Killing legislation is one of things they do,” she said. “I don’t agree with it, but they do it because they can.”
Members can override his veto by petitioning bills out of committee to force a vote on the Senate floor.
Getting a bill out of committee without approval of the chairman requires 11 signatures — a simple majority — and is often perceived as a vote of “no confidence” for the leadership.
Peterson has said attempts to buck the system and petition bills out of committee can be perceived as personal affronts to Adams.
“At the political level, he’s as rough and tough as anybody,” she said.
Defying him means risking retribution such as undesirable committee assignments and the untimely demise of all legislation a member authors.
Adams said bills are left to die in his desk drawer not only because of how he feels about the legislation, but because members from both chambers and parties request it.
“I take the flak for a lot of people,” Adams said of his decisions to kill bills. “I’ll take that flak, it’s acceptable.”
He must find a balance, he said, between satisfying the interests of his constituents, his colleagues’ constituents and any member that may walk into his office with a request. With a background in agriculture, he knows how to horsetrade.
Majority Leader Sen. Anthony DeLuca, D-Varlano, said bills that end up in Adams’ drawer are there because a compromise can’t be reached beforehand.
“He brings his judgement to bear on that,” DeLuca said.
DeLuca said the exercising of judgement by the pro tem — as opposed to forcing issues to have a vote by the chamber — is a good thing because often legislation doesn’t do what it may appear to on its face.
As for complaints about the desk drawer, DeLuca said “that comes from someone who can’t get their issues resolved.”
End of an era?
Adams’ term in the Senate ends in 2010. When the next legislative session convenes in January, he will have to go up for re-election as pro tem.
He said he hopes to remain in leadership for the next two years, but wouldn’t say for sure what the future may hold for him when his term expires in his 38th year of service.
He said he will make a decision when the time is closer.
“I should be thinking about something that is not as stressful,” Adams said.
He said he has poured much of his life into public service and missed time with his now-grown children.
“I could have been watching Little League games,” he said. “I’m not really proud of that. When you’re elected, a lot of your time is not your own time, you could be doing something else.”
While legislators know a changing of the guard is coming, most refuse to speculate about who is next in line.
As majority leader, a position generally seen as a stepping stone to pro tem, DeLuca appears to be the heir apparent.
“I don’t think it’s fair to figure out what might happen,” DeLuca said. “I would give you the same answer if you asked what a piece of legislation might do.”
If DeLuca becomes pro tem one day, don’t expect the desk drawer situation to change much.
DeLuca was part of a group that faced criticism from members earlier this year about the way the Big Head Committee, of which he is a member, handled a package of proposed tax increases.
Some senators said the group’s closed-door and tight-lipped process to build a 17-piece legislative package meant to balance the 2009 budget played into their decision to vote down two of its main components.
DeLuca repeatedly defended the committee’s practices as necessary to ensure the package came together in time to balance the budget.
No matter who is elected by the full chamber — or, more aptly, the controlling party — to succeed Adams, some members would like to see a change in the way business is conducted.
“The pro tempore is supposed to be a facilitator and not a dictator,” Peterson said.