Hocker hosts first 'Coffee's on Me' as state senator

Same-sex marriage? Check. Gun control? Check. IRSD referendum? Check.

“What do you want to talk about?” said state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th), to the audience at his latest “Coffee’s on Me” talk. “Gun control? Video lottery machines at the VFW?”

Many issues — several of them being talked about on a state and national level, as well — were out on the table at this week’s “Coffee’s On Me.” The meetings were a regular event while Hocker was state representative for the 38th District — a position now held by fellow Republican Ron Gray of Selbyville — and Hocker said he plans on having them as senator, as well, and will probably expand on the geography a bit, as his district has widened as senator.

Hocker noted he is now serving on the Delaware Senate’s bond, administrative services/elections, agriculture, labor and industrial relations, natural resources and environmental control, and small business committees. (The entire list of senators’ committee assignments is available on his Web site at geraldhocker.com.)

Hocker was asked several times this week about his take on the upcoming Indian River School District referendum and whether he saw a downside to voting for it.

“I am 100 percent behind it,” he said, adding that he was very vocal years ago about the growth that many knew was coming to the area, but he said federal law prohibits building schools for more than 10 percent more than the current population.

“Our kids are our future. And this affects my pocketbook as much as anyone, but I don’t know any downside of educating our students to their full potential,” he said.

He also referred to the low property assessments that Sussex County has, saying they are “so much lower than they should be. If we re-assessed, we’d have plenty of money and wouldn’t be coming to you for a referendum.”

Asked about competition between the cable companies and asked how consumers could get better service, Hocker said he and then-senator George H. Bunting (now retired) had introduced legislation requiring cable companies to offer a “skinny package” that would force Mediacom to offer a bare-bones cable package, as Comcast already does, but he said the legislation didn’t get anywhere.

“We were told that was unconstitutional,” he said. “But there are problems with Comcast, too. It’s not just Mediacom. Sometimes you’ll get more competitive looking at satellite or Direct TV.”

He also said constant pressure on U.S. senators and congressman is a way people could have their voices heard on the issue.

One of those in attendance at the Coffee event told Hocker he had switched from Mediacom to Direct TV, and gets local channels, and his bills went from $103 to $60 per month.

“Well, maybe there’s your answer,” said Hocker.

Asked about aquaculture in the bays, Hocker noted that the area used to have many oysters in the Rehoboth Bay and the Indian River, and “it was very prosperous.” He pointed out that one oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water per day, so there are environmental benefits, as well as economic ones.

“It’s to your benefit to bring that back,” he said. “If it goes right, it could be many jobs in Sussex County.”

Hocker also noted that the Center for the Inland Bays has had several presentations on the subject and “are about ready to get it started.”

For more information on the CIB effort, people can visit http://www.inlandbays.org/aquaculture-initiative online, where they can read about the meetings and presentations the CIB has held and where they can see a presentation titled “Shellfish Aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays: Status, Opportunities and Constraint.”

Same-sex marriage was also a hot topic at Hocker’s coffee this week. Some of those present asked what they could do about their voicing their opposition to expansion of Delaware’s current civil union law to permit marriage for same-sex couples.

“We have got a governor that’s pushing it,” said Hocker. He explained that expansion of marriage to same-sex couples would require a change in Delaware’s constitution and would take two general assemblies to approve that change.

“For me, personally, God defined marriage, not man. And someday I will have to answer my maker… It’s not what you believe. It is what is commanded. I will not support it. But, I feel there is enough people in the General Assembly that will support it.”

He said that people who feel the same way have to continue to be vocal to their legislative representatives.

“You’re the people that elect people to represent you. But I don’t hide behind my feelings. Most of the time I represent all my constituents, but I will not change my moral beliefs. I’m the one who has got to answer for my own soul.”

“Call your senators and representatives, but you don’t need to call me — you know where I stand.”

On the subject of school safety, Hocker said he doesn’t believe the proposals made by Gov. Jack Markell last week will “do one thing to protect our children.”

The proposals include mandatory reporting of lost or stolen weapons within 48 hours, banning large magazines, banning military-style weapons, banning guns within 1,000 feet of a school and requiring background checks for private sales.

Hocker questioned why the state “did away” with its state-level background check, which was conducted in addition to the federal check done before allowing gun purchases. That change went into effect last summer.

“I sell guns,” he said of his business at Hocker’s Supercenter and G&E Hardware. “And I was told it is repetitive,” he said, to have both the state and federal check. “There has been times when the federal check approved a person and the State denied them. How is that repetitious?” he asked rhetorically.

“And to put it back wasn’t part of his school safety measure,” Hocker said of Markell.

He did praise the fact that the State now does share its mental health information with the federal government — another change that went into effect last summer — but he said more needs to be done.

“I have nine grandchildren, some of whom aren’t school-aged yet, but all are in the Indian River School District area, and if someone were to come to one of their schools with a gun, there is nothing I’d want more in the school than a good-guy with a gun. I’m tickled to death to see the police presence outside our schools.”

Hocker said he would be in support of emergency closures, exit doors and panic buttons at schools — things he said would have more of an effect on school safety than any of Markell’s proposed plans.

“We need to be looking at everything.”

“You can do all the criminal checks you want,” Hocker said. “The criminals are still going to get guns. Who has wives in here? You know that home invasion we just had in Ocean View? If my wife is home alone, I want her to have as many bullets in that magazine as she can get. If she only had eight bullets for four guys, what if she missed a couple times?”

A constituent said the real issue was that everyone was “tap-dancing around the mental health issue,” saying that in all of the mass shootings of late, they were “never by someone normal. They were always somebody where people have said afterward, ‘Oh, yeah — he was always a little crazy, a little odd.”

Hocker stated that he believed that people being afraid to talk about health issues, including mental health, started with HIPPA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which enhanced privacy protections for health information.

As for gambling at private clubs, Hocker said he might surprise people by saying that he was “100 percent against gambling” but also “100 percent against how they handled it.”

Delaware veterans’ groups and some private organizations got a form letter this past November, right around Veteran’s Day, sent by the Department of Safety & Homeland Security’s divisions of Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement and the Delaware State Police. The letter told them DSHS had been made aware that a number of clubs and businesses offered video slot machine games in their establishments and implied that the activity was illegal because, according to Delaware code, all video lottery machines must be owned or leased by the State.

Hocker noted that millions of dollars have been raised for charity organizations through the machines, and he posed the question of where that help would come from now.

“Who is going to pick up that $5.4 million that was buying oil and gas and putting groceries on the table?”

He said he hadn’t seen a bill yet but heard there would be one that could extend private clubs’ legal use of such machines.

“I have not seen it,” he said, “but I am willing to help study it, to do the right thing.”

Hocker reiterated that, for many issues, “you can’t be too vocal,” and he emphasized that they need to keep their elected officials accountable by communicating their views frequently.

Point reporter Laura Walter contributed to this story.