Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly...

LAST THURSDAY,

September 08, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LAST THURSDAY, Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly III got some pats on the back in this space for pressuring Delaware Sen. William Roth to vote for the crime bill.

Oberly's a Democrat running against Republican Roth for the Senate seat this fall. He's a tough lawman who called for Roth, who had voted against weapons bans before, to back the ban in the new bill.

Wait a minute, says a Roth campaign spokeswoman, Roth, not Oberly, is the anti-crime candidate. He's always been for tough federal and state laws, and crime has gone up a lot faster in Delaware than in the rest of the nation in the 12 years Oberly's been A.G. (In Delaware the A.G.'s office, not locally elected state's attorneys, prosecutes criminal cases.) As for opposing previous weapons bans, they weren't specific like this year's is.

Delawareans know this, says the Roth camp, as is evident in the polls that show crime the top issue and Senator Roth well ahead of Oberly.

Part of the latter may be due to Roth's slightly greater name identification. He's been on the scene a long time. He has been elected to statewide office six times without a defeat: in 1966 and 1968 to be the state's sole member of the House of Representatives and in 1970, 1976, 1982 and 1988 to the Senate.

This longevity is a plus and a minus for Roth in the campaign. It's a minus because he came to the Senate advocating the pet plan of his predecessor, John Williams: a constitutional limit on the age of senators. Williams wanted senators retired at 70. He did not seek a fifth term in 1970 because he practiced what he preached and at 66 could not serve out a six-year term.

Roth is 73, but he now says that "evolving social change" has led him to change his mind on the forced retirement issue. Oberly says he's reneging on a promise.

Another way Roth's experience works against him is that he hasn't done much or attracted much national attention and respect in his 24 years in the Senate. One wag said he is best known for having the worst toupee in public life. He has few legislative successes. His best known is Kemp-Roth, the Reagan tax cuts.

But in Delaware this is known as Roth-Kemp, and many will vote for him just because he is senior on important committees and has some clout (and will have more if Republicans gain control of the Senate).

Clout is crucial to Delaware because, as a small state, it has an enormous inferiority complex. And in fact it is inferior, representationally speaking. It fears its neighbors -- Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia -- because their congressional delegations are so much larger. The smallest of its neighbors -- us -- has three times as many members of Congress.

Some in Delaware may resent and dispute my saying they have an inferiority complex. Well, last month the Wilmington News Journal sponsored a city slogan contest. The winner by a mile: "So Close To Where You'd Rather Be."

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