There's a lot going on before the General Assembly starts its work in January
Moving day in any household can be a major headache.
But reshuffling the 62 lawmakers in Delaware’s Legislative Hall is being done with very little hassle.
The setup is pretty simple, according to Joe Fulgham, communications officer for the Republican House of Representatives minority caucus.
“In the House, the offices on the first and second floor are held by the majority caucus, basement offices are held by the minority,” he said.
This spreads 26 Democrats over two floors while the 15 Republicans get the basement.
More office space is needed for the House than for the smaller Senate, which has 21 members. As a result, that chamber’s 12 Democrats hold first floor offices and the nine Republicans work out of the second floor.
The results of the 2018 elections have seated 12 new representatives and five new senators. Two senators, Democrat Trey Paradee and Republican David Wilson, moved over from the House.
Though the numbers fluctuate slightly from session to session depending on the number of seats held by each party, there hasn’t been a major flip of office space in a decade, according to House Chief Clerk Richard Puffer.
That last happened in 2008 when Democrats became the House majority party, he said.
“Before that was 1984 when Republicans took over the majority and held it for 24 years,” Puffer said.
He doesn’t know when the system for assigning offices came about, adding that most likely it’s recent given Delaware’s more than 230-year existence as a state.
“They could change it if they wanted, but they haven’t,” he said.
When Legislative Hall was completed in 1933 it had no individual office space for lawmakers at all, Puffer said. Up until its first expansion and the addition of office space in the late 1960s, legislators conducted all their business at their desks on the House or Senate floor. More space was added during renovations in 1994.
Getting the last choice
Work on assigning offices, parking spots and desks in the House and Senate usually begins with the first caucus meetings right after the elections, Puffer said. To figure out who gets which, each caucus has a map of the interior and uses that to pick and choose the space each legislator wants. Although given the opportunity to move, some lawmakers like where they are and stay put. Members are free to swap office assignments if both agree, he added.
While senior legislators, such as House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, don’t usually change, generally office assignments for others are based on how long they’ve served, notes Rep. Jeff Spiegelman. The Clayton Republican was elected in 2012.
Ranking rookies alphabetically usually determines who gets which office, Spiegelman said.
“When I first came here as a freshman in the minority party and because my last name begins with an S, I got last choice,” he said. For the upcoming 150th General Assembly session, that distinction belongs to newly-elected Republican Jesse R. Vanderwende.
“It’s a bit of a dubious honor, but it was great because then you didn’t have as many choices to make,” Spiegelman said with a laugh.
But now with four elections under his belt, things are a little different. With a new office comes a better position on the House floor.
On the floor, senators and representatives are ranked by seniority within their caucus. Last session, former Rep. Bobby Outten’s desk was between Spiegelman’s and the aisle, which sometimes hampered interaction with others.
This year, Spiegelman chose Outten’s old desk as his own.
“I finally have an aisle seat on the chamber floor, which is great because I like to stand up and talk to people and now I won’t bother others,” Spiegelman said.
And then there’s the new office.
“This year I’ve got a bit of seniority and I’ve moved to a corner office,” Spiegelman said, adding that he’d made a last-minute swap with Rep. Kevin S. Hensley.
Despite that move, he’s still in Legislative Hall’s basement, in digs that had been home to Rep. Ruth Briggs-King, who was elected in 2010. She now has a bigger office, Spiegelman said.
“What’s really nice now is I’ve got two windows, and they look out on the front of the building,” he said. “It used to be I had one window and all I could see was a wall.”
Room with a view
Sean Lynn, a Democrat beginning his third House term, also has found a new workplace.
“When I came here, I had the worst office and the worst parking spot,” he said. “This year I moved from the first floor to the second floor when a more desirable space opened up. It’s actually smaller, but there’s a nicer view and there’s less traffic.”
Legislators get parking spaces like they are assigned to offices, but have the opportunity to make reasonable adjustments, Lynn said.
“Even though I have a better office, I’ve kept my parking space,” Lynn said. “It’s actually fine with me because I work downtown and I just walk from my office to Legislative Hall. I don’t drive most of the time anyhow.”
There’s one office Lynn said he definitely didn’t want: the one once occupied by Paradee, a noted dog aficionado.
Paradee often was accompanied by one of two well-known and well-mannered yellow Labradors, who sometimes tended to shed.
“That office would have been full of dog hair,” Lynn joked.
Maybe a little smaller
“That’s just Sean being Sean,” Paradee said when told of Lynn’s good-natured jibe. “But it’s no secret I have brought one of the dogs over. They certainly lift the spirits of the staff and I’m pretty pleased with how they behave.”
Looking around his new but unpainted Senate office, Paradee doesn’t think this workplace is any different from the old one. “Actually, I think it’s a little smaller,” he observed.
Even though he’s got six years’ experience in the House, Paradee is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to the amenities of his new position.
“I’m being treated just like any brand-new senator,” he said. “But hey, I’m just happy to be here. I don’t place a whole lot of value on who has the best office or the best location.”
Paradee didn’t do much when it came to personalizing his House office, and kept the same space during his subsequent terms.
“There are a lot of people who decorate with their degrees, photos and awards. But my office has been really sparse. When I was first elected, I didn’t know how long I’d be there so I never invested a lot of time or money in decorating.”
A lucky pick
Democratic freshman Sen. Laura Sturgeon got her office by the luck of the draw.
Sturgeon and the other four new senators drew lots. Although she didn’t get her first pick, she was happy with the one offered by drawing second, a space once occupied by three Senate staffers.
“I’m glad we didn’t do it alphabetically,” she said. “I got an office I really liked.”
She does plan on a little decorating, though, and already has picked out a desk once used by her friend and mentor, former Sen. Karen Peterson.
“I can’t picture what it will look like,” Sturgeon said of her still empty office. “I need to learn what all the rules are about what I can hang on the walls to make it my own.”
And she admits to reservations about her assigned parking spot.
“The only thing I don’t like is that you have to back into it and I don’t like doing that,” Sturgeon said. “You have to drive past it and then back in. On my first day I ended up going the wrong way on a one way street.
“I thought I was going to get a ticket from the Capital Police on my first day on the job.”
No one will ever know
All of this moving and rearranging is done on the cheap, Puffer said. Legislators are responsible for packing up their stuff, often with the help of their staff. The state uses no outside contractors.
When Democrats took over the House a decade ago, he said, the massive swap was carried out in-house, with the staff using hand trucks to move boxes from floor to floor.
With large items, like heavy desks, sofas or bookcases, the work is done by trustees from the Delaware Department of Correction.
About the only expenses related are for boxes, bubble wrap, tape and whatever else is needed.
There’s also a lot of sprucing up done between sessions, work performed by state Division of Facility Management employees Mike Hughes and Joe Gourley. They’re responsible for such things as snow removal and waxing floors, and the pair spend much of the time between sessions painting legislative offices. There’s not much variation in the paint scheme. The walls are a soft white and the trim a mixture dubbed Legislative Blue.
They enjoy keeping Delaware’s premiere public building in good shape.
“This isn’t just a job,” Gourley said. “It’s always something that has to be done and done right.”
Gourley, who’s been working for the state for more than 20 years, and Hughes, who has 29 years on the job, usually paint 70 offices and common areas. Each time, they must be finished by January 1.
Puffer noted that everyone involved in the clean-up takes a lot of pride in their work.
“Our intent is that when the public comes in on the first day, all the scaffolding will be gone, the painting will be done and everyone will be moved into their new offices,” he said. “The idea is that nobody notices what a huge, massive undertaking has been going on here for the past two months.”