Delaware Politics: Downstate Versus Upstate

If you plan to have a political career in Delaware, remember that location is everything.

Tom Wagner is used to being called the last of his kind. Wagner, the state auditor since 1989, was the only Republican left in statewide office until Ken Simpler came along as the Republican state treasurer, just newly elected in 2014.It had Wagner quipping, “I am now the senior statewide elected Republican,” but it still did not get him off the list of endangered political species, because his existence was doubly threatened. Wagner survives as the only downstater among the nine statewide officeholders. This reflects one of the most elemental divides there is. The British have upstairs/downstairs. Delaware has upstate/downstate. Up is up, and down is down, and never the twain shall meet, not with the C&D Canal flowing through the state and literally separating one from the other. The last downstater standing in statewide office? This is not the way politics used to be. As Basil Battaglia, a past chair of the Republican Party, once put it, “They used to say you have to have horse manure on your shoes to make it in politics. Except they used a stronger term.” The money might have been upstate, where the du Ponts were, but the power was downstate, where playing politics was a way of life. The lower two counties churned out all manner of governors and senators, no matter what their political affiliation. There were governors like Bert Carvel, a Sussex County Democrat, and Charlie Terry, a Kent County Democrat, and senators like John Williams, a Sussex County Republican, and Allen Frear, a Kent County Democrat, and there was also Caleb Boggs, a Republican who was both a governor and a senator from Kent County, although later he moved upstate.

Then along came the population boom. Also the rise of the DuPont Co. New Castle County grew like it was Alice in Wonderland after swallowing the little “Eat Me” cake. By the 1960s, it had turned Delaware politics into the “Suburban State,” the name given to it by John Munroe, the late history professor at the University of Delaware. “It was suburbia, old and new, that had the numbers, the wealth and the educational advantages to dominate Delaware in the late 20th century,” Munroe wrote in his “History of Delaware.” Downstaters like Carvel, Williams and Boggs gave way to upstaters like Bill Roth, Mike Castle and Pete du Pont for the Republicans and Joe Biden and Tom Carper for the Democrats. Geography was destiny. Even so, it took some time for the downstaters in statewide office to dwindle down to Tom Wagner, the auditor who comes from Kent County, where he was born in Dover, graduated from Caesar Rodney High School and elected to office as the mayor of Camden. As a matter of fact, Wagner had some powerful company until Ruth Ann Minner, a Kent County Democrat, retired from politics as a two-term governor in January 2009. Minner notably was the first downstate governor in decades, but the funny thing about it is, it looks like it would have happened with or without her. In Minner’s first campaign for governor in 2000, her Republican opponent was John Burris, who was from Milford, just as Minner was—she from the Kent County side and he from the Sussex County side of the little city split in two by the Mispillion. Burris, a former state legislator, had moved upstate by then to run the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, but it sounded like nobody in Milford cared. “The joke around Milford is, Milford is finally going to get a governor,” Burris cracked at the time.

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Furthermore, the governorship would have stayed downstate even if Minner had lost for re-election in 2004, but she did not. The candidate she held off was Bill Lee, a Sussex County Republican who had made a name for himself as the judge in the murder trial of Tom Capano. With Minner gone home, Tom Wagner is like the downstate cheese that stands alone. Or is he? As the new state treasurer, Ken Simpler not only turned Wagner into the senior Republican officeholder, he also left this upstate/downstate situation a little murky. Simpler grew up downstate in Rehoboth Beach in Sussex County, but he moved out of state for a time for school and for work, and he did not run for office until he was living on a farm upstate in Newark in New Castle County. So here is a riddle: Is Simpler an upstater or a downstater? “Yes,” Simpler says. That should clear it up. The much bigger conundrum is how long the odds are against a downstater getting elected to statewide office, what with more than 60 percent of the voters registered in New Castle County. Simpler was doubtful it could be done. “I don’t know how a downstater gets exposure in New Castle County,” he says. Wagner harbors similar reservations. “I think it will be tough. The big part of the vote is in New Castle County,” he says. Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives, suggests there might be a way—“I think a Democrat could.” Spoken like the only Democratic legislator below Dover—which is what Schwartzkopf is, coming from Sussex County. Still, he could have a point. New Castle County is so Democratic, it can elect a Democratic candidate to statewide office all by itself. It actually has. Look at Chris Coons, the Democratic senator. If there is any statewide officeholder most identified with New Castle County, it has to be Coons, who was the county executive. He has twice been elected to the Senate without carrying either Kent County or Sussex County. For a downstater dreaming of statewide office, it might be a good idea to do what Ken Simpler did. Get born there and then move upstate, or as Horace Greeley might say if he lived in Delaware today, “Go North, young one.”

Illustration by Tom Labaff

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