House Speaker Schwartzkopf faces opponent from his left

Peter Schwartzkopf

Peter Schwartzkopf

DOVER — The speaker of the Delaware House of Representatives has not faced an opponent from his own party in at least three decades. In fact, it is possible it’s been even longer than that, since readily available primary election results from the Department of Elections only go back to 1986.

But regardless of when that streak began, it is coming to an end this year. Rep. Peter Schwartzkopf faces a challenge from fellow Democrat Don Peterson in the 14th Representative District.

The district, which covers the Rehoboth Beach area, has been represented by Rep. Schwartzkopf since its inception in 2002, but this year, he’ll have to withstand an assault from his left.

Don Peterson

Don Peterson

Don Peterson, a former federal employee in rural lending programs, filed in March.

While pulling off a win will be tough, there is a precedent for what he’s hoping to do. In 2012, political newcomer Bryan Townsend knocked off Senate President Pro Tempore Tony DeLuca in a Democratic primary for the 11th Senatorial District.

Mr. Peterson, 63, paints himself as a progressive Democrat active in a host of left-leaning organizations and said he was largely spurred on by two events.

One instance came when the 14th Representative District Democratic Committee, which he was a member of, voted in January to endorse the speaker, before, Mr. Peterson said, “there was any chance for anybody else to get in the race.”

Dick Byrne, the chairman of the committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Schwartzkopf said he did not seek the early backing and was unaware of it until after the vote, but Mr. Peterson sees it as an example of the party picking the candidate.

“If anything this campaign is about taking on the status quo, the good old boy system that is alive and well not only in Sussex County but across Delaware,” he said.

He was also motivated by frustration over Rep. Schwartzkopf’s support of the death penalty, something Mr. Peterson adamantly opposes and believes the district does as well. A supporter of many traditional Democratic Party stances like a higher minimum wage, criminal justice reform and tax increases on the wealthiest individuals, Mr. Peterson is among a group of liberal activists that see the speaker as impeding progress.

But others believe that view is a fiction and argue the speaker does a great deal for the Cape region.

Rep. Schwartzkopf, 61, said he supports raising the minimum wage and changing the criminal justice system with more emphasis on rehabilitation over retribution.

While he does, as a former state trooper, support capital punishment, Rep. Schwartzkopf said he respects his opponent’s view.

“The bottom line is this: I’ve said this before, the death penalty issue is a very personal, very private, very emotional decision that each person has to make for themselves,” he said.

Rep. Schwartzkopf, who was chosen as speaker in 2012 after four years as majority leader, believes “a primary’s not necessarily a bad thing” but can be very detrimental to a district represented by a member of House or Senate leadership. In the event the incumbent loses, the district no longer has a powerful ally in Dover who can aid constituents in ways most lawmakers cannot.

As speaker, Rep. Schwartzkopf has more sway than just about any other elected official in the state, which supporters believe make him an excellent advocate for Rehoboth Beach.

Rep. Schwartzkopf pointed to improvements made along Del. Route 1, which runs right past Rehoboth Beach and through nearby Dewey Beach, as examples of much-needed work he helped facilitate.

“I can’t even count the improvements we’ve made on Route 1,” he said.

Whoever wins the Sept. 13 primary will take on Republican James DeMartino in the general election.

The 14th Representative District, one of 14 House or Senate districts in Sussex County, holds a special distinction: It is the only one currently represented by a Democrat. The Democratic Party outnumbers the GOP in the district by about 1,200 voters, easily the largest lead the Democrats have in any Sussex representative district.

The seat been held by Rep. Schwartzkopf since its formation 14 years ago, when he ran, he said, after Republican lawmakers attempted to draw the boundaries in the 2002 redistricting to keep potential threats to their preferred candidate away.

Despite being a “political novice as you’ve never seen before,” he won.

Aside from eight days in 2014 between when another Democrat filed and then withdrew, Rep. Schwartzkopf has never had to deal with a primary foe before.

Mr. Peterson said he has received a positive reception from Delawareans he has spoken to, but he will likely trail the speaker in one area: cash. As an incumbent, Rep. Schwartzkopf has collected a large sum of money, with $88,000 in his campaign account as of the end of 2015.

Despite the built-in obstacles facing him, Mr. Peterson believes he can send seismic shockwaves through the state Sept. 13.

“To be perfectly honest I don’t think the party’s taking this candidacy seriously and I think they should,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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