Freshmen legislators find challenges, inspiration in 148th General Assembly

DOVER — Members of the 148th Delaware General Assembly span a wide range in terms of service, from nearly 40 years to four months.

In fact, some of the longest-serving lawmakers hold the distinction of having been first elected before a few of their current colleagues were born.

Six legislators were elected for the first time in 2014, and while they’re technically still freshmen, it’s hard to blame them if they don’t feel that way after sitting through 43 regularly scheduled legislative days, dozens of committee hearings and a whole lot of floor votes.

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Bryant Richardson

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Sean Lynn

The six who first won a seat in 2014 are Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel; Rep. Kevin Hensley, R-Odessa; Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Talleyville; Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover; Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden; and Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro.

Joining them this year is Rep. David Bentz, D-Newark, who won a September special election after the former seat holder resigned to take a job with the state of Delaware.

Four of the seven defeated an incumbent either in the primary or general election, and three of them flipped the seat from Democratic to Republican control.

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Kevin Hensley

Crucially, Sen. Richardson’s victory broke the Democratic supermajority in the Senate, meaning the majority caucus could not pass tax bills by itself.

The first-term legislators come from various walks of life and represent disparate districts, from northern New Castle to central Kent to southern Sussex. A few held public service positions on a smaller scale before being elected to the legislature, while others were running their first campaign.

Several say they were not surprised by their first months in office, and others say they had to confront some challenges.

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Lyndon Yearick

Their focuses cover vastly different areas, although several singled out constituent service as their primary aim and their favorite field.

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Sean Matthews

For those newly elected, entering Legislative Hall not as a visitor but as one of 62 members of the General Assembly can be a daunting and unfamiliar step that requires adjustment.

Legislators must learn the many written-down rules that govern the capitol and the legislative process — How many times does a bill have to be read in before it can be voted on by the House?

What’s the difference between a joint and a concurrent resolution?

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Rich Collins

Who sets the daily agenda?

They also are faced with the more nebulous workings of the building, such as communication within and between caucuses.

Establishing a niche or role can be necessary in finding success in the General Assembly.

And, of course, all the time spent drafting and discussing bills must be balanced with responding to constituents.

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David Bentz

The successors

The exact contributions by legislators in their first year varied. Sen. Richardson and Reps. Hensley and Yearick each served as the primary sponsor of two bills or resolutions, while Reps. Lynn and Matthews sponsored seven apiece and Rep. Collins introduced eight.

Legislation filed in 2015 by the first-term lawmakers covered topics from strangulation to Seaford elections to public school immunization, with Rep. Matthews introducing bills centering on a particularly wide range of topics.

Five bills from him were signed into law, while both of Sen. Richardson’s and two of Rep. Lynn’s filings become law.

Rep. Lynn, who took over from retiring Democrat Darryl Scott by winning the primary and general elections, was the prime House sponsor of a bill to repeal the death penalty.

The legislation failed to make it out of committee in May, and Rep. Lynn intends to see suspension of the rules in an attempt to bring the bill directly to the House floor.

For him, that unsuccessful committee hearing and the planned suspension of rules continues to hang over his head despite what he judged as an otherwise successful year.

Many of the bills he has filed or co-sponsored deal with human rights, something he said is a “natural projection” of his passion and his background as a lawyer.

His fellow 2014 newcomer in the House Democratic caucus, Rep. Matthews, said he had “really no idea what the Legislative Hall process would be like” but largely has enjoyed his time in office.

Easily one of the youngest members of the General Assembly, Rep. Matthews took office after defeating three-term Democratic incumbent Dennis Williams and then topping a Republican contender.

“I think young people want to get involved in the process,” he said. “I think that we have to continue to, with an eye toward the future, make changes and involve the voice of young people.”

While several lawmakers are former educators, Rep. Matthews is the only one to currently hold a teaching position. A special education teacher, he said he has sought to make the experience memorable helpful for his students by arranging field trips and explaining the legislative process.

Both Reps. Lynn and Matthews gained some attention last year for, along with four other Democrats from the caucus’s more liberal side, breaking with their caucus on July 1 and voting against the budget due to some cuts to services.

“I am not beholden to anybody except my constituents,” Rep. Matthews said. “I am not afraid to be a ‘no’ vote if I think it’s the right thing to do.”

In the Camden area, Rep. Yearick earned his seat by first defeating fellow Republican Donald Blakey in his bid for a sixth term and then by winning the general election.

He has enjoyed seeing the legislative process from within, citing an ultimately amended proposal to ban use of electronic cigarettes indoors as a particular example of the system at its best — “democracy at work,” he said.

Those three seats remained the same in 2014, but three others flipped.

The flippers

After Democratic incumbent Rebecca Walker bowed out late, Rep. Hensley was left facing a fellow newcomer in the general election, a race he won.

Adjusting to the legislature, he said, did not prove especially daunting, thanks to two months of frequent communication with colleagues after the November election.

“I was a sponge, if you will,” he said.

One of his big focuses is education, and as a former Appoquinimink School Board and founding MOT Charter School member, he believes he can see school-related issues from both sides.

With one year under his belt, Rep. Hensley said he aims to be more outspoken in the second leg of the session.

Rep. Collins also flipped a seat, defeating seat holder John Atkins, a Democrat, in the 41st Representative District.

One of the plaintiffs in a successful 2013 lawsuit against the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control over stormwater regulations, he quickly has proven himself to be one of the General Assembly’s most conservative members and has vowed to fight tax increases and push for spending cuts.

“People are sick and tired of the status quo, tired of government that takes more and more and delivers less and less,” he said.

In terms simply of chamber makeup, no outcome had a bigger impact than the lone seat change in the Senate. Sen. Richardson defeated Robert Venables, who was first elected to the Senate in 1988.

His election gave the Democratic majority 12 seats rather than 13, meaning the caucus no longer had a supermajority.

That forced leading Democratic lawmakers to negotiate with Republicans over proposed vehicle fee increases, conversations than dragged on for six months before a compromise was reached.

Viewing his first year as a success, Sen. Richardson said he intends to focus more on recidivism in 2016. Like Rep. Collins, he is opposed to tax hikes and too many regulations.

“Anything that I can do at least to stop any future tax increases, to actually lower some of the taxes, I think would actually be beneficial to the economy,” he said.

A special election and 2016

Those six make up the class of 2014, but they are not the only ones in their first term. Rep. Bentz, elected in the first special election since 2009, was officially sworn in last week.
While all lawmakers tried to prepare by speaking with staff and colleagues, some had a better idea than others of what to expect. Rep. Bentz went from serving as an assistant to the 18th District representative to holding the seat.

“Certainly it’s a lot different being the one who has to cast the votes as opposed to working for someone who has to,” he said.

While he has gone from working around lawmakers to being one of them, he said little has changed in terms of his interactions with the dozens of people present in the building on a daily basis.

Rep. Lynn came from a somewhat similar place, serving on Dover City Council from 2011 until his election to the legislature in 2014.

“The citizens of the Third District gave me the blessing to be their councilperson, which gave me opportunity to hone and train to be a legislator,” he said.

The process may not be “like rocket science,” but there is no substitute for listening to public testimony in a committee hearing or discussing key issues with colleagues, Rep. Yearick said.

Sen. Richardson said he was a bit taken aback by the minority caucus being at “such a disadvantage,” where it cannot determine the agenda or bring bills to the floor.

The first-term members’ priorities range from cutting taxes to improving equality in the legal system to shifting control away from the Education Department and toward districts and schools. All are focused on balancing the budget, though their preferred plans for doing so vary.

“There’s every reason to believe that we’ll have a full plate this year,” Rep. Hensley said.

Traditionally, when a lawmaker’s first bill is being discussed on the floor, colleagues will use the opportunity to make jokes and ask questions that are only tangentially related.

Not everyone has had their turn yet, meaning a few legislators will likely undergo good-hearted hazing of sorts this year — a rite of passage.

And next year, then, they can join in when new members elected this fall are in the same position.

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