Unique Campaign Moves Earned Delaware General Assembly Seats

It’s the Delaware way. Some seats are secured with typical campaigns. Others? Less so.

The election brought a lot of change to the Delaware General Assembly in Dover. It brought 15 new legislators, roughly a quarter of the membership, although two of them are senators reincarnated from representatives.

It did not bring a different majority. The Democrats are still in.

Even by now, all the newness has hardly worn off. The legislature convenes in January and then very sensibly shuts down for six weeks, not to return until mid-March. The official reason is budget hearings, but come on.

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This is a small state. It has a commuter legislature. Who wants to slog anywhere in the winter? John Burris, a House Republican majority leader in the early 1980s, did not even try to pretend when he once closed down a January session with the words, “I will see you when it is warm.”

As the legislature settles into its two-year term, it is still sinking in how some of the members got there.

‘Marathon Man’ Race
It took Ernie Lopez eight years and two counties to get himself into elected office. His first foray was for New Castle County Council president in 2004. He was a cheery, natural-born campaigner, and he got clobbered. It was such a stunningly unfair loss that it made his fellow Republicans realize, once and for all, the state’s most populous county had gone deeply Democratic blue.

The political gods work in mysterious ways. In Lopez’s case, they worked through the University of Delaware, his employer. Lopez was transferred from the main campus in Newark to Sussex County and the reddest Republican county of them all. Then they worked through redistricting. A new Senate seat was created in 2012 with Lopez’s home in Lewes at the heart of it.

Not that it would be easy. A new legislative district is political catnip. Six candidates filed.

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Lopez won a ferocious Republican primary against Glen Urquhart, who ran for congressman in 2010 as part of the Tea Party tag team with Christine O’Donnell, and then he outpolled Andy Staton, who went into the election as one of the favorite candidates of Jack Markell, the governor whose own presence on the ballot was a big draw for the Democratic vote.

Although Lopez could not run as a political “native son,” he could run as something of a political “son-in-law.” His wife, Janis, grew up there.
“It was just fate. We always knew we would end up here, but only after putting in 30 years working upstate. We always knew we would retire here,” Lopez says.

‘Red Queen’ Race
Legislative Hall is a world unto itself, a quizzical landscape with peculiar places like the “Row of No” (the seats in the back of the Senate where conservative downstate Republicans sit and vote against a lot of stuff) and tricky practices like “taking a walk” (deliberately being absent for a roll call).

It can be bewildering, as if there is a “through-the-looking-glass” sense to it. This could account for why Greg Lavelle had to run like the Red Queen, who admonished Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Lavelle spent the last session as the House’s Republican minority leader, but redistricting turned his seat into the political equivalent of the Cheshire Cat. It vanished. So Lavelle went after Mike Katz, a first-term Democratic senator, in a district that sprawled across northern Delaware.

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It was an ugly, punishing campaign marked by low blows, saturation mailings and excessive spending, the likes of which had never been seen before. Lavelle scraped out the win. He observed he had never had to run harder, not even his first race for the House in 2000 with a three-way Republican primary.

“The spotlight was on. No one cared about my first race, and there was well over $700,000 spent,” Lavelle says.

‘Everything is Relative’ Race
By the grace of the voters, Brad Bennett was looking well-positioned to run for a third term as a Democratic representative from Dover. Two years earlier, about a month to go before the election, he was stopped for drunken driving in Lewes, but he was re-elected anyway.

Most of it was because the Republicans had a disastrous election here in 2010 with Christine O’Donnell bewitching their entire ticket. Still, there was a sense it might also have been something of a tribute to Bennett’s late father. Ed Bennett represented the district ably from 1976 to 1994.
Then Bennett was stopped again last spring for drunken driving, except this time he also sideswiped a police car in Wilmington. The Democratic legislative and party leaders let him know there was no way he was running again. They recruited someone else.

Shortly before the filing deadline, however, another candidate came forward. It was Andria Bennett, Brad’s wife, and the race was unsettled all over again.

Whatever it looked like, this was no sham candidacy, no husband-and-wife hybrid gimmick, no “Brandria.”

Andria Bennett knew politics. Not only was she a legislative aide in the Senate, she was the daughter of John Viola, a 14-year Democratic representative from Bear. She ran a shrewd campaign to win the Democratic primary and then took the seat with more than 60 percent of the vote—better than her husband ever did.

It probably should go unmentioned that Brad Bennett was married before, also to a legislator’s daughter. His ex-father-in-law is Brian Bushweller, a Democratic senator from Dover, but never mind.

This might be the first legislative election that needed a family tree to explain it.

‘Mad-Mad-Mad-Mad’ Race
Brian Pettyjohn did not even know he was going to be running for senator in Sussex County. The field was set, and he was not in it.

The Republicans had Eric Bodenweiser, a Tea Partier partial to cream-colored suits and Bible verses, after he won a primary to oust Joe Booth and end his 10-year legislative career. The Democrats recruited a candidate, but in this conservative district, it was regarded as a foregone conclusion that Bodenweiser was going to be a senator.

At least, it was until Bodenweiser fled from the ballot in mid-October, days before he was about to be indicted for alleged child sex crimes when an accuser came forward after more than 20 years of silence.

The Republicans scrambled. They got Pettyjohn, a past mayor of Georgetown, to run as a write-in candidate and then went to court to put him on the ballot. With most of the state shut down as Hurricane Sandy lashed the coast, the Republicans convinced the Court of Chancery and then the Supreme Court on appeal to make Pettyjohn a full-fledged candidate. He won easily, if accidentally.

Celia Cohen

An accidental senator is still a senator.  





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