Pierre Samuel “Pete” du Pont IV (January 22, 1935-May 8. 2021) / Photo by Eric Crossan
Glenn Kenton, the late Gov. Pete du Pont’s closest advisor, reflects on his colleague’s great contributions to Delaware and its communities.
1968 was a tumultuous time for our country. Riots erupted everywhere (including in Wilmington) after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. President Lyndon B. Johnson quit. The Democratic National Convention went off the rails. It led to a heady time for Republicans. Richard Nixon won. Russ Peterson upset the incumbent Democratic governor of Delaware. And buoyed by the Republican landslide in Delaware together with two recent court reapportionment decisions, a wave of new state representatives from New Castle County came to Dover. As a new legislative lawyer, the first one I met was 34-year-old Pete du Pont from Rockland. (Frankly, I had never heard of Rockland.) He had been elected unopposed with 70 percent of the vote. He frequently said that 30 percent of the electorate would rather have no one than him. He had that deprecating sense of humor—sort of like Ronald Reagan.
We became fast friends. I wrote a few pieces of legislation for him. Nothing I can remember. One day in the spring, I was shooting the breeze with him and observed that the next election in 1970 was going to be a big deal in Delaware. Senator John J. Williams was expected to retire. Congressman William Roth was the clear favorite to take his seat and the incumbent attorney general was not expected to run for re-election. I said to him, “You’re a Harvard lawyer. Why don’t you think about running for attorney general? I think your family is popular in this state.” He said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about some things. Why don’t you come up to Patterns (his house had a name!) and let’s talk about it.” So, I did.
After dinner, he pulled out a flip chart (DuPonters were famous for their flip charts) and he said, “Well, I’ve actually been thinking about running for Congress.” I raised my eyebrows and thought that was a bit of a jump from an unopposed one-term state legislator to the U.S. Congress. (But two years later in Delaware, a 29-year-old freshman county councilman ran for the U.S. Senate—and won. And, as they say, the rest is history.) Pete invited me to be his campaign manager. Another eyebrow raiser. I was 25 years old. Like most people who met Pete du Pont over the years, you couldn’t help but be drawn to his good nature. Always smiling. Never angry. A wonderful sense of humor. Amazingly humble, given his background. And a tireless worker. Tireless. During the first campaign for U.S. Congress, he proudly showed me a pair of his sturdy (Corfam, of course) shoes with a hole worn right through the sole. He always said that it was better than working for the “ant farm” (that would be the DuPont Company).
He enjoyed his six years in the U.S. Congress, but they were frustrating for him. Being in the minority party and from a small state (plum committee assignments went to members from large states), his influence was negligible. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he did become a sponsor of the War Powers Act to limit a president’s ability to conduct military affairs abroad without congressional approval.
It had been expected that Pete would stay in the U.S. Congress until the 1978 election for U.S. Senator, when he would give a good whupping to that upstart, young Joe Biden, who had “lucked” into the Senate in 1972 at age 30. But fate intervened and the powers that be prevailed upon him to come home to Delaware in 1976 and rescue a state in deep trouble. Pete won the 1976 election for governor easily. Later, he would frequently say that it was the best political decision he ever made. He was much more comfortable in the executive branch implementing policy decisions than legislating. And for me, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, as I wasn’t quite sure just how we were going to give a whupping to Joe Biden in 1978.
Pete’s terms as governor were very satisfying to him. After a rocky start in which his veto of the first budget was overridden, things smoothed out. His good nature and willingness to cooperate with all sides earned him considerable respect on both sides of the aisle in Dover. He signed executive orders for full financial disclosure for key state officers, created the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council and the Judicial Nominating Commission, all of which continue to this day. He recruited cabinet talent from around the country. Delaware’s finances were stabilized. Taxes were cut. He eased New Castle County through an unpopular “forced busing” court decision. And his signature initiative, the Financial Center Development Act, was enacted early in his second term. Today, dozens of banks call Delaware home and more than 40,000 Delawareans count these banks as their employers.
After his second term ended, several national leaders asked him to consider a run for president in 1988. But his efforts—and the efforts of other contenders such as Jack Kemp and Bob Dole—couldn’t overcome Vice President George Bush Sr.’s strong support. After what he called a “modest showing” in the New Hampshire Republican primary, he quietly retired to the Delaware corporate law firm of Richards, Layton & Finger (me, too).
“It had been expected that Pete would stay in the U.S. Congress until the 1978 election for U.S. Senator, when he would give a good whupping to that upstart, young Joe Biden.”
Having experienced a challenging and exciting eight years as governor and a campaign for president, Pete said it was time for the next generation to take the reins. He had no interest in legislating and politely declined—again—to run for the U.S. Senate. He regularly gave a course in public speaking for the law firm’s young associates. He co-founded Leadership Delaware, an enormously successful training program for Delaware’s next leaders. And, most satisfying to him, he taught his grandchildren how to sail.
Delaware is far better today because of Pete du Pont. His talent, his humility, his good nature and his service have set a standard for all who follow. May he rest in peace.