Boy Scouts to honor Dover’s Bushweller

Brian Bushweller, shown outside of his Dover home, served as a Delaware state senator from 2008 to 2018. Tuesday night, he will receive the 2019 Kent County Distinguished Citizen Award in a ceremony at Dover Downs. The award is presented by the Del-Mar-Va Council of the Boy Scouts of America. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — The year was 1981. New York resident Brian Bushweller was looking for a new job, and he and his wife were considering three cities: Buffalo, New York; Dallas, Texas and Dover, Delaware.

After some careful deliberations, the couple selected the smallest of those three cities and never looked back.

“Once we moved here, it quickly became obvious that because we had five children, that Dover was going to be a great place to live,” Mr. Bushweller recalled.

Now, 38 years later, the 74-year-old former state senator is being honored for his service to the county. On Tuesday, Mr. Bushweller will receive the 2019 Kent County Distinguished Citizen Award in a ceremony at Dover Downs.

Presented by the Del-Mar-Va Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the award has for the past 33 years recognized individuals who “work to help make Delaware’s middle county a better place to live.”

As a lawmaker for 10 years and a passionate member of the community for much longer, Mr. Bushweller was a natural choice, according to the council.

Then-Sen. Bushweller receives a standing ovation from his colleagues during his final night in the Delaware State Senate in 2018. (Submitted photo)

He has, Del-Mar-Va Council Northern Development Director Chris Chapdelaine wrote in an email, helped bring about “real positive and lasting” change in the county and “has carried himself in such a way that he has exemplified Scouting’s values throughout his professional career, his volunteer service with local nonprofits, and his personal life.”

A Democrat, Mr. Bushweller held elected office from 2008 to 2018, representing the 17th Senatorial District, which covers Dover and the surrounding areas. For the last four years of his tenure, he was one of just two Democrats in the Senate not from New Castle County.

His involvement in politics goes back much further than 11 years, however.

Already boasting volunteer experience on a few political campaigns when he moved, Mr. Bushweller continued to play a role in local politics after arriving in Delaware, helping then-U.S. Rep. Tom Carper in his first five congressional campaigns.

When Mr. Carper was elected governor in 1992, Mr. Bushweller left the Delaware State Education Association to become the governor’s legislative liaison. In 1998, he was nominated and confirmed as the secretary of the Department of Public Safety (now the Department of Safety and Homeland Security).

He followed the governor to the U.S. Senate in 2001, where he worked as his state director before retiring in 2007 to focus on his second campaign for the 17th District.

Mr. Bushweller’s first run, in 2004, saw him pick up nearly 48 percent of the vote against Republican incumbent John Still. In 2008, boosted by greater name recognition, the Obama wave and Mr. Still opting not to run, he earned more than 56 percent of ballots cast.

He was unopposed in 2012 and won a third term two years later despite strong Republican turnout.

Asked about his main accomplishments in the State Senate, Brian Bushweller pointed to three things: sponsoring a successful bill that provides free tuition to Delaware State University for high-achieving Delaware graduates; shifting some of the financial burden from the state’s casinos; and helping the DE Turf sports complex get underway. (Delaware State News file photo)

During his decade in office, Mr. Bushweller made his main focus economic development, something he said he picked up from his former boss.

“I learned from him that a good economy and good jobs solve all kinds of problems,” he recalled.

Asked about his main accomplishment, Mr. Bushweller pointed to three things: sponsoring a successful bill that provides free tuition to Delaware State University for high-achieving Delaware graduates; shifting some of the financial burden from the state’s casinos; and helping the DE Turf sports complex get underway.

Throughout his time in the Senate, Mr. Bushweller was a strong supporter of Delaware’s casinos, particularly Dover Downs, the only public gambling establishment in the state and one of the major employers in his district.

When he announced his planned retirement in August 2017, he cited as his only disappointment the “inability to have properly educated the General Assembly to the damage that we have done to” the casinos. A firm believer the state’s tax structure was stifling growth and putting at risk not only the nine-figure sum the state gets annually from the three casinos but the thousands of jobs they bring, Mr. Bushweller spent several years trying to get casino relief passed.

A modest proposal was successful in 2014, but more ambitious endeavors failed the following three years. In 2018, however, lawmakers approved a bill lowering the casino taxes in the final days of the legislative session, giving Mr. Bushweller a swan song.

As for the DE Turf, well, Mr. Bushweller believes anyone who doubts it needs only to go by the Frederica complex on a weekend.

“Every time now I drive down Route 1 now and see the hundreds and hundreds of cars with out-of-state license plates bringing all that money and all that economic activity into the Dover area, I feel real good about that,” he said.

Mr. Bushweller said he still follows the legislature, although mostly by reading news accounts. On several occasions, an article he has seen has sparked a desire to do something, only to be followed by the realization he’s now just a private citizen.

“It’s actually almost a humorous thing,” he said. “It’s happened three of four times.”

Since retiring from the Senate, Brian Bushweller’s wife of 53 years, “Rocky,” passed away in 2018 of breast cancer while Mr. Bushweller is scheduled to begin radiation therapy for cancer of the larynx this week. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

But while he has enjoyed being able to spend more time with his children and grandchildren — he has 10 grandkids, five of whom live in Kent County — his retirement has also seen sadness and challenges.

Mr. Bushweller’s wife of 53 years, “Rocky,” passed away in 2018 of breast cancer, while Mr. Bushweller is scheduled to begin radiation therapy for cancer of the larynx this week.

Mrs. Bushweller was a big part of her husband’s political success, and both were involved in the Democratic Party for decades, Mr. Bushweller’s successor in the Senate said.

“He and Rocky both just dedicated their lives to improving Dover and the surrounding communities,” Sen. Trey Paradee said, referencing the “big shoes” he must fill in representing the 17th District.

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

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