Lieutenant governor candidates struggle to stand out in debate

VOTE 1 COL by . WILMINGTON — Six Democrats running for lieutenant governor were largely in agreement during a debate Monday.

While they attempted to differentiate themselves by pointing to their backgrounds and what they hope to accomplish as lieutenant governor, the large field and their shared ideologies made it hard for any one person to stand out.

The debate, hosted by Wilmington radio station WDEL, was at least the third time all six candidates have been together discussing issues and answering questions in front of an audience.

While the six were unanimous in expressing their opposition to the death penalty and defending the Delaware Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the state’s capital punishment statute is unconstitutional, the issue did create a few sparks: Wilmington Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey Walker challenged state Sen. Bethany Hall-Long for her votes against abolishing executions in 2013 and 2014.

“The question that I have is, is it convenient to be against the death penalty now that people know the public is against the death penalty?” Ms. Dorsey Walker asked.

Sen Hall-Long replied that she had “evolved” and now stands opposed to capital punishment.

On several occasions, speakers attempted to circle around questions and bring up other issues, not always addressing the point at hand. Each candidate appeared to have a key issue he or she could fall back on.

Ms. Dorsey Walker was the most outspoken of the six candidates. She denounced alleged racism in state government and criticized Sen. Hall-Long for voting against repealing capital punishment.

Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Kathy McGuiness cited her background as a business owner as she repeatedly used queries as a chance to push her plan for job growth.

“I would run this state like a business,” she said, pointing to her tour up and down the state in an attempt to craft a comprehensive solution for economic development.

For Sen. Hall-Long, what makes her stand out is her background as a state lawmaker

“I know for a fact that the leadership skills that I bring, the 14 years in the legislature, serve me well to help our state and to work with the next governor for lieutenant governor, and I will tell you that this is a position that we can get a lot accomplished,” she said. “Our next governor has an unprecedented challenge with our budget.”

Former Sussex County Register of Wills Greg Fuller admitted he is not the “most qualified person for this job,” but argued he has the necessary experience and desire to serve the state. Unlike some others, he is not using the office as a “stepping stone,” Mr. Fuller told the audience.

“The people are who we’re supposed to serve, and your needs are the needs that we’re supposed to put above our own,” he said. “Not about getting elected, not about moving to the next position. I have no intent or desire to be the governor. I have intent to be the best lieutenant governor that you ever had.”

One of the lieutenant governor’s few constitutional duties is to serve on the Board of Pardons, something Levy Court Commissioner Brad Eaby and New Castle County Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti pointed to as they made their cases.

“We have about 500 people a year that go through the Board of Pardons process, and your decision, your decision on the board, can impact their lives for the rest of their life,” Mr. Eaby said.

Mr. Poppiti took a similar tack.

“When I ran my first pardons clinic earlier this summer, I met a woman who met with me for free legal advice, and she had an incident 10 years ago,” he said. “She made a mistake, a nonviolent misdemeanor, and over the past 10 years, she’s gotten married, she’s raised children.

“She wants to come back into the workforce but the problem is she has that misdemeanor on her record and she can’t compete for that job. Ten years later, where she had reformed her life. If she were to apply for a pardon today, it would be between seven months and a year until she has a hearing and then she has to go several more months to get an expungement.”

In the most recent campaign finance reports, covering 2015, Mr. Poppiti, Sen. Hall-Long and Ms. McGuiness all reported having at least $77,000 on hand, while Mr. Fuller, Mr. Eaby and Ms. Dorsey-Walker each had no more no more than $14,000 available.

Sen. Hall-Long is endorsed by the Delaware State Education Association and the Delaware Building and Construction Trades Council, two powerful unions, something she noted during the debate. Ms. McGuiness, meanwhile, scored an endorsement on Monday from House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear.

The primary is Sept. 13.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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