Sen. Harris McDowell, state’s longest-serving lawmaker, departs

Sen. Harris McDowell and his wife, Sunee. Submitted photo/Delaware Public Archives

DOVER — The last time Harris McDowell was not in the Delaware Senate, the NBA had 18 teams, gas cost less than a dollar and Gerald Ford was president. Oh, and at least three current senators were not even born.

First elected in 1976, the longest-serving legislator in Delaware history is not running for office, meaning the 1st Senatorial District will soon be represented by someone other than Harris B. McDowell III for the first time in a long time.

Sen. McDowell, 80, announced on June 30, 2019, the final night of the legislative session that year, he would not be seeking reelection. Citing a desire to be around his wife more, the senator tearfully informed the rapt audience 2020 would be his swan song.

Although some had expected the Democrat not to run again, the timing caught nearly all unaware because such end-of-session announcements generally come in even years, when elections follow the conclusion of session.

COVID seriously disrupted this year’s legislative schedule, but lawmakers gave Sen. McDowell a virtual sendoff on June 30 of this year. Using Zoom to meet from the comfort of their own homes, senators finished their regular business and then spent half an hour celebrating their colleague’s long career. Senator after senator spoke words of praise, and Gov. John Carney made a rare appearance to offer his thanks as well.

The occasion itself was not as difficult as the prior year’s announcement, Sen. McDowell admitted.

“I am thrilled. I’m not so overwhelmed,” he said. “Last year was overwhelming when I announced I’m retiring and everybody was so great. Boy, I bawled like a baby last year.

“So, I guess that’s why I’m not feeling quite as emotional now. I’m several steps closer to real retirement. Looking forward to spending a lot more time with my wife, Sunee, and my family.”

With Sen. McDowell leaving, not only will his north Wilmington district send a new person to Dover but the legislature’s budget-writing committee will have a new Senate co-chair. As one of two heads of the Joint Finance Committee for the past decade, Sen. McDowell had substantial influence over the state’s proverbial purse strings.

Sen. McDowell, who could not be reached despite numerous attempts to contact him in recent weeks, saw debate on thousands of legislative proposals during his 44-year tenure and had a hand in quite a few of them. The son of a former U.S. representative of the same name, he backed bills dealing with labor protections, LGBT rights, education and abolition of capital punishment, to name a few.

Among the most notable measures he introduced that became law is a 2005 bill to offer free tuition to Delaware Technical Community College for qualifying Delawareans. The program has been touted as innovative and impactful and has been expanded since.

“I can’t think of another legislator who has done more for Delawareans. It’s been a privilege to call Sen. McDowell my friend and my state senator,” Gov. Carney said on June 30 this year.

Sen. McDowell has seen a lot of people come and go in the Senate chamber over the past four-plus decades, including six different governors. The 4th Senatorial District, which sits along the Pennsylvania state line and partially borders the 1st, has had seven different senators since 1976, for instance.

His predecessor in the Senate actually became one of those governors: Mike Castle, who served for eight years and then left for private practice (though he of course returned to government).

Sen. McDowell’s successor has yet to be determined, but in the heavily Democratic district, the victor in the primary between Sarah McBride and Joseph McCole figures to win the general election. Ms. McBride, a well-known activist who Sen. McDowell endorsed earlier this year, is all but a lock to earn the Democratic nomination.

She announced her campaign less than two weeks after Sen. McDowell’s retirement announcement, receiving some national attention because she would be one of the first openly transgender individuals elected to a state legislature.