Victory for progressives as Sokola named Senate president pro tempore

DOVER — Progressives scored a big win with the new Senate Democratic leadership team this week.

Sen. David Sokola

The caucus announced late Thursday night that members selected Sens. Dave Sokola of Newark, Bryan Townsend of Newark and Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman of Wilmington as the president pro tempore, majority leader and majority whip, respectively.

Meanwhile, both House caucuses returned the same leadership teams. Reps. Pete Schwartzkopf of Rehoboth Beach and Valerie Longhurst of Bear will serve as speaker and majority leader, respectively, for the fourth consecutive General Assembly, while Rep. Larry Mitchell of Elsmere will have a second term as majority whip. Minority Leader Danny Short of Seaford will continue holding the post he has been in for eight years, and Rep. Tim Dukes of Laurel picked up a second term as minority whip.

Senate Republicans gave Sen. Gerald Hocker of Ocean View a second term as minority leader in the chamber, while naming Sen. Brian Pettyjohn of Georgetown the whip after the prior holder of that post lost Tuesday.

The House and the Senate Republican choices were no surprise, but the Senate Democratic caucus had been the subject of much speculation after President Pro Tempore David McBride was defeated in a September primary.

In the end, the 14-member caucus went with Sen. Sokola, the current longest-serving senator, to oversee the chamber. He topped Sen. Nicole Poore of New Castle, who had been the majority leader for the past two years.

“Delaware voters spoke this week in a clear voice that demanded change,” Sen. Sokola, who was first elected in 1990, said in a statement. “The size and record-setting diversity of our caucus reflects the values of our communities and their growing demand for racial justice, higher wages, better schools for our children, common-sense gun reforms and greater access to affordable health care.

“They also want legislators who will work to protect the public’s health and get our state back to work. I am honored my colleagues have trusted me to lead the State Senate as we renew our commitment to a more equitable Delaware for all.”

Sen. Sokola has chaired the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement for the past six years, while Sen. Townsend held the post of the majority whip in the prior two-year General Assembly.

The caucus will have four new members when it officially reconvenes (likely virtually) in January: Marie Pinkney of Bear, who defeated Sen. McBride; Sarah McBride of Wilmington (and not related to the former president pro tempore), who replaces the retired Harris McDowell; Kyle Evans Gay of Talley’s Corner, who topped Minority Whip Cathy Cloutier; and Spiros Mantzavinos of Winterbury, who denied Anthony Delcollo’s bid for a second term in the Senate.

The selections are not official until the full chambers vote on them on the first day of session, which will be Jan. 12. That process is often a formality, although lawmakers have sometimes cut deals with members of the minority to gain power.

After picking up two Senate seats, Democrats now possess a 14-7 advantage in the Senate and a 26-15 lead in the House. That means they have 60% supermajorities needed to pass tax hikes in both chambers, a threshold they haven’t hit since before the 2014 general election.

The 151st General Assembly is set to be the most diverse and likely the most progressive in state history.

“Our caucus enters this new decade with a fresh perspective on the needs of our constituents,” Sen. Townsend said in a statement. “Over the last two election cycles, Delawareans have chosen legislators who are more reflective of our state’s rich diversity. Great things are happening here in Delaware and it is an honor to help lead the Democratic caucus into the future.”

Committee assignments will likely be announced next month. The Joint Finance Committee is guaranteed to have two new co-chairs, while the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement will have at least one new co-chair.

Former Democratic Sen. Richard Cordrey held the post of president pro tempore continuously from 1977 to 1996. Counting Sen. Sokola, six different lawmakers, all Democrats, have led the chamber since then.