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Generation X Making Its Mark on Delaware Political Scene

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Bill Roth was the last to go. The Republican senator was the final member of the Greatest Generation to hold statewide office in Delaware.

As a youthful Army captain, Roth was part of General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Pacific during World War II. The Depression could not take out Roth. The world war could not take out Roth. The upheaval over civil rights, the protests over the fighting in Vietnam and the political carnage from Watergate could not take out Roth.

What finally took him out was a baby boomer.

Tom Carper did it. He beat Roth in 2000, a Democratic sitting governor ousting Roth after five terms and taking over the Senate seat.

The Baby Boom had its way again.

“The Baby Boom was just so big—that generation has been entirely shaped by its size,” says Eric Tranby, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “It has been a shock through the system. It has redefined every major institution it has gone through. It has been able to determine what politics looks like.” 

The baby boomers arrived in statewide office in the 1970s, and four decades later, they are still proving their staying power. The governor, both senators and the state’s lone congressman are all boomers.

The boomers have been so dominant for so long, people should be excused if they have not noticed Generation X edging its way into statewide office, but here it comes, getting there the way it has always had to—as an afterthought to the boomers.

“Generation Xers have kind of always lived in their shadows,” Tranby says.

Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, was the first Gen Xer to win statewide when he was elected as the insurance commissioner in 2004. Not even he noticed.

Being born into a generation is not exactly like being born under a sign of the Zodiac. A generation actually matters.

“The generations really do make a difference. People of all ages experience the same events—September 11, World War II, the election of the first African-American president—but how you react to these events depends on your age,” says Tranby.

The statewide offices have slowly been cycling through the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boom and Generation X. There is no sign yet of the Millennials, the next generation to follow.

The Greatest Generation—which used to be called the GI Generation until Tom Brokaw recast it—was born from 1901 to 1924 and came into its own waging World War II. What a generation it was, defining the American spirit with its patriotism and can-do optimism, and here in Delaware, it propelled itself right into the history books.

Its best-known members include John Williams and Bill Roth in the Senate, Bert Carvel and Caleb Boggs in the governor’s office, and Collins Seitz and Louis Redding as judge and lawyer, respectively, in landmark court cases for civil rights.

The Silent Generation might be better called the Sandwich Generation, coming as it does between the star-spangled Greatest Generation and the momentous Baby Boom. Its members were born from 1925 to 1945 and looked to the Greatest Generation for their inspiration.

There is still one very prominent Delawarean from the Silent Generation in office. It is probably the only way the word “silent” can be legitimately connected to Joe Biden.

Some others from the not-so-Silent Generation? Mike Castle, Pete du Pont and Ruth Ann Minner, governors all.

The Baby Boom, which lasted from 1946 to 1964, is still all over state politics.

Carper and Chris Coons, the two Democratic senators, are boomers but from opposite ends of the generation, each of them a year inside of it. Carper was born in 1947 and Coons in 1963. Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and John Carney, the Democratic congressman, are boomers, too.

Now Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, is easing its way in, although it is about due to become more insistent about its place in politics.

“It’s time for our generation to step up,” says Ken Simpler Jr., a Gen Xer who is a Republican candidate for treasurer this year.

Denn had the distinction of being the sole Gen Xer in statewide office for a bare two years. By the 2006 election, he had company when Beau Biden came along and got himself elected the Democratic attorney general.

Coincidentally, Denn and Biden made it there the same way. They scared out a boomer.

The prospect of a challenge from Denn, known as a relentless candidate, was enough to persuade Donna Lee Williams, a boomer who was a three-term Republican insurance commissioner, to retire from office instead. 

Biden, who shares the most famous name in state politics with his father the-vice-president, had a similar effect on Jane Brady, another boomer. Brady took her three terms as the Republican attorney general and bolted for a nice, safe judgeship.

It is too early to say what influence the Gen Xers will have on Delaware politics. For now, there are too few of them, they have yet to reach the pinnacles of office, and they have not been in for very long. Still, it is not too early to say that whatever influence they have, it will be different from what has come before.

Generation X in its formative years has witnessed the war on terror and the Great Recession and the limits of American power.

As Professor Tranby says, “They’ve been raised in a much less optimistic world. It’s a big change in what we think the American Dream is.”   

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