Democrats target Senate Minority Whip Lavelle over ERA vote


The 2018 Delaware district and charter teachers of the year visited Gov. John Carney in Legislative Hall this past week. (Submitted photo/Governor’s office)

DOVER — The failure of House Bill 399, the Equal Rights Amendment, in the Senate Wednesday left many people frustrated and disappointed. Both Democrats and Republicans expressed shock over its defeat, and each party blamed the other.

The proposal was voted down 11-9, with all but one of the votes in favor coming from the Democratic majority. (One Democrat voted against it for procedural reasons, and one likely Republican supporter was absent, although that still would have left the measure a vote short of the needed two-thirds supermajority.)

One Republican in particular drew the ire of Democrats for voting against the bill.

Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, attended a March rally in support of the measure, which would add to the Delaware Constitution a line reading “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.” However, when it came time to vote on the measure, he opposed it.

In a statement after the vote, Sen. Lavelle said he remains “fully supportive of changing our state constitution to protect equally the rights of women and men” but cast vote against the bill because of concerns the language is ambiguous.

Gigi, a beagle formerly used as a test subject, received a warm welcome in the Senate chamber Tuesday as senators debated a measure that would require research animals to be put up for adoption. (Submitted photo/Senate Democratic caucus)

“There is great uncertainty about judicial interpretation of the amendment’s language, especially given that judges consider, but are not bound by, legislative intent,” he said. “Given this uncertainty and difference of opinion, it is my responsibility to take steps to make the intent plainly clear in the amendment’s language, and to whatever extent possible, prevent these questions from defaulting to a judge or court.”

Sen. Lavelle said he would back Delaware’s ERA if language is added that clarifies the proposal is not intended to impact abortion funding, the private sector or certain segregated entities, such as parochial schools serving only girls and prisons divided based on sex.

“Judges in Connecticut and New Mexico used similar ERA language to guarantee state-funded abortions,” he noted.

State courts have interpreted Connecticut’s and New Mexico’s Equal Rights Amendments as requiring the states to cover medically necessary abortions for women with Medicaid.

But Democrats dismissed those arguments.

“If you’re really in favor of a bill and you’re going to stand out there and proclaim to the world behind a big sign (reading) ERA how supportive you are and then you vote against the bill, it’s absolutely hypocritical,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said Thursday.

Sen. Lavelle, for his part, said Thursday he thought Democrats were being insincere and “doing political games” by opposing Republican amendments.

Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Marshallton, proposed three changes during the floor debate Wednesday: to prohibit state-funded abortions, allow separation of men and women in some cases and clarify the Equal Rights Amendment does not apply outside of state and local governments. All were voted down on party lines.

Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Marshallton, wore a Kentucky Derby-inspired suit Thursday, much to the amusement of colleagues. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

Democrats pointed to testimony from Widener University Delaware Law School dean Rod Smolla, who described the amendments as unnecessary.

“I think whenever you try to amend every potential problem that a broad provision you are enacting might later implicate and you start to take things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and such and put a list of things, ‘Well, we don’t mean this, we do mean that’ and so on, in that generic sentence, you weaken the substance and symbolic importance of the principle,” Mr. Smolla told senators Wednesday.

“The Framers didn’t feel they needed to go down 100 things when they enacted freedom of speech or freedom of religion.”

Sen. Lavelle was seen by Democrats as a potential supporter of the bill because he is up for election this fall in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They also felt he would be more inclined to support the measure because his likely Democratic opponent is a woman.

The minority whip is one of three Senate Republicans from New Castle County and the only one up for election this year. Defeating him would not only give the Democratic Party a bit more breathing room in the Senate but would also deal a blow to the GOP, which is seeing Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson retiring from his Milford-area district.

Sen. Lavelle won election to the Senate in 2012, running for the upper chamber after 12 years in the House. He garnered 50.8 percent of the vote to defeat the incumbent Democrat in an expensive race and was re-elected with 61.9 percent of ballots cast in 2014.

The demographics of the district have changed, however, going from a Republican plurality to a Democratic one — as evidenced by the presidential elections. Barack Obama garnered 311 more votes than Mitt Romney in the 4th Senatorial District in 2012, while four years later, Mrs. Clinton pulled in 3,025 more votes than Donald Trump.

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