Candidates for key Senate seat spar in debate

Stephanie Hansen

John Marino

MIDDLETOWN — If anyone needed another indication Feb. 25’s special election will be big, Wednesday night provided that.

The three candidates for the 10th Senate District seat debated for an hour in front of an audience of more than 200 people, weighing in on hot topics like the state budget, capital punishment and President Trump’s temporary immigration ban.

Democrat Stephanie Hansen, Republican John Marino and Libertarian Joseph Lanzendorfer are vying to replace Bethany Hall-Long, a Democrat who was sworn in as lieutenant governor last month. In her absence, the Senate is perfectly split — 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

A GOP win would give the Republican Party a much bigger say in governing than it has had for the past eight years, during which the Democrats have controlled the governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly.

While the candidates took similar stances on standardized testing and the death penalty in Wednesday’s WDEL debate, issues such as right-to-work and marijuana legalization gave them plenty of chances to differentiate themselves. In a partisan crowd, with vocal supporters for each candidate, numerous remarks drew cheers and boos, and even a few audience outbursts.

Mr. Marino and Ms. Hansen went after each other briefly at one point, with Mr. Marino accusing Ms. Hansen of flip-flopping on a policy codifying parents’ right to opt their children out of standardized test.

Ms. Hansen fired back.

“For someone to sit up here and say you want to help the public school system who actively worked against the Appoquinimink referendum and proudly worked against it, I find that a bit hypocritical.”

The topic of one-party rule — the GOP’s main argument for electing Mr. Marino — came up as a question and, predictably, the candidates took different sides.

“Delaware has been one-party ruled in the Senate for 44 years,” Mr. Marino said. “It has led us to where we are today, a $350 million budget deficit.”

Ms. Hansen pointed to the Senate Republicans last week blocking the nomination of Shawn Garvin to head the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, arguing a GOP win Feb. 25 would lead to more “gridlock.”

“If we want to be able to keep the federal Republican agenda from settling in our living room, we have to be able to have our own fortification here at home,” Ms. Hansen said.

A win by Mr. Lanzendorfer would leave the chamber split but would give him tremendous leverage. It would also, he said, lead to greater cooperation between lawmakers of different parties.

On capital punishment, one of the state’s most controversial issues in recent years, all three candidates said they either oppose the death penalty or agree with the state Supreme Court’s decision to strike it down in August.

For Mr. Marino, a former police officer, voting against re-instating capital punishment would represent a break from the expected orthodoxy. The legislature has five members who were police officers, and all five have voted against repealing the death penalty in the past.

Some political observers have speculated the Democratic Party will try to turn the special election into a referendum on President Trump, a deeply polarizing figure, and questions about him drew a strong response Wednesday.

President Trump’s Friday executive order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven African and Middle-Eastern countries was condemned by Ms. Hansen and Mr. Lanzendorfer, who called it “antithetical to what this country stands for” and “un-American,” respectively.

Mr. Marino’s response, that the country should focus on its citizens, was met with several cries from spectators.

“This is about Trump!” one yelled, with another adding “He didn’t answer!” Yet another countered with a cry of “Yes, he did!”

Each of the candidates received some boos for sharing their views on abortion. Mr. Marino is pro-life, while Ms. Hansen and Mr. Lanzendorfer are pro-choice.

Asked to characterize herself, Ms. Hansen, who served as president of New Castle County Council from 1997 to 2001, said she is fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Mr. Marino, who ran for the same office in 2014, leaned on the Republican Party platform, calling for responsible government and painting himself as a fiscal conservative.

“The bottom line is we have spending problems,” he said.

Mr. Lanzendorfer described himself as falling between the other two candidates.

“I disagree with the Libertarian Party on abolishing public education,” he said. “There are some extremists in the party who push for that and I don’t agree with that. I think the fiscally conservative thing to do in the long run is to invest in education and invest in our children’s future for a better economy.”

The district, which covers portions of Newark and Middletown, contains about 16,100 Democrats and 10,100 Republicans, as well as 9,400 independents, according to registration numbers.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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