When Republicans go to the polls in November and review the ballot, they won’t find the name of the man many GOP leaders figure to be their biggest giant-killer.
Charlie Copeland, 49, is sitting this one out. Taking his time. Picking his spot. Taking care of business.
Copeland, a scion of DuPont Co. founders and, of course, du Pont family wealth, has gravitated toward politics the way his ancestors gravitated toward explosives and chemistry.
“When I grew up, we didn’t talk sports at the dinner table, we talked politics,” says Copeland. “I remember Nixon resigning, and Mom crying, bemoaning chaos in the Republic.”
President Nixon’s resignation—post-Watergate—was August 1974. Copeland was born in February 1963, just nine months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He was 11 years old at the time of his mother’s distress.
It took nearly three decades for the Copeland family passion for politics to translate to action, but for Charlie Copeland, the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
Becoming involved in GOP politics in 2000 on the campaign front, Copeland first ran for the Delaware senate in a post-reapportionment election in 2002, then was re-elected to a four-year term in the state senate in 2004, where he quickly moved into leadership.
In what in hindsight appeared the quixotic “tilting at windmills,” Copeland in 2008 joined the Republican ticket as its candidate for lieutenant governor, facing the headwinds of a historic Democratic ticket headed by Barack Obama and Copeland’s Greenville neighbors, Joe Biden and Jack Markell.
Born and raised on Rising Sun Lane in Wilmington, just steps away from the DuPont Co.’s original black powder mills on the Brandywine, Copeland, the third of five children, also lived just steps away from Tower Hill School, which the DuPont family helped found.
“I was a lifer at Tower Hill, pre-K through 12th, graduating in 1981,” Copeland says. He completed an undergraduate degree in computer science and physics at Duke University in 1985 before joining DuPont and spending seven years in its information systems department—much of it at a plant in DeLisle, Miss.
Copeland earned his MBA at Duke University before returning to Delaware for another family business, Associates Graphics International, now a $10 million printing company that was launched by his father. The company is thriving, and Copeland late last year completed the acquisition of the state’s best-known “Democrat-owned” printing firm, Farley Printing Co.
Copeland met his wife, Bonnie, a Brandywine Hundred native, in high school at Tower Hill. They dated during his senior year. After Tower Hill, Bonnie also graduated from Duke University. The couple married in 1987, and their daughter, Stephanie, 17, attends Archmere Academy. Will, their 14-year-old son, goes to The Tatnall School. Bonnie completed law school and works in family law at Cooch and Taylor.
Bonnie was concerned when Copeland began to talk about a career in politics.
“My brother, Chip, had worked for a decade for Sen. Roth, so it was something that always was around,” says Copeland. “When I began to talk about primarying (fellow Republican Sen.) Dallas Winslow, Bonnie saw it as an opportunity and relented.
“Today, Bonnie is a very competitive person, she enjoys the campaigns and the strategizing,” Copeland says, “although some of the silly shenanigans that go on she could do without.”
That comment reinforces the seriousness of Copeland’s approach to politics. His is not the infamous “Delaware way,” not the “let’s go along and get along.”
He raised eyebrows in 2010 when he helped orchestrate campaigns against three powerful incumbent Democrats in the Senate—Nancy Cook, Patricia Blevins, and David Sokola—and managed to help unseat the powerful Cook, who had served in Dover since before Copeland was old enough to drive.
But he really raised eyebrows in early 2012, when he successfully led opposition in the Republican Party to the re-election of Priscilla Rakestraw to the Republican National Committee. She had been its longest-serving member nationally.
“Thirty-six years is enough,” Copeland said in an interview. “I just believe in term limits, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
(Rakestraw declined comment when asked about Copeland and his initiative to unseat her.)
Rakestraw stepped down in her campaign for re-election, and the party chose Ellen Barrosse, founder of the pro-life group Rose and a Prayer and an anchor of the party’s religious right.
Copeland is anything but a part of the religious right of the party. Today he would be known by political observers over the age of 40 as a “Rockefeller Republican,” someone who is center-right, rejecting far-right policies, and is culturally liberal.
Add to that a progressive view on social issues, a suspicion of big government and a Calvinist ethic.
That’s Copeland. He’s worked extensively on social justice and criminal justice reform issues, heading the nonprofit advocacy group Stand Up for What’s Right and Just until early this year when he and its board merged it into the Delaware Council on Justice.
The most notable issue for SURJ, founded in part by two other progressive Republicans and former governors, Russ Peterson and Dale Wolf, was elimination of mandatory minimums, particularly for minor drug offenses, which seemed to impact minorities most negatively. It was an issue on which SURJ succeeded before its merger.
Copeland also has been a moving force on the founding of a public safety charter school in Wilmington, which attracts at-risk kids. And he has been a forceful advocate for corrections reform, including health care issues and re-entry.
“These are good people, who, there but by the grace of God, go I,” Copeland says of the people he tries to help. “I hate to see lost human potential.”
In furtherance of his progressive social agenda, Copeland is chairman of the du Pont family’s Longwood Foundation board. He also is instrumental in reconstituting the Challenge Program, which offers a variety of programs, one of them a discipline- and skill-building usage of the Kalmar Nyckel, and another program to rehabilitate city houses.
“Many of the young people with whom we work have been adjudicated at one point,” Copeland says, “and we’re working to prepare them for a trade, to get and keep a job for two years.
“I’ve just been blessed to be in the right position through birth, through serendipity, whatever, to do some of these things,” he says. But Copeland’s thoughts and passion return easily to politics.
“In addition to incumbency, the issues I really care about are education and small business,” he says. He mentions House Speaker Robert Gilligan, who was first elected 40 years ago and recently announced his retirement. “If you can’t get it done in 40 years,” says Copeland, “it’s about ego.”
Today, Copeland has no official role or title in the Republican Party. John Sigler is its chair, and state Rep. Greg Lavelle is vice chair. Nevertheless, party elders see Copeland as having the gravitas to lead the ticket one day, perhaps sooner rather than later.
“I think any discussion of the future of the Republican Party in Delaware has to include four young guys like Charlie Copeland, Greg Lavelle, Tom Kovachs and Jim Ursomarso,” says Basil Battaglia, a lifelong party insider and adviser to Mike Castle.
Copeland is doing another kind of running these days. His daughter has become a road racer, so Copeland runs two to four times a week and logs nearly 10 miles per week. He’s working on an 8:20 mile pace. He does the occasional 5K, and has done a half marathon.
“Will I run (for office) again?” he says. “It’s just too soon to tell. Yes, I’m staying involved. If something happens, it’s great. If something doesn’t happen, that’s great too.”