Bonini promotes conservative principles in run for governor


State Sen. Colin Bonini is known for his quirky ties. The longtime Dover senator wants to be Delaware’s next governor. (Delaware State News file)

State Sen. Colin Bonini is known for his quirky ties. The longtime Dover senator wants to be Delaware’s next governor. (Delaware State News file)

DOVER — If he wins the primary, Colin Bonini is guaranteed to pick up the vote of at least one longtime Democrat: his own wife.

Melissa Harrington, who comes from a family of strong Democrats, recently switched her party registration to be able to vote for her husband, a state Senator from the Dover area seeking the governor’s office.

For Sen. Bonini, who announced he was running back in 2014, two days after the election, the campaigning is heating up as the day of reckoning draws near. But first he must defeat Republican Lacey Lafferty in Sept. 13’s primary election.

One of the two longest-serving Republicans in the General Assembly, Sen. Bonini was first elected in 1994, making him the youngest member of the Senate at the time.

A self-described “big jolly guy,” he has long been one of the most conservative members of the legislature. In fact, he calls himself the most right-leaning lawmaker in the state capitol.

“I think I have been the voice of fiscal restraint and common sense. … And, quite frankly, the face of conservatism in Delaware for years,” he said.

Fond of saying the state has a spending problem rather than a revenue problem, he has never voted for a state budget in his 22 years.

Sen. Bonini believes the budget, currently a record $4.08 billion, needs to shrink, although he does not have a set number in mind.

“What’s important is that the government is living within its means and is not becoming a burden on the economy, and I think the state government has become big enough and intrusive enough that it’s becoming a negative weight on our economy,” he said.

Medicaid and personnel costs make up a large portion of spending: According to a report on expenditures released earlier this year by a state panel, Delaware spent about $2.01 billion on Medicaid and salaries alone in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015. That total amounted to about 52 percent of the total budget.

Sen. Bonini has proposed offering incentives in the form of three-year pension credits for employees to encourage them to retire early, thus reducing costs to the state.

“Early retirement is the humane way to do this. If we don’t make some decisions now, we are going to be laying people off,” he said.

To limit Medicaid spending, he supports greater standardization, which could reduce the number of duplicate services. The legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in 2014 proposed “smart cards” that would track what services patients received, a system Sen. Bonini backs.

He is also in favor of fewer regulations, right-to-work laws and a more localized education system.

The General Assembly’s two chambers are currently both controlled by the Democratic Party, raising questions of whether a Republican governor would even be able to get key policies passed. Sen. Bonini admits it would be challenging, but he has faith in the governor’s powerful bully pulpit.

“When a governor really wants something, he or she can get it,” Sen. Bonini said.

He made waves in June for announcing his support of legalizing marijuana, although it’s less out of a belief cannabis is not harmful and more out of a strong judgment the state has “already legalized marijuana.” Marijuana remains illegal in Delaware, but lawmakers have recently decriminalized it and created legal medical cannabis.

“Let’s regulate it, let’s tax it, let’s create a structure where we can at least have some control over access to it,” Sen. Bonini said in June.

Befitting his claim of being “the face of conservatism,” he has been outspoken against Democratic proposals he sees as contrary to the state’s interests.

He has ranted against legislation lessening mandatory minimum sentences and, for a bill to raise the minimum wage, introduced an amendment to rename it the “Delaware Job Killing Act of 2016.”

That doesn’t always endear him to colleagues: During the minimum wage floor debate, for instance, Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, criticized the Republican for what he called “theatrics.”

But despite his staunch conservative ideology, Sen. Bonini expresses admiration for his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and counts Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Carney as a friend.

That doesn’t mean the Sen. Bonini thinks the Democrat is the best pick for governor, of course.

“He’s more of the same. I think electing another Democrat, if you do the same thing, you’re going to get the same results,” Sen. Bonini said. “And I think we’ve got to change course. And I think, like I said at the announcement, I think the choice is clear: If you like the way things are going, you should vote for John Carney. If you think we need a change, then hopefully you’d vote for Colin Bonini.”

This wasn’t the campaign he planned.

He had intended to run against former Attorney General Beau Biden, who declared his intentions to seek the governor’s office in 2014. However, Mr. Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, changing the calculus of the campaign.

With Rep. Carney holding a solid lead in polls commissioned by the Bonini campaign in the fall, the senator considered dropping out.

“Very different candidacy and I think a different tenor to the campaign. And John’s just a very different guy,” he said.

Ultimately, he stuck with deciding the state has too many problems that cannot be ignored.

It’s not his first run for higher office.

In 2010, he lost the race for state treasurer by 2 percent to Democrat Chip Flowers. Before that, he had flirted with seeking other seats, always deciding the timing wasn’t right.

He is not up for re-election in the Senate this year, meaning he will retain that seat if he loses the gubernatorial election.

A native of California, Sen. Bonini is the son of two university professors, who, like him and his wife until recently, were politically divided.

Sen. Bonini traveled across the country to attend Wesley University, where he played football, basketball and tennis. He stayed in the state because of its “sense of community,” a product of its size.

“You can have an impact in Delaware,” he said.

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