Is Delaware changing culturally and politically?

It’s been nearly 20 years since the movie “Wayne’s World” famously poked fun at Delaware’s blandness.

If you remember the scene in the 1992 film, Wayne and Garth used chroma-key technology to travel across the country, ridiculing each state along the way.

But when they got to Delaware, they were dumbstruck. The two awkwardly looked at each other and then into the camera. With nothing to say, Wayne apologetically told the audience, “Hi, I’m in Delaware.”

But what would Wayne and Garth say about Delaware today?

In recent years the First State has produced a vice president (Joe Biden), a memorable political campaign (Chris Coons versus Christine O’Donnell), and an Oscar winner (Wilmington’s Luke Matheny, Best Live Action Short Film for “God of Love”). During his acceptance speech Matheny even thanked “the great state of Delaware.”

So, is it possible that little Delaware has turned the corner, and become…hip?

At the internationally famous Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats in Rehoboth Beach, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” followed by an ear-piercing “Whoo!”

It is a Friday afternoon, about 2:30, and already (or still) the place is hopping.

Samantha Smith, who turned 21 on this particular day, does her first legal shot of alcohol and declares, “I love Delaware. It’s a pretty cool place to live.”

Jenna Walcott of Philadelphia is sitting at the bar. She’s been coming to Rehoboth Beach for years and says it has managed to maintain a small-town feel while adding the diversity and cultural appeal of a much larger urban setting.

“Absolutely, this town is incredibly hip. It’s very cool,” she said.

Talking more specifically about the entire state, Peggy Vasham of Maryland adds, “The tax structure is very favorable, so it’s probably going to become a retirement mecca one of these days. But there’s hip old people, too.”

So, in here at least, through ale-colored glasses, Delaware has become fashionable for people of all ages.

And it’s not just culturally; the perception of Delaware politically may be changing as well. And it happened almost overnight, beginning with a landmark bill-signing at the Queen Theater in Wilmington. On May 11th, amid tears, cheers and raised glasses of champagne, Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation giving same-sex couples in Delaware the same rights as married couples.

Two days later, Delaware legalized medical marijuana.

Nationwide, only a handful of states recognize civil unions, only 16 allow medical marijuana, and even fewer states have laws for both. Many now see Delaware as one of the most politically progressive states in the country; a state that favors rapid social reform.

Delaware State University political science professor Sam Hoff doesn’t quite see it that way.

“Those two issues, civil unions and medicinal marijuana would, on the face of it, point to a progressive state,” Hoff said.

Hoff says the medical marijuana bill is certainly progressive, but he does not feel the same way about the civil unions bill. When it comes to civil unions, Hoff says it’s tough to label Delaware progressive when eight other states are now offering legalized same-sex marriage.

For the most part, Hoff says Delaware remains a state that resides in the political center.

“Some folks think that now because we have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislation that we’ve kind of tilted to the liberal side,” he said. “I don’t really see it that way. If you look at a few issues in particular, then it looks like we’re going a little bit more progressive than we have been. But I still think we’re a balanced state, I still think we’re a moderate state.”

Rep. Melanie George (D-Bear/Newark), who played a key role in getting the civil union bill passed in the House, says recent legislation shows Delaware is more concerned with helping people than labels.

“I would call it just doing the right thing,” she said. “And that’s what I’m really proud of. So, I think it’s even bigger than the civil unions, bigger than the medical marijuana — it says if you’re a group that needs help, we in Delaware are here to help you even if everybody doesn’t agree, even if it’s not necessarily the popular thing to do, we’re willing to do what’s right.”

But doing “what’s right” in this case didn’t just happen overnight. The civil union and medical marijuana bills have been stalled or shot down in Delaware for years. So, why now?

George thinks it’s a case of legislators and residents wanting them at the same time and then figuring out the best way to do them.

“We did our research and we drafted legislation that have now become laws that are really well thought out and they deal with all of the nuances that I think have caused problems in other states. I don’t anticipate those problems here in Delaware.”

But others aren’t so sure.

“Any rational person who reads that bill realizes that we absolutely have now the weakest marijuana laws, the most lenient marijuana laws east of the Mississippi. There’s no question about it, we legalized marijuana,” said Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South).

He says the medical marijuana and civil union bills simply go too far, and that Delaware may someday regret them.

“Those of us who hold more traditional values, more conservative, I mean the institutions that have served us for literally generations and hundreds of years, we think that those institutions need protections as well,” Bonini said.

All of this is discussed in our First Look story on this week’s First.  That airs on WHYY-TV Friday at 5:30 and 10pm, 11am Sunday, and again Monday at 5:30pm.

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