General Assembly kicks off, swearing in members virtually

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf watches from his normal seat in the chamber as the clerk calls roll, with other representatives participating virtually. (Submitted photo/Delaware House Democratic Caucus)

DOVER — The Delaware General Assembly kicked off a new session Tuesday, swearing in members virtually for the first time.

Because of the pandemic, proceedings in January (and possibly later) are being held remotely, with members taking part through Zoom from their homes or offices.

Tuesday consisted solely of formalities like officially welcoming members and approving the chamber rules, and aside from a few minor technical difficulties and instances of legislators forgetting to mute or unmute themselves, proceedings went smoothly.

The legislature is scheduled to meet seven more times this month before breaking until March. When lawmakers return to conduct business in person at Legislative Hall will be determined based on the progress of the pandemic and the vaccination efforts.

The final month of last year’s session was also held virtually, something never done before in Delaware.

Chamber proceedings are streamed on the legislature’s website at legis.delaware.gov. Committee hearings are also broadcast online, but advance registration is required to listen and provide public comment. Those interested in doing so should go to the General Assembly’s website and look for the calendar on the Public Notice section of the main page or visit the Committee Meetings page for the respective chamber.

The House Administration, Transportation/Land Use and Infrastructure, and Natural Resources committees are set to meet Wednesday. They will consider bills dealing with voting rights, clean water funding and food takeout, among others.

The Senate Executive Committee will also meet Wednesday to approve gubernatorial nominations for various offices, such as the courts.

Tuesday was extra special for eight Delawareans, four in each chamber, who were newly elected in November.

They include the first transgender legislator in the state (Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington), as well as two other LGBT newcomers (Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-Bear, and Rep. Eric Morrison, D-Glasgow) and the first practicing Muslim (Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, D-Newark).

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (unmasked on second row of dais) oversaw the House of Representatives’ first day Tuesday. Other lawmakers participated from their homes or offices, with Rep. Schwartzkopf accompanied only by a few aides who helped keep things running. (Submitted photo/Delaware House Democratic Caucus)

Some lawmakers were joined by family members for the oath of office, and Rep. Wilson-Anton was sworn in on a Quran, an act believed to be a first in Delaware.

Each representative had a state flag hanging behind him or her, though backgrounds varied widely from plain walls to an elaborate Christmas scene.

“Of course, this is not how we envisioned the start of session and our first day,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, told colleagues. “It’s unfortunate that your first day and swearing-in is taking place like this, at home virtually rather than at Legislative Hall. But that is the world in which we’re living right now, and our priority is the health and safety of everyone and their families.”

Rep. Schwartzkopf was the only legislator in the House chamber, while Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, who took the oath of office in the Senate chamber, was the only lawmaker present on the other side of the building.

Lawmakers briefly reflected on the nearly 1,000 COVID deaths the state has seen, as well as last week’s violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, with several reminding one another they must work together.

“The House of Representatives kicked off the first day of the 151st General Assembly Tuesday. Due to the pandemic, most lawmakers participated virtually, with only House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf in the chamber. (Submitted photo/Delaware House Democratic Caucus)

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said, quoting from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Sens. Colin Bonini, R-Dover; Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford; Dave Wilson, R-Lincoln; and Sen. Lawson voted against a resolution establishing Senate rules because a provision requiring anyone in the chamber to stand and salute the flag when appropriate, chiefly with the daily Pledge of Allegiance, was removed. The four also opposed a separate resolution setting up special rules for virtual proceedings.

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