Democrat flips to GOP to run for attorney general

Bernard Pepukayi (left), the Republican Party’s candidate for Delaware Attorney General, meets with Delaware Republican Party Chairman Mike Harrington.

DOVER — The Delaware Republican Party’s hopes to win the attorney general’s office now lie with a lawyer who was a Democrat for nearly two decades before Monday.

Bernard Pepukayi, a former Family Court commissioner and legal aide to Democratic politicians, has switched his party registration to Republican to seek the state’s top law enforcement job.

Mr. Pepukayi, 45, who once served as deputy legal counsel to then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and now works in private practice, rejected arguments his decision is simply a stunt or a move born out of desperation to win an election.

“I know on the streets of east side (in Wilmington), people are getting killed. I know there are a lot of people going into the criminal justice system,” he said. “I know that the people who are most directly affected by that criminal justice system happen to be black males, and I know what it’s like to be caught up in that system, so political opportunity, I think not. But concern of my community, I think so.

“And I don’t care about the politics of it if I’m helping the communities that need help, whether it’s in Laurel, Rehoboth, Wilmington, New Castle or what have you. But the bottom line is I believe I have something to offer that no one else does.”

Republican Peggy Marshall Thomas dropped out of the race last week about a month after filing, offering little explanation for ending her campaign. Mr. Pepukayi’s switch means the party is set to contest every statewide seat.

The party had been recruiting Mr. Pepukayi for about a year, according to La Mar Gunn, the party’s 2016 nominee for lieutenant governor.

Delaware Republican Chairman Mike Harrington gushed as he spoke about the GOP’s new candidate, calling the four Democratic hopefuls, who will square off in the primary Sept. 6, “not even close to” as qualified as Mr. Pepukayi.

The Democratic field includes three former high-ranking officials in the Delaware Department of Justice.

With less than three months to go until the general election, Mr. Pepukayi has a tight window to raise money and boost his name recognition. The GOP does plan to make a “substantial” financial commitment, Mr. Harrington said, and it held a fundraiser/rally event for him Monday.

If Mr. Pepukayi is to win, he will have to ensure plenty of independents and Democrats cast their vote his way: In Delaware, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about 327,000 to 193,000. Another 173,000 voters are listed as independents.

Win or lose, Mr. Pepukayi claimed he would not flip his affiliation again.

“I have no intent to switch back,” he said. “That is not to say that … I mean, I didn’t anticipate switching to Republican. So, to me it’s not about the party. It’s about the purpose.”

He’s perhaps the first convicted felon to run for Delaware’s top law enforcement position, a unique experience Mr. Pepukayi believes makes him better suited for the office than any other candidate. At age 18, he was arrested and charged with delivery of a narcotic schedule, a felony. He was convicted but avoided jail time, instead receiving probation.

As the Delaware GOP put it, he then turned his life around, earning college degrees, becoming a lawyer and receiving a pardon.

His decision to run stemmed from a desire for change, which he believes the Democratic candidates don’t offer.

“When the finance reports came out … it just seemed like those in power wanted to keep the same type of people in power that would have changed nothing. That’s what I was fundamentally dissatisfied with, because something has to change,” he said.

In his criticism Mr. Pepukayi appeared to refer to former state prosecutor Kathy Jennings, who has raised nearly $411,000 this year and received support from many circles.

Asked what differentiates him from the Democratic candidates, he said voters should look not at their promises but their past actions.

He said the other four Delawareans seeking the post have emphasized lesser sentences instead of focusing on the root causes of crime and on keeping people out of prison. However, the Democratic hopefuls have all mentioned altering the system to be less punitive, and several have made it a core tenet of their campaigns.

Mr. Pepukayi said he does not support capital punishment but would be willing to seek it “if it’s a case that requires the death penalty.”

The state has been without a capital punishment statute since the Delaware Supreme Court ruled a portion of it was unconstitutional two years ago. Lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to restore it in 2017 and 2018.

He characterized himself as willing to consider marijuana legalization, which the Delaware House of Representatives voted down in June.

Asked about gun control, Mr. Pepukayi said he doesn’t “oppose the lawful possession of firearms” and would have to review any legislation limiting “assault weapons” before taking a stand on it.

A measure that would have banned the sale of such guns failed to pass this year, although the main sponsor hopes to bring it back in 2019.

Attorney General Matt Denn, a Democrat not seeking a second term, backed the legislation.

For the most plugged-in political insiders, Mr. Pepukayi’s announcement may have come as a surprise not just because of his changing affiliation but because state law forbids people from switching their party registration from the end of May until the September primary election.

However, it does contain an exception for candidates, allowing an individual to switch his or her affiliation by presenting an affidavit from the party and an affidavit from the person stating he or she plans to run for office for that party.


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