House speaker and sole Sussex Dem lawmaker meets GOP foe

vote-logo-2016DOVER — Sussex County had already been firmly established as a Republican stronghold after the 2012 elections, when the GOP controlled 11 of the county’s 14 seats in the General Assembly.

Over the past four years, it’s turned an even darker shade of red.

The lone Democratic senator south of Dover lost in 2014, and since that election, Republicans moved past Democrats in registration numbers.

Going into next month’s election, only Pete Schwartzkopf remains as a Democrat representing the county in the legislature.

By his own admission a member of an “endangered species,” Rep. Schwartzkopf, from Rehoboth Beach, is looking to avoid going extinct.

As the sole Democratic lawmaker from the state’s southernmost county, he has a target on his back. But he also happens to be the House speaker, and so a Republican victory would mean more than just claiming one additional seat.

Rep. Schwartzkopf has held the 14th District office for the past 14 years, but he had to defeat a primary opponent just to get to the general election.

Pete Schwartzkopf

Pete Schwartzkopf

His opponent next month is James DeMartino, an attorney who has lived in the area for three years and decided to run out of a belief Rep. Schwartzkopf needs a challenger.

The district is “being neglected,” he said, charging Rep. Schwartzkopf with putting too much focus on statewide issues and “the governor’s agenda.”

For his part, Rep. Schwartzkopf, who’s lived in Rehoboth Beach for close to 30 years, said issues in the district are “personal to him.”

Sussex County Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Crane said the speaker is “very popular across party lines,” and he expects him to hold on to the seat.

The fact Rep. Schwartzkopf, 61, has survived in a red county can at least partially be traced back to the area’s demographics. Rehoboth Beach, which has developed a reputation as an LGBT-friendly town, has about 1,400 more Democrats than Republicans, easily the largest D-to-R margin in Sussex.

The two candidates cited jobs, crime and infrastructure as the top issues in the district, although they differ as to their top priorities: Rep. Schwartzkopf cited infrastructure, while Mr. DeMartino, 59, is focused on job creation and crime prevention.

James DeMartino

James DeMartino

The state, Mr. DeMartino said, is “soft on crime,” hindering efforts to counter the spread of heroin.

“It’s not just rehabilitation. We need to enforce the laws,” he said. “We have to stop it at the source.”

Because of the intensified development in Sussex, especially along the beaches, Rep. Schwartzkopf sees infrastructure as the main problem.

County council too often approves plans for development without properly considering how it will impact traffic, leading to Sussex County “rapidly approaching saturation,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “When they’re looking at the plans, they’re looking at it as one piece of the puzzle, not how it interacts with the whole puzzle.”

He pointed to additional lanes and new sidewalks built on Del. Route 1 as recent advancements that have eased the flow of traffic and made it easier for people to get around.

“We have a little slice of heaven that everybody’s just discovering, and they want to be part of it,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Mr. Demartino is an advocate of bicycles and has founded a nonprofit that holds a bicycle design contest, with scholarships going to the winners. Through the nonprofit, Y Bicycle Association, he hopes to spread knowledge of technology and engineering.

“We need to get our kids excited about something and involved with things that are good, and it will eliminate or at least reduce the appeal of drugs,” he said.

Outside of transportation, Mr. DeMartino believes the district lacks well-paying jobs, although his opponent, when asked, countered that Rehoboth Beach relies on tourism, which is partly driven by lower-paying or part-time jobs.

Mr. DeMartino has never run for office before in Delaware. He made an unsuccessful bid for city council in Washington D.C. in 2010.

This year, he was initially ruled ineligible to run in the 14th District, as the Sussex County Department of Elections determined he had not lived in the state for the required three years.

The ruling was overturned on appeal to the Department of Elections.

While funds matter more in state- or countywide elections, there’s a vast disparity between the Rep. Schwartzkopf and Mr. DeMartino. The speaker reported $113,000 on hand last week, while Mr. DeMartino had about $1,000.

In 2010, the last time Rep. Schwartzkopf had a Republican opponent, he garnered about 54 percent of the vote.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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