Another state lawmaker retiring as Rep. Johnson won’t seek 8th term

DOVER — Rep. J.J. Johnson, a New Castle Democrat, announced Tuesday he will not seek an eighth term. He is the seventh lawmaker to announce retirement since the summer.

“I come here this afternoon to address a rumor that’s been spread. And the rumor is that I’m not running for reelection, I plan on retiring. Well, I want to set the record straight. It’s true,” Rep. Johnson, 75, said, drawing laughs from other representatives.

More than half a dozen members of the chamber praised him on the floor, and some went to give him hugs or handshakes once the House broke for closed-door caucus meetings.

Rep. Johnson was first elected in 2004, succeeding retiring Rep. William Houghton. He collected 57 percent of the vote in a primary and then won the general election in a landslide.

He has not been seriously challenged since the initial primary.

He has been a supporter of criminal justice reform, introducing successful bills to change the bail system, restrict the use of shackles for juvenile offenders and give judges more discretion.

“As I look at the justice system and the incarceration rate, I see a lot of people in there that look like me, and I wonder why,” he said Tuesday after making his announcement.

While nearly a quarter of the state’s population is black, just four members of the 62-person General Assembly are African-American. With Rep. Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, retiring, that number could be even lower in 2019.

“It should be reflective of the population of the state, but I’m quite confident that it will increase,” Rep. Johnson said.

Described by colleagues as a model lawmaker, Rep. Johnson was lauded Tuesday for his commitment to the General Assembly.

“You are one of the most sensible people in this room,” said Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, agreed.

“You know how I feel about you. You’re a gentleman. That’s the highest compliment you can get as a politician,” he said.

Rep. Johnson chairs the House Corrections Committee and has been one of 12 members of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee for 10 years.

His retirement was no secret: As he alluded to, rumors about his plans had floated around the building for months, even coming up during a Joint Finance Committee hearing at the end of January.

With Tuesday’s news, the tally of retiring lawmakers now stands at seven, with four representatives and three senators. Two more representatives are running for the state Senate, and more retirements are rumored.

The 2014 and 2016 elections combined saw eight new Delawareans elected to the General Assembly.

Rep. Johnson’s 16th Representative District lies south of Wilmington, along the Delaware River. With 10,900 Democrats out of 15,400 registered voters, it is one of the most left-leaning districts in the state.

“J.J. shares his district with all three members of Senate Democratic leadership, and that has been our blessing,” Senate Majority Whip Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said in a statement. “We work as a team on behalf of the greater New Castle community, and I can’t overstate how important J.J. has been to that team.

“From his role on the Joint Finance Committee to his willingness to go to bat for every single family in his district, no matter how big or small the task, he has proven time and time again how much he loves his community — and we love him, too.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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