County Councilwoman Joan Deaver loves her job, despite feeling isolated by party, gender and policy positions

By Lynn R. Parks  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the May 2014 issue

joandeaverOn a cold January day, representatives of Sussex County government, town officials, people in the health care and tourism businesses and chamber of commerce members all gathered at the Sussex Pines Country Club near Georgetown. They were there for the unveiling of the latest version of the Sussex County Profile, a 72-page compendium of data about the county and its government.

When County Councilwoman Joan Deaver arrived, the other four council members were already there. They, as well as their friends and family members, were all seated at one table at the front of the room. Another table, also reserved for representatives of the county, was empty.

“I walked up to the table where they were all sitting and asked if there was anyplace for me to sit,” recalls Deaver. “All of the chairs were taken. But they could have moved a chair and someone [could have] slid over to fit me in.”

They didn’t. Instead, “they just ignored me. I went over and sat down at the other table by myself, in the front of the room where everybody could see me.”

In the end, Deaver left her table and wandered through the room, talking with people. “I just thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to put up with this,’ and I went and found some interesting people to talk to.”

When Deaver went home, she wrote on Facebook about having to sit alone. Rehoboth Beach resident Bea Wagner, one of the councilwoman’s friends on the social media site, read it.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” says Wagner, a retired clinical nurse specialist who’s lived in Sussex County for 40 years. “I know Sussex Countians and I love them. And I was surprised that no one at that table would get her a chair. That’s just good manners.”

Deaver says this was not the first time since she won her council seat in 2008 that fellow members have been rude to her.

“That kind of thing happens a lot,” she says. “I am overlooked quite often.” At conferences, she says, she often ends up sitting apart from her colleagues. When council members travel to meetings, no one offers to give her a ride. And perhaps most significantly, Deaver notes, the others don’t talk to her about issues or share information with her.

“I don’t know why they act like this,” she says, though she has an idea. Being the only woman, only Democrat and only non-native of Sussex County on the legislative body are likely all part of the reason.

Councilman Sam Wilson remembers that January day at Sussex Pines. He agrees that Deaver arrived at the country club after the other council members, and that one table was full by the time she got there. But he disagrees that she wasn’t welcome to sit with the others.

“I didn’t care if she sat down beside me,” he insists. As Wilson remembers it, Deaver asked about sitting in an empty chair and was told that it was already taken. “And nothing else was said. She just walked off then.”

Councilman Vance Phillips doesn’t recall the incident. But “I have no problems with Mrs. Deaver sitting at any table that I’m sitting at,” he says.

Wilson and Phillips both scoff at the notion that they and their fellow Republicans on the council are rude to their Democratic colleague.

“I’m just honest with her,” Wilson says. “There’s a difference between being honest and being rude.” Adds Wilson, a father of four adult children, “I talk to her just like I talk with my children.”

Phillips adds, “Mrs. Deaver is a fine lady and she is treated with the respect that a lady deserves.”

Council president Mike Vincent says that he doesn’t “have any issues” with Deaver. He adds: “I try and show her respect at all times. We are all council people and were elected by the people we represent.”

The three councilmen also don’t agree with Deaver’s contention that the council doesn’t share information. “Nothing is ever hidden from her,”Wilson says. “She walks into meetings with the same information as we do, and walks out with the same information as we do.”

George Cole has served on the council since 1986. For 12 of those years, until Phillips was elected in 1998, he was the only Republican there. And he and Phillips were in the minority until 2008. Cole agrees with Wilson that Deaver isn’t treated rudely. In fact, he says, she is shown more respect than he received as the minority member.

“I was in the wilderness for 20-plus years,” he says. “All that time, whenever I spoke, I was cut off. The Democrats did as much as they could to keep me quiet.”

Cole’s father, Charlie, preceded him on the council and served for nearly 12 years until his death. He too was the lone Republican. “Back then, the Democrats took as long as they wanted to make their speeches, and then they would hardly let the Republican talk at all,” Cole recalls. “I don’t know what Joan expects. She is the minority. I tell her to be patient, that in 28 years she might get something done.”

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