Jobs, economy top issues in Delaware race for governor

DOVER — Long before they were running against one another for Delaware’s top elected office, John Carney and Colin Bonini had a chance encounter thousands of miles from the state they are now competing to govern — even though they didn’t know it until more than three decades later.

While visiting family in San Francisco John Carney attended a high school basketball game. Playing in that game was a teenage Colin Bonini.

Now, separated from that freak coincidence by more than 30 years and almost 3,000 miles, the two are seeking to replace term-limited Gov. Jack Markell.

vote-logo-2016The Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Carney, is giving up his seat in Congress for a second bid at Delaware’s top office; state Sen. Bonini, who represents the Dover area, is looking to end a quarter century of Democratic governors.

Though not quite diametrically opposed, the two have divergent political views: Sen. Bonini describes himself as the most conservative member of the General Assembly, while Rep. Carney is part of the state’s Democratic establishment.

Despite that, they’re friends — Sen. Bonini has even voted for his current opponent in the past.

Rep. Carney will be heavily favored on Nov. 8. Democrats have an edge of 130,000 in voter registration and, with $908,000 as of Oct. 9, Rep. Carney had more than 11 times Sen. Bonini’s cash on hand.

A University of Delaware survey released earlier this month gave Rep. Carney a 32-point lead in the governor’s race, 57-25.

John Carney

John Carney

Sen. Bonini acknowledges he is an underdog but says he has a chance.

Issues

With both candidates, the issue of jobs is first on their minds.
Rep. Carney hopes to bring back blue-collar careers by redeveloping former manufacturing sites, such as the old Wilmington General Motors factory.

“Create some new ‘old’ jobs, cultivate the existing employment base in financial services and other manufacturing that we have and then incent and cultivate an innovation/startup economy,” he said. “That’s kind of the hardest part, because the question gets to be what do you do specifically? And part of it is so much of those things happen organically.”

Sen. Bonini’s focus is on cutting spending, reducing government intrusion and making the state a veritable paradise for businesses that grow jobs.

“The first thing’s got to be the economy. It just has to be. As I’ve joked … my list of 1 through 10, 1 through 9.8 is jobs, the economy,” he said.

Colin Bonini

Colin Bonini

“I think the first thing we do is we push real hard for those enterprise zones, we push for regulatory reform, we set up a commission that is staffed almost exclusively by private-sector folks to go soup to nuts on regulatory reform. We push that early retirement incentive. That’s one of the first bills we do, early retirement incentive for state employees, and then we also have to look at the Medicaid reform, standardizing the ‘smart card’ Medicaid.

“I think all four of those things need to happen from day one. But the bottom line is we have go to to create an environment where our economy can grow, and I do not think Delaware currently — I know Delaware does not have that environment.”

The governor’s office, the Senate and the House have all been controlled by Democrats for the past eight years, leading Sen. Bonini to term it “one-party rule.” That, he said, has caused officials to avoid making hard choices, even when they are necessary,

Pledging to challenge the political culture in the state, Sen. Bonini said decision-makers “need to pick some fights.”

“When my car breaks down on the side of the road — and Delaware is broken down on the side of the road — I don’t want to have a committee of nice people. I want a mechanic to fix my freakin’ car,” he said.

In his eyes, many of the state’s problems can be traced back to a stagnant economy.

Democrats counter the unemployment rate is lower than the national average and argue right-to-work and similar policies will hurt workers.

Rep. Carney plans a budget “reset” to analyze spending, with an eye toward reducing a shortfall that estimated could hit $300 million in the coming months.

He opposes the death penalty for convicted murderers and legalization of marijuana, while Sen. Bonini backs both.

“I actually favor legalization, and the reason I favor legalization is we basically already have it,” the Republican said at a debate earlier this month. “We have decriminalized marijuana possession in Delaware to the point where it is de facto legal.

“My point is, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it all the way. Let’s regulate it, let’s try to keep it out of the hands of kids … let’s enforce it so that we can knock drug dealers out of business.”

He has previously said it is the only tax he would ever vote for.

Both men support shifting some power away from the Department of Education and to the individual school districts.

Sen. Bonini said the trend toward centralization has increased over the past eight years, slowing students’ progress. He would greatly reshape the agency, turning it into one focused on supporting schools.

Rep. Carney backs less forceful measures but is in favor of reducing some bureaucracy. Gov. Markell has been criticized by lawmakers of both parties, as well as teachers and parents, for increasing the power of the department and handing down statewide mandates.

Although there’s a national trend in many areas for fewer police officers, Sen. Bonini believes law enforcement needs to have a greater presence in Wilmington, which has been plagued by gun violence and drugs.

“If there’s a greater failure of our political class than the violence that we allowed to happen in Wilmington and other places, then I’d like to know what that is,” he said. “If we have to combine police forces, then we have to combine police forces.”

The two come from different backgrounds, but they got to know each during the eight years Rep. Carney was presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor and Sen. Bonini was serving in the chamber.

Neither one of them seemed likely to end up in this position.

John Carney

A native Delawarean, John Carney grew up in Claymont, then attended and played football at Dartmouth College. He hoped to get into coaching and, after graduating, eventually ended up back in the First State pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Delaware and coaching football.

While seeking a degree in public administration from UD, he joined the Legislative Fellows program, interning at Legislative Hall.

“I was one of the first ones selected and I just, I loved it. Everything that I was looking for,” he said. “It was meaningful, it was exciting, it was interesting, there was competition because of the politics side of it. I never thought that something like this would happen. I always thought that I would work for another elected official.”

After working for Sen. Joe Biden — where he met a former state Supreme Court justice’s daughter whom he would go on to marry — Rep. Carney was named deputy chief administrative officer in New Castle County.

In 1994, he became the deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tom Carper and then worked as his secretary of finance. The two men currently serve together in Washington, with Sen. Carper as Delaware’s senior U.S. elected official.

In 2000, that dream of working behind the scenes changed.

“Somewhere along the line, someone came up with the brilliant idea of running myself,” Rep. Carney joked.

He was elected lieutenant governor in November 2000, earning 62 percent of the vote.

After winning re-election four years later, he appeared to be on a path toward Woodburn, the governor’s official residence.

However, then Treasurer Jack Markell chose to campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination for governor. Despite having the support from the state’s establishment, Lt. Gov. Carney lost by about 2.5 percent.

Eight years later, Gov. Markell is preparing to leave office, and his former rival is his likely successor, if political tradition continues.

The rift between the two men has healed, they say, and even Joe Biden — Rep. Carney’s former boss, now serving as vice president of the United States — has spoken publicly about his support for a Gov. Carney.

Moving from the U.S. House, where he has spent the past six years as one-third of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, is an opportunity Rep. Carney is looking forward to.

In an interview last week, he was visibly frustrated describing the issues that have confronted Congress. The Senate and the House have become more partisan over the years, leading to more frequent disagreements, refusals to compromise and even charges that members of the other side are the enemy.

Discussing what he termed a “failure” to pass legislation funding infrastructure and changing corporate taxes, Rep. Carney grew animated and pounded his hands on the table at points during the interview.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to pick a solution,” he said. “In Congress, in Washington, both sides intentionally try to gum things up, right, and prevent a solution, because they don’t want the other side to be successful or because it doesn’t suit their re-election interests. The priorities are out of whack.”

He said he did not anticipate running for governor again, and it appeared as recently as 18 months ago there was no path for him to seek the top spot. However, after former Attorney General Beau Biden died, Rep. Carney eventually decided to make a second bid for the office that had eluded him eight years before.

Colin Bonini

Just ending up in Delaware was unlikely for Colin Bonini.

He grew up in California, the son of two professors, and moved to Delaware to attend Wesley College after several years of working in retail following high school. Although he no longer remembers how he first learned of the small private school nestled in the heart of Delaware’s capital city, he deems it a fortuitous encounter.

In 1994, he was elected to the state Senate at age 29. Ever since then, he’s been one of the state’s most outspoken conservatives.

Sen. Bonini considers himself close with many of his Democratic colleagues, thanks in part to his outwardly jovial nature, although some have senators have also chided him for making jokes during serious floor discussions.

His attitude has even drawn some ire from fellow Republicans, who have expressed frustration over frequent compliments of Rep. Carney. Against the advice of his campaign manager and others, Sen. Bonini has continued to praise his opponent, even admitting he cast a ballot for him before.

The self-described “big, jolly guy” can’t resist making people laugh. Asked what his first priority would be if he is elected office, Sen. Bonini replied: “I always joke the first thing I would do is offer health assistance to my Democratic colleagues who will have fainted if I win. Smelling salts is probably the first thing I’d do.”

Like Rep. Carney, he played football in college, although at a smaller level.

He considers Pete du Pont, governor from 1977 to 1985, the “model of what a strong governor can do even when you have a General Assembly that’s not necessarily with you.”

He has visions of similarly transforming the state, and while the odds are against him, he said he was a heavy underdog in his first run for state Senate as well.

Endgame

The election also features Green Party nominee Andrew Groff and the Libertarian Party’s Sean Goward. The Green and Libertarian nominees gained a combined 2 percent in the 2012 gubernatorial contest.

With challenges like a budget shortfall, rising health care costs and heroin usage awaiting the state, the winner of the race will help plot the course of Delaware’s future.

Sen. Bonini sees the election as a chance to right the ship, while Rep. Carney has said it is a chance to build on previous administrations and develop new initiatives.

For Rep. Carney, a victory would be the culmination of a 30-year career and the start of a new one.

“Most of my buddies are big lawyers, businesspeople, make a lot of money. But I tell you what: I don’t think they’ve had a more exciting or interesting or meaningful career than I have,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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