Is spate of legislation sign of state’s shift to left?

DOVER — Bolstered by an election that saw them gain seats in both chambers of the General Assembly and capture every statewide seat for the first time since the 1800s, Delaware Democrats are flexing their muscles.

Democratic lawmakers are making good on campaign promises and pushing a variety of initiatives important to their base. So far this year, legislators have introduced or pledged to introduce bills that would expand voting access, reform the criminal justice system, raise the age to buy tobacco products, create stricter gun control and legalize marijuana.

Predictably, Democrats and Republicans differ on how they view those efforts.

Some see this as a sign of the party’s more liberal wing (also known as the progressive contingent) getting a greater say in the party’s direction and shifting it to the left, while others view it simply as an attempt to pass legislation popular with the majority of Delawareans regardless of political affiliation.

Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, rejected the description of the aforementioned measures as primarily Democratic ones.

“Voters want to see these kinds of policies, these kinds of laws. They want to see solutions,” he said.

“Voters are voting for people — on either side of the aisle — that actually want to use the tools of government to make peoples’ lives better, and that can look very different at different times depending on the issue, but if you have a party of no, a radical party on one side, voters have clearly shown at least in Delaware they don’t have much tolerance for that.”

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, has a similar stance.

“The bottom line is whenever anybody’s in the majority they always run bills that are important to them, and we try not to go partisan any more than we have to or make anything a partisan vote,” he said.

Both men noted some of the measures, such as legislation giving Delaware’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, making it illegal to sell tobacco to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds and establishing early voting, received Republican support. And they said other proposals that haven’t yet seen floor debates do have some GOP cosponsors. (Roll calls and bill sponsors can be viewed online at legis.delaware.gov.)

“Just because most of the ‘no’ votes on this legislation are coming from the Republican legislators doesn’t mean that these are Democratic bills. I feel very passionate about the fact that all of these measures are ones that have broad public support,” Sen. Townsend said.

But to Republicans, the bills are evidence of the majority party’s shift to the left and of it simply forcing its desired policies through.

“They know they can do it. They got the votes and that’s their agenda,” Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, said. “I can assure you that’s not the agenda of the people I represent.”

Some of the proposals are particularly controversial. The national popular vote bill has drawn plenty of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, Sen. Hocker said, while House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, noted a few of the criminal justice reform measures are opposed by people on both sides of the aisle, although he did not specify which bills.

He sees a few of the measures as bipartisan.

“Candidly, I think probably some of that is (being emboldened from) the election and some things that have been on their plate for a period of time,” he said of the spate of legislation that’s been introduced or discussed.

“There’s a couple of things with regard to early voting and maybe the absentee world that are necessary of change and can be considered, but particularly on the criminal justice issues, of that reform, I’m really worried about the unheard people at this point, which is the victims, so that’s where I think the biggest concern on those is.”

Once a centrist bellwether state, Delaware has become solidly blue, echoing changes seen in other states as partisan divides grow. Democrats have majorities of 26-15 in the House and 12-9 in the Senate, leaving the party one Senate vote shy of being able to pass tax bills without any GOP support.

Delaware is one of 14 states where the Democratic Party controls both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office.

Democratic officials said the national tension and gridlock sometimes cause issues to be incorrectly characterized as partisan when in reality they enjoy broad public support. Universal gun background checks, for instance, remain a pipe dream at the federal level despite a fall 2018 poll from the Pew Research Center finding 85 percent of respondents are in support.

Voting, referred to by then-Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, as “the most American of rights” in his 2016 State of the State, is another subject that should not fall along party lines but often does, Democratic leaders said. Despite the concerns of Republicans, Rep. Schwartzkopf said, there is no evidence of voter fraud in Delaware.

Although the tobacco legislation did get three Republicans votes in favor and one Democratic vote against in the Senate, most of the opposition came from the right.

“I think it’s a shame that maybe they’re feeling like they need to do that as the loyal opposition,” Gov. John Carney said. “I guess it’s understandable.

“Some of it emanates from their constituents and that’s understandable as well and part of the calculus that they make when they take votes, how the people in their districts feel on it, but if you look at tobacco cessation and trying to reduce the number of people who start smoking and certainly among teenagers, that’s never been a partisan issue and I don’t think it is today.

“Sometimes you ran into the issue around the government telling you what to do or not to do, kind of the libertarian strain in the Republican Party — there’s a strong libertarian strain in the Democratic Party on the other side, if you will — but for me it’s all about health and welfare and the costs associated with disease conditions that follow smoking.”

In Gov. Carney’s view, many of the measures recently introduced by Democratic lawmakers, controversial though they may be to some, are “common sense.”

Delaware Democratic Party Executive Director Jesse Chadderdon said the results of the November general election emphasized to elected officials in Delaware the public wants solutions. He said he believes many of the bills that grab headlines are unfairly seen as partisan when they should pick up votes from lawmakers on both sides.

“I think the Republican playbook has long been in Delaware when they’ve been in the minority to obstruct, to hold back progress and then to try to go to voters and suggest that nothing’s getting done in Dover,” he said.

Fifteen of the General Assembly’s 62 members were newly elected in November, with some winning by running distinctly progressive campaigns. While many of those victories came in Democratic strongholds like Wilmington, not all did, one of many signs the Democratic electorate has been energized by the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the northern Delaware area bounded by the Twelve-Mile Circle, the Christina River, Del. Route 7 and U.S. Route 202. Encompassing communities like Hockessin, Greenville and Sharpley, the area is a traditionally Republican one, but the midterm election saw Democrats knock off Greg Lavelle and Deborah Hudson, the Senate and House minority whips, respectively.

Whether independent and Republican voters approve of the various measures passing through the legislature could determine whether Democrats build on those gains in 2020.

To Sen. Townsend, any change in where the legislature as a whole falls on the political spectrum stems from far more than just the candidates themselves.

“I don’t think that there’s some kind of massive shift to the left because of individuals who are being elected. I think it’s a combination of the public has opened their eyes and legislators have opened their eyes to a lot of the inequities, to the war on drugs being basically a failure on any measurable policy objective, the reality of increasing economic inequality and I think, again, part of the generational turnover,” he said.

“Millennials are more known for this but even people who are just north of the Millennial cutoff, they’re sort of a more no-nonsense generation, a very pragmatic generation, and it’s like: Let’s develop solutions. Let’s get things done.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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