When Special Elections Become a Circus

What’s so special about a special election? Usually nothing—unless the balance of power could become unbalanced.

A special election has a special place in political lore. Delaware has a special election whenever there is a sudden opening in the General Assembly due to a political disruption, namely, one of the Three Ds.

School has its Three Rs of Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic. Politics, not nearly so alphabetically challenged as to need apostrophes, has its Three Ds: Death, Departure and Disgrace.

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School should be ashamed of itself, where spelling counts. Unlike politics, where even Dan Quayle could make it to vice president while under the impression that the potato not only could be selectively pronounced po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to, but also selectively spelled po-ta-to as po-ta-toe, as if a tuber had not just eyes but a part of a foot.

A special election is not normal. It is like the bearded lady. It is a sideshow that most people will ignore but others cannot turn away from. That’s not to mention that it is an act no circus can do without, political circus or otherwise. It is simply essential to the experience.

Delaware did not have a special election for a legislative vacancy for six years. Then it had to have one in mid-September because of Mike Barbieri, a Democratic state representative who had occupied a Newark-Christiana area seat since 2008.

Neither death nor disgrace extracted Barbieri from the state House of Representatives. A self-propelled departure did. Also possibly another grubby sidekick of the Three Ds. That would be Dollars.

Barbieri took his legislative background, mixed it with his doctorate as a social worker who ran his own agency, and got himself hired by the state Department of Health & Human Services as the division director for Substance Abuse & Mental Health. His paycheck went from $44,000 a year in the legislative branch to $144,000 in the executive. Enough said.

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There often seems to be little at stake in a special election because it is for one of the 21 seats in the state Senate or the 41 seats in the state House, but politics often turns on little things, sometimes even tiny things. (Hanging chad in Florida, anyone?) The campaign to replace Barbieri counted as one of those little things that actually was not so little, certainly not inside Legislative Hall.

As special elections go, it could not have changed the balance of power in the House, where the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans 25-16 before Barbieri’s departure, but it could change the dynamics: A Republican victory meant the Democrats would lose the super-majority that let them pass tax bills without any Republican votes.

It emerged as the prime reason both parties really cared whether the winner was David Bentz, a 29-year-old Democratic legislative aide, or Eileen O’Shaughnessy-Coleman, a 51-year-old Republican special-education advocate whose five grown children included two with autism. Still, it was insider politics. Maybe once in a generation, though, there is a special election that really is momentous.

It happened 36 years ago, in September 1979, during the early years of Pete du Pont’s two-term tenure as the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985, and it had all of state politics on the collective edge of its seat.

Du Pont would go on to be one of Delaware’s greatest governors, earning respect and even admiration from the legislature—but not at first. The relationship between du Pont and the Democrats who were in charge of both chambers was so rocky, Democrats would not even allow a new coat of paint inside Woodburn, the governor’s mansion in Dover.

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Then a Democratic state representative died. It left the House divided, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and it could not stand. A special election would determine the new majority.

The Republicans regarded the special election as make-or-break for du Pont. This was their political Waterloo, they were the British, and it was now or never to stop Napoleon. Never mind the special election was in a Newport-area district that was overwhelmingly Democratic with plenty of labor union households.

Both parties went all out. When the voters answered their doorbells, it was for a cornucopia of political celebrities. Du Pont did his part to drum up votes by going house to house. So did Bill Roth, the Republican U.S. senator, and Caleb Boggs, the Republican ex-governor and ex-U.S. senator who came out of retirement to campaign. The Democrats countered with Joe Biden, then in his second term as a U.S. senator.

The Republicans won, and du Pont was on his way. The only thing predictable about a special election is that it is wildly unpredictable. It is a political oddball with a life of its own, with voter turnout notoriously low and easy to skew. In a state representative district of 15,000 voters, for example, all it usually takes is a little more than 2,000 of a candidate’s closest friends to win.

That said, there are some elements of a special election that go a long way in determining if the voters stick with, or stick it to, the party of the legislator they just lost. Widows, for instance. As fickle as politics is, if one of the candidates is the grieving spouse of a dearly departed legislator, she is all but guaranteed to draw a sympathy vote that gets her elected. This is the way Nancy Cook became a Democratic state senator, Dori Connor a Republican state senator, and Hazel Plant a Democratic state representative.

It should probably go without saying that the voters tend to get ornery if they think they are being fooled with. Either departure or disgrace could be the culprit. The classic case was probably a special election in Brandywine Hundred in 2007.

Voters there were blindsided when Republican Wayne Smith, the house majority leader they had re-elected just five months earlier, quit to run a health care trade association, where his responsibilities included lobbying ex-colleagues. It only got worse when the Republican candidate tapped to replace Smith was his next-door neighbor, and it looked for all the world like a setup.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The voters elected a Democrat. No wonder the political class cannot resist a special election. Not only is it a circus when a special election pops up, but it is the only show in town.

Text Box: D

Illustration by Tim Foley

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