The reigning Senate leader beat back a challenge from within his own party, though opponents claim he runs the chamber like a dictatorship

The president pro tem of the Delaware Senate withstood a referendum on his leadership Dec. 14 when he was narrowly elected to continue serving in the post he took over in 2009.

Sen. Anthony DeLuca, D-Varlano, held off a challenge from within his own party during a brief but contentious vote to confirm him as pro tem during a special session called by the governor to act on a judicial appointment.

Eleven of the chamber’s 21 senators voted for DeLuca as pro tem, while five, including two Democrats, voted against him. Four senators were recorded as “not voting,” which effectively counts as a no.

Normally, the election of a president pro tem is a formality that unites the majority party in a vote for the chamber’s leader. But, in the weeks leading up to the special session, rumors circulated that a discontented faction of Democrats would join with Senate Republicans to unseat DeLuca.

The effort was led by Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, who criticized DeLuca’s leadership style and accused the pro tem of running the chamber according to his own wishes, not those of other senators or the public.

DeLuca came under fire at the close of the regular legislative session July 1 after he personally held from consideration a bill to create a public scholarship at Delaware State University. That bill eventually passed in September during a special session, but DeLuca's decision  continues to be a topic of discussion.

Recently, Peterson and others have derided DeLuca’s decision to piggyback on a maintenance project in Legislative Hall and have his office reconfigured in a way that better insulates the pro tem from visitors, at a cost of $46,000.

Peterson also alleged DeLuca was paying his Senate secretary for work she wasn’t doing, while she simultaneously was on the payroll in the same office where DeLuca works his day job, the state Department of Labor.

Freshman Sen. Dr. Michael Katz, D-Centerville, another DeLuca critic, was slated for the pro tem job if DeLuca had been defeated. Katz unsuccessfully sought the pro tem nod from his party during a closed-door leadership selection meeting last month.

Katz and his supporters needed 11 votes to deprive DeLuca of the pro tem’s seat in the coming legislative session.

That meant they’d have to get all seven senate Republicans plus four Democrats to vote against DeLuca.

When the vote came, the Democrats got what they needed from their side, with no votes from Katz and Peterson, plus “not voting” designations filed by Sen. George Bunting, D-Bethany Beach, and Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark.

However, the Republican support wasn’t there. Sen. Catherine Cloutier, R-Heatherbrooke, was out of state attending to her sick father, and Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover South, cast his vote for DeLuca.

Peterson claimed Bonini was going to vote against DeLuca, but he “sold out.”

Bonini denied that he ever agreed to cast a no vote, but in actuality agreed to vote in favor of DeLuca.

“I know some people are mad at Tony about things, but Tony is a strong leader and we need a strong leader in these times,” he said. “I really think with Tony as pro tem and the leadership they have and the leadership we have, I think we’re going to make progress.”

After the vote, DeLuca tried to brush off the criticisms leveled at him.

“I really don’t think I’m the demagogue that everybody thinks I am,” he said.

The pro tem also defended his office renovation project, saying he went through all the proper channels to have the work approved by the Office of Management and Budget.

On the matter of his secretary’s employment arrangement, DeLuca was quick to produce a copy of a legal decision rendered last week by the state solicitor, which held that the secretary’s simultaneous employment with the Senate and the Department of Labor is perfectly legal.

Peterson said she hoped the vote, although unsuccessful, would serve to put DeLuca “on notice,” but she’s not holding her breath.

“I think it will make him even more of a dictator,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll learn anything.”