Posted: Feb. 24, 2011
A MAN OF HIS TIME
By Celia Cohen
There had to be someone like Russell Wilbur Peterson. His life personified the times, or was it the other way around?
Peterson was the essential 20th Century suburban man, a type that rose to dominate Delaware and thrust him all the way to the governorship.
He was representative of a new civic spirit that had faith in science and a reflex for reform. It was a new tone that found its resonance in everything from civil rights to Earth Day to an ambitious makeover of state government, all with a blithe, sometimes sanctimonious disregard for what had been largely a conservative, insular, rural and separate-but-equal kind of place.
Change that comes with such momentous clanging always means conflict and come-uppance, and Peterson had his share. His actions and his style exacerbated the upstate-downstate split, which did him in, and the state's finances came crashing down.
Peterson died Monday at 94, roughly a decade into a new century that would have found him to be an outdated political freak. He was a single-term governor, elected in 1968 to his one-and-only office as a liberal Republican.
Peterson has been memorialized this week for his accomplishments.
Joe Biden, the vice president who was drawn as a young Democratic lawyer to Peterson's activism, remembered him most for getting the National Guard out of Wilmington to end an increasingly embarrassing occupation, stretching 10 months after the 1968 riots. "There was no greater act than his first official one," Biden said in a statement.
Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, ordered the flags to half-staff and saluted Peterson for his "signature achievement" in enacting the Coastal Zone Act, a 1971 law protecting the state's shoreline from industrial development.
Still, Peterson meant more than the sum of his parts. The arc of his life was the arc of Delaware, the geographical one that encompassed the northern boundary of the state and the metaphysical one that characterized the sweep in time.
Russ Peterson was part of the great influx of DuPont workers, who came from everywhere and made the northern suburbs theirs. He shared the civic impulses that propelled them to get involved and to reshape the state in their own image. He rode the political currents that took the northern suburbs from a Republican stronghold in the Sixties to its Democratic inclinations of today.
Peterson, the Republican governor, became a Democrat in 1996.
Peterson embodied a new breed of Delawareans -- educated, progressive and transplanted. They made such an indelible mark that John Munroe, the great state historian, wrote that Delaware could be called "The Suburban State."
Peterson arrived from Wisconsin with a doctorate in chemistry, went to work for the DuPont Co., and came to public attention as an advocate for prison reform with an organization called the Three-S Citizens' Campaign -- "Salvage people, Save dollars and Shrink the crime rate."
The Republican Party in those days was largely controlled by three financiers. Reynolds du Pont, the state Senate's Republican leader, Hal Haskell, an ex-congressman who would be mayor of Wilmington, and John Rollins Sr., a wealthy and well-connected downstate businessman, did not always agree among themselves, but in this case they all wanted Peterson to run for governor.
Peterson defeated Charles Terry, the Democratic governor, primarily because of one issue -- the National Guard on the street in Wilmington.
Terry, a former chief justice with a formidable personality, sent in the Guard when Wilmington, like other cities, erupted in rioting after Martin Luther King was shot in the spring of 1968, but he would not take the Guard out. The state became a national laughingstock, and that was it for Terry.
The Guard stayed until Peterson took a break from his inaugural festivities to order its withdrawal.
Peterson did not stop there. One of his first efforts was the passage of an open housing law, banning racial discrimination in renting or selling residences. It was a strong sign of a new day and a new governor in town.
Like the rational scientist he was, Peterson wanted to tidy up the government. Delaware was run by a hodgepodge of boards and commissions, at least 140 of them in charge of everything from schools to oyster harvests. The most powerful was the Highway Commission, which was responsible for roads, the state police, mosquito control -- and the scores of jobs required.
Out went the commission system, and in came the Cabinet. It was a model of modern sophistication, but it was also resented downstate, where the voters tended to think the new form of government cost too much, not to mention what it did to their clout. Kent and Sussex had dominated all those commissions.
It was an age of environmental awakening, and Peterson, an enthusiastic birder, did battle to preserve the state's coastline from turning into New Jersey. As he fought the business establishment, he caught the public's imagination and gave it a battle cry when he blurted his opposition to a proposal for a Shell Oil refinery on the Delaware Bay.
"To hell with Shell," the governor said.
The vote in the General Assembly was touch and go, but Peterson got his Coastal Zone Act.
The day he signed it into law -- June 28, 1971 -- was the best and worst of his governorship. In the morning he had a triumphant bill-signing ceremony. In the afternoon he convened an unexpected joint legislative session and told the stunned lawmakers the state was operating in the red and taxes had to go up.
The day became known as "Black Monday," and Sherman Tribbitt, a Democratic state representative who planned to run against Peterson in 1972, pounded a table in a private meeting with some fellow legislators after the joint session and said, "I just got elected governor."
Tribbitt was right. Nobody can stay governor in Delaware without balancing the budget. Besides, it was payback time. Peterson had run roughshod with his agenda and never had much interest in the smooch-and-schmooze politics that built good will. He was fond of saying, "I just didn't get elected to be re-elected."
Peterson did not seem willing to change his ways. Rollins, one of the Republican power brokers who backed his first campaign, tried a political intervention. As Rollins talked, he noticed Peterson staring at a small statue of a whooping crane, his "Conservationist of the Year" award for the Coastal Zone Act.
Rollins told Peterson he had a choice. "Either you're going to go out and get re-elected governor, or you're going to win another of those f---ing storks."
A Republican primary weakened Peterson, and then Tribbitt finished him off.
Peterson left politics but not his causes. He worked on federal environmental policy and became the president of the National Audubon Society from 1979 to 1985. To the end, he was devoted to improving the Wilmington Riverfront, so much so that the tract was named the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge.
Whatever he did right, whatever he did wrong, he never stopped caring about the state he loved.